The New Hope Group is conjuring liquid ‘gold’ from lumps of coal.
The fundamentals of turning coal into a liquid have been around for almost a century and are far from being a dark art.
However, when New Hope decided to build a concept plant at Jeebropilly it took several years for the company’s Projects Department to detail the process to suit their vision before the design was finalised.
Through a process called pyrolysis, coal can be ‘baked’ in an inert, or non-reactive atmosphere, releasing gas which is captured and then further processed, or distilled, using Fischer Tropsch (FT) synthesises to produce fuel such as diesel.
New Hope Project manager Hans Paustian said while the process has been proven in large scale operations, the challenge for New Hope was to prove a scaled down version would work safely and prove environmentally compliant in the Australian context.
“Basically we needed to see if it was economically viable for a small scale plant to be located at a mine site, producing a suitable fuel for the site’s diesel poweredequipment,” Hans said.
“Although the project involved an overseas secondment for several years, the most difficult aspect was in verifying and modifying the equipment to meet Australian standards and regulations.
“Like all projects this was a group effort and we called on the skills and experience of both in-house workers and external consultants.
“Once in Australia the entire New Hope Projects department checked every piece of equipment, its design and aspect of risk, safety and environment to ensure it was suitable for use.”
Hans said the work overseas consisted of becoming competent with the technology and arranging the shipping of the equipment.
“We set up a laboratory in Pittsburgh where we conducted tests to verify the processresults,” Hans said.
At the same time in Australia, the trial site at the Jeebropilly Mine outside of Ipswich quickly became a hive of activity.
“The Projects team took a few hectares of grassed rehabilitated land to put in roads and foundations for the process plant and associated tanks and buildings,” Hans said.
“The equipment from the US made up only part of the process. They were typically container sized to aid in shipping and were plugged in to the Australian designed components to produce the overall process system.
“The process was designed to consist of two parts, firstly produce gas from the coal before then using the gas in the F-T synthesis to produce diesel.”
Hans said the first part of the process was constructed and tested and produced a suitable pyrolysis gas that was able to power a gas generator to prove its energy producing capabilities.
“The coal would enter the retort, which acted just like an oven, and cook the coal. The heat within the retort would break down the coal into a char and a gas,” Hans said.
“While we were able to gain important operating knowledge and improved gas qualities from subsequent tests, our work was cut short through a drop in oil prices.
“The bottom literally fell out of the oil market and prices dropped by more than 50 percent, making the process uneconomical.”
The decision was made to mothball the site and look for other options.
Hans said fortunately an agri-business was interested in purchasing the plant – lock, stock and barrel.
“The business makes organic feed for cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep, using the char as a base before including the various nutrients,” Hans said.
“Their feed additive ranges are specially formulated biochar blends for animal ingestion that will benefit overall health of the animals.
“They will use the equipment to produce an organic char from specifically cultivated plants, shrubs and trees.
“While it is disappointing that New Hope could not make the process viable for our own purposes, it is great to see the process is being put to good use.”