New $7 million project to use brown coal to reduce waste and pollution from agriculture

Coal is almost never considered a way to reduce our climate impact, but a new $7 million Cooperative Research Centres Project will seek to prove the agricultural and economic viability of using brown coal to process agricultural waste into fertiliser, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and costs to farmers.

An often ignored part of the environmental impact of animal agriculture occurs as a result of reactive nitrogen escaping into the environment as ammonia in animal urine and faeces. This is not just a cost to environmental health, but to farmers too: nitrogen fertiliser can account for half the production cost in Australian agricultural systems.

But research led by Professor Deli Chen and published in Scientific Reports in 2015 showed brown coal, known as lignite, decreased the loss of ammonia to the environment by 66 per cent.

It also showed that if the waste were collected and processed into fertiliser, it would be worth around $49 per cow per year – an enormous boon for many agricultural operations.

Professor Chen and a multidisciplinary team of soil scientists, chemical engineers, agricultural scientists and economists are now preparing to test the reuse model in a new $7 million Cooperative Research Centres Project (CRC-P), “Optimising nitrogen recovery from livestock waste for multiple production and environmental benefits”. Professor Chen’s team will partner with industry representatives and agricultural producers who are already focused on the sustainability of their practices.

CRC-P grants fund short-term industry-led collaborations to develop important new technologies, products and services that deliver tangible outcomes.

This CRC-P project is funded by the University of Melbourne, the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and industry partners including milk producer, Australian Fresh Milk Holdings.

Professor Chen, who leads the Soils and the Environment group in the School of Agriculture and Food at the University of Melbourne, says the project will demonstrate and evaluate the new technologies at commercial scale.

More than half of the world’s population is nourished by food produced using synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, which are manufactured in energy-expensive processes that account for 5 per cent of the world’s total natural gas production, or 2 per cent of the world's total annual energy supply,” Professor Chen says.

“The loss of reactive nitrogen to the environment is therefore an enormous burden on the environment and human health, and an enormous economic burden to farmers worldwide.

“This project will seek to prove we can mitigate that cost through the application of processed brown coal in intensive agricultural systems, and deliver further economic and environmental benefits through nutrient recycling.”

Quentin Moxey, Managing Director of Moxey Farms, a part of the Australian Fresh Milk Holdings consortium, said reducing their environmental footprint remains a central goal for the company.

Moxey Farms recently completed a state-of-the-art bio-digester to mitigate the enterprise’s impact on the environment. The bio-digester captures methane and generates electricity and fertiliser for use on-site and elsewhere.

“We believe the future of agriculture is sustainability. We are already using technology in our business to meet our growing environmental and social obligations” Mr Moxey said.

“This partnership with the University of Melbourne gives us the opportunity to work at the cutting edge of this field and to see where the future of farming will be”.

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews said the CRC-P grants will enable businesses to develop and leverage new technologies, products, processes and services, ensuring Australia can take advantage of new market opportunities.

“Bringing our small and medium enterprises together with our researchers is essential for driving innovation and economic growth,” she said.

Benefits to the environment and Australian agricultural industry

Lead industry participant and co-funder Australian Fresh Milk Holdings will host a dairy pilot facility including lignite traps for waste, composting facilities and other infrastructure, and co-funder Ming Mornington will explore the use of lignite in a poultry facility.

National industry bodies Meat and Livestock Australia and Dairy Australia will provide support for research activities, training and opportunities and strategies to develop and assess the technology.

The project will demonstrate methods that will verify reduced environmental impact and improved resource recycling that better align with consumer expectations and values. It will also provide a beacon for other dairy producers and for Australian intensive beef and poultry producers to achieve commercial benefits from better waste management. The project also demonstrates an alternative use for brown coal.

The three-year project is expected to provide a wide range of benefits:

  • Improved management of solid and liquid wastes from intensive livestock systems to reduce nitrogen losses, create high value nitrogen organic fertilisers for reuse in agriculture, and increase efficiencies of anaerobic digestion of organic waste for power generation. This evaluation will be undertaken first in dairy production systems and subsequently in beef feedlots and poultry systems
  • Demonstration of the effect of the new technologies on full nutrient and co-product lifecycles from dairy, beef, and poultry systems for improved reuse of nutritional resources in productive land-based agriculture. This includes field trials and on-farm technology delivery
  • Development of a new pipeline of products that adsorb nitrogen from wastes and can be deployed in intensive livestock manure management systems, as well as other industry applications like wastewater treatment and landfill management
  • Demonstration on the value-adding potential of novel coal product-manure mixtures for use in composts and biofertilisers, and define market opportunities and supply chain logistics.
  • Industry training and capacity-building through workshops, collaborations, industry placement, and scientific publications
  • Industry participation in manure management and soil carbon policy instruments

The project will also seek to secure capital and operational investments for business and employment initiatives in regional Australia.

Project team

The project draws on a wide range of staff expertise in the University of Melbourne’s School of Agriculture and Food, and the Melbourne School of Engineering:

Banner image: Holstein cattle at the University of Melbourne’s dairy at the Dookie campus. Photo: Adrian Vittorio.