Activated carbon breakthrough offers one solution to global plastic crisis

Source: press release, 5 November 2019

ByGen co-founders Ben Morton and Lewis Dunnigan
ByGen co-founders Ben Morton and Lewis Dunnigan (photo: ByGen)

South Australian company ByGen has expanded its focus from agricultural wastes to include plastics with activated carbon being successfully made from several types of plastic, including contaminated plastics waste.

ByGen co-founder and CEO Lewis Dunnigan said he believed the breakthrough, made with co-founder Ben Morton, was the first conversion of its kind in the world.

The Adelaide-based company is now looking for an industry partner in the plastics sector to develop the technology further and take it to market.

“There’s a big problem with contaminated plastics globally, and we think making activated carbon from it could be a good way to remedy that,” Dr Dunnigan says. “Because we’re both scientists, we noticed some fundamental similarities between agricultural wastes and plastics. Agricultural waste has a high carbon content, as does plastic, so the idea occurred to us ‘why not make activated carbon out of plastic?’”

Activated carbon has a variety of industrial uses, including purifying liquids such as drinking water, food and beverage processing, odour removal, contaminated soil remediation and gold processing.

It is traditionally made from coal, hardwood or coconut shells, and sells for about AUD 2,000 a tonne.

“We’ve proven we can make high-quality activated carbon from plastics and we also generate a lot of heat at the same time, more so than with agricultural waste,” Dr Dunnigan says.

“Heat can be a valuable bi-product for industries like brick making, cement production, and industrial drying processes. One tonne of plastic generates 3-5 MW of heat, which is quite a lot; enough that this could even be converted to electricity or exported to the grid.”

ByGen is beginning a campaign to raise approximately AUD 2.5 million to build a full-scale plant capable of producing industrial quantities of activated carbon from agricultural waste.

“During our PhD’s we came up with a really low cost, low energy way of making activated carbon and then we realised there was a market for it, so we’ve commercialised the technology we developed,” the ByGen CEO says.

“Traditionally, you have to make it at about 1,000 degrees using steam or harsh chemicals. We felt like these energy intensive processes, often used in developing countries with non-renewable feedstocks, weren’t sustainable, so we tried lots of different Australian agricultural wastes and identified which ones worked best.”

Australia is a net importer of activated carbon. The global activated carbon market is growing at about 9% a year partially due to increasingly tight environmental legislation around the world.

By Andrew Spence, The Lead South Australia