A group of Mollongghip residents is working to discover if anaerobic digestion can be used to produce green hydrogen as the first step in making fertiliser, after being awarded a federal government grant.
Gavin Ronan, Bryce Ott, Joe Finneran and Peter Reid were awarded a Business Research and Innovation Initiative grant for their new business MADE (Mollongghip an District Enterprises) Energy.
The business' focus on anaerobic digestion as a waste and energy solution grew from a Community Power Hub project that worked to discover the best way to generate energy for the district.
The Mollongghip and District Power Hub steering committee analysed the electricity consumption of the community's households and farms.
A feasibility study found anaerobic digestion was the energy system that would work best for the community.
We want the community to thrive.Gavin Ronan, MADE Energy
Mr Ronan, Mr Ott, Mr Finnernan and Mr Reid then heard about grants available from Agriculture Victoria to make farming infrastructure more environmentally sustainable.
They worked closely with 25 farmers to secure a total of more than $2 million in grants and learnt about the issue of diesel and electricity use on farms.
Mr Ronan said they learnt about the enormous amount of diesel, electricity and fertiliser used on the farms because reports for the grants went into detail about the use of every pump and every paddock.
"We got to see the scale of the problem and the reliance on fossil fuels both diesel and fertiliser," he said.
"We want the community to thrive but we thought it was going to need a transition away from those fossil fuel intensive solutions."
Mr Ott said anaerobic digestion was a good local solution because it could use waste from farms like potato waste, plants and manure to feed the digestor and the digestor could produce fuel and fertiliser.
"That fuel and fertiliser goes back to the farm to help produce more and better plants and the circle starts again," he said.
"Along with that we are decreasing the reliance on diesel fuel and fertilisers that are produced in a non sustainable way."
A large amount of fertiliser used in Australia is imported and made from fossil fuels.
Mr Finneran said developing an anaerobic digestor for the community was the team's core aim, with visions it could become a knowledge hub and example of what was possible for other farming communities.
But the team's focus has switched to the hydrogen project since receiving the federal government grant.
It has traditionally been expensive and fossil fuel intensive to extract, isolate and convert hydrogen to a useful form.
The MADE Energy team is working with Griffith University and Frontier Impact Group to research if hydrogen can be produced using anaerobic digestion in an economically viable and sustainable way.
The CSIRO has already done key work to figure out how hydrogen can be converted to ammonia, which is the key ingredient in fertiliser.
Mr Ott said the lab team was working with 20 different plants that could generate hydrogen to be converted to ammonia and ultimately fertilizer.
"Once we prove it is feasible to produce hydrogen from readily available feedstocks, hopefully there is a follow on grant that gives us an opportunity to prove that concept on a more commercial scale," he said.
The team and its partners have 13 weeks to complete the feasibility study.
Mr Finneran said the hydrogen project added extra steps to the anaerobic digestion process which was their core focus to bring to Mollongghip.
He said the technology could reduce fossil fuels while giving farmers more control over their costs.
"Farmers have no control over the cost of diesel of fertiliser," Mr Finneran said.
"We are trying to make this solution community owned so they have control over costs and it makes them more profitable and more sustainable.
"Aussie farmers use about five million tonnes of fertiliser per year and something like 50 per cent of that is imported. This is about giving farmers and communities more control of their own destiny."
Mr Ott said they wanted to become world experts in anaerobic digestion.
In Mollongghip, the project could become a replicable hub for other communities.
"We are talking about a modular community based approach that can service a small cluster of farms and residents," Mr Ott said.
"Imagine a half acre block of land with a couple of big stainless steel tanks and a little shed with some tech in it then some sheds or silage piles with feedstock and a place for trucks to come in and out.
"It is a relatively small, contained plant. The fuel and fertiliser gets shipped back to the farm, within 30km ideally.
"On paper it is a pretty straightforward thing. Once you get that system set up and proven you can pick that up and do it in farming communities around the country."
The MADE Energy team comes from a diverse range of backgrounds, from large-scale project management, engineering, accounting and marketing.
They all live in the community and have developed a relationship and strong sense of trust with the farmers.
"Without the early stages of helping the farmers get those grants and having a reason to really listen to them and understand what was going on in their lives, we would never have had their trust and confidence to do something whacky like anaerobic digestion," Mr Ott said.
"We understand what it is like living in the community," Mr Finneran said.
"It really is a great demonstration of being innovative. Communities can do something if they put the energy and passion into it."
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