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Turning poo into profit: new project adding value to organic wastes in the Northern Rivers


Sharlene King
31 May 2018

Unlike the rest of the world, Australia has been slow to explore technologies that convert solid waste into valuable commodities like renewable energy or nutrients. Now Southern Cross University has teamed up with industry to investigate new uses for human excrement and food processing waste while solving disposal issues.

Project leader Dr Dirk Erler from the University’s School of Environment, Science, and Engineering has secured $500,000 in funding from the federal government’s Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) to study ways of converting organic wastes into nutrients and energy.

Industry partners the Richmond Valley Council, NORCO, and Richmond Dairies have collectively contributed an additional $180,000 to the study.

Dr Erler said the two-year project will focus on applying techniques such as pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion to dairy processing solids (the Australian dairy industry produces millions of litres of liquid organic wastes annually) and human waste in the Northern Rivers.

“Pyrolysis, which is the controlled combustion of organic material to produce biochar and combustible gases, and anaerobic digestion, which produces combustible methane, are not new technologies.

“But there has been very little application of these techniques to the types of waste generated by local industry,” he said.

Methane could produce on-site electricity while biochar, a soil amendment product, could be used locally.

“The aim of the project is to apply these technologies on local wastes to see if they work, and then investigate ways of maximising energy and nutrient recapture,” said Dr Erler.

CRC CARE brings together industry, government, science and engineering to prevent, assess and clean up environmental contamination.

“CRC CARE is very pleased to be collaborating with Southern Cross University on this project, which seeks to turn contamination and waste problems into economic opportunities,” said CEO Professor Ravi Naidu.

“As a CRC, we are obliged to support research that not only solves environmental contamination problems, but also has the potential to be commercialised, and this work embodies that approach.”

Given animal manures have been used as fertilisers for centuries, this project will also explore if the processed human excrement and dairy by-product have similar potential.

“The project involves testing to see if heat-treated wastes have any agronomic benefit, or if we can strip nutrients such as phosphates from the wastes,” said Dr Terry Rose from Southern Cross Plant Science.

“At the moment farmers in the region spend significant amounts of money on fertilisers, where they should be getting it cheaply from the wastes being generated in other local industries.”

Another major objective of the project is to integrate the University’s undergraduate teaching with local industry development.

“We are encouraging our science and engineering students to get involved by undertaking smaller defined projects within the larger project,” said Professor Andrew Rose in the School of Environment, Science, and Engineering.

“There are so many interesting research questions to be answered in this project. It’s a great way to get practical experience and at the same time contribute to local industry development.”