Sawdust tipped to earn millions

00:04, Dec 13 2010

A Marlborough business says it could make millions of dollars from an invention that turns forestry waste into valuable carbon.

Carbonscape has created a one-step process which turns pine sawdust into highly porous carbon, which can sell for US$2000 ($2675) a tonne.

Known as activated carbon, the substance is used in water filters and other industrial processes such as cleaning contaminated soil and water and capturing carbon dioxide emissions from power stations.

Company director Nick Gerritsen said the process currently used around the world to make activated carbon took two steps and used exotic materials.

Carbonscape uses pine sawdust from forestry companies, which usually pay to dispose of the waste product, and turns it into a high-value end product, 60 per cent better quality than carbon now sold.

The forestry industry gets rid of about 13 million tonnes of waste annually and even if 10 per cent is turned into activated carbon and sold overseas, revenue would be in the tens of millions, he said.

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"We're looking at some pretty big numbers," he said.

Gerritsen was not sure yet how the company would work with the forestry industry to get the sawdust, but said the forestry companies could possibly sell their sawdust, give it to the company or share in the profits.

The quality of the carbon is measured by how absorbent it is.

Gerritsen said 300sqm per gram of carbon was considered the standard quality, but Carbonscape's product measures 750sqm/gm.

The project took about 18 months to perfect with help from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and the company has applied for a patent for the process.

International interest in the product from the US, Europe and China was a sign companies around the world were becoming more aware of environmental compliance measures.

Demand was increasing by five per cent every year, he said.

"It's good that Marlborough can show we can do technology as well as wine," he said.

In September 2008, Carbonscape announced it had patented world-first industrial technology to microwave forest waste to produce carbon, which farmers and horticulturists could use to improve the quality of their soils.

Then Forestry Minister Jim Anderton opened the company's "biochar" plant.

Carbonscape was set up by Gerritsen, a technology start-up adviser, renewable energy developer Vicki Buck, Professor Chris Turney of Exeter University, businessman Hamish Macfarlane and investor Tim Langley.

Some of the same executives are involved in a Marlborough company, Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation, which aims to produce biodiesel from algae harvested from sewage ponds.

The Marlborough Express