Rainbow Bee Eater - Using 21st century thinking to turn agricultural waste into clean energy

Rainbow Bee Eater has developed a system that uses easily-available biomass to produce clean, commercial quantities of energy.

The RBE Board standing outside the building that houses the ECHO2 prototype at Kalannie WA. Left to right:  Kim Horne, Ian Stanley, Peter Burgess

Company Profile

Company: Rainbow Bee Eater

Sector: Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Services

Location: Victoria

Profile: Since 2007 Rainbow Bee Eater has been systematically developing a revolutionary technology to improve the way communities and businesses deal with biomass wastes & energy production, while reducing their carbon footprint.

Why R&D is needed

Rainbow Bee Eater was developed by a consortium of farmers, scientists and engineers to prove the potential for rapid, very large scale and permanent bio-sequestration of inorganic carbon.

From the outset, the company's aim was to reduce Australia's dependence on fossil fuels by finding a sustainable and commercial opportunity that provided a cheap source of energy - especially for communities and industries with available biomass material at hand.

Currently only 1% of Australia's energy is produced by biomass. However, with the right technologies, it is estimated that this could be as high as 30%.1

The company was initially provided with $750,000 in funding from Alumina Ltd in 2007. With this budget they set out to investigate what kind of technology might offer an economic and environmentally-friendly biomass system.

Their first step was to look at all the existing technologies internationally and to check how economically and environmentally feasible they are.

The company formed the view that no existing processes or technologies produced the low-cost clean fuel gas (called ‘Syngas') believed to be a necessary underpinning for economic feasibility.

Managing Director Peter Burgess says travels to Japan, USA, Canada and Western Europe also demonstrated that the existing technologies required government subsidies, something that was unsustainable in the long-term.

“We wanted a technology that could stand on its own…the existing systems required expensive technologies to clean up the fuel gas. So the problem to be solved was how can we make a simple process that produces clean Syngas,” he says.

Following the Global Financial Crisis the company lost its funding from Alumina Ltd. To continue their R&D efforts the founders then used their own equity (and some later support from the Costa Group).

“After several years of testing various technologies, we remained of the view that none seemed capable of reliably producing low cost clean Syngas - so we decided to develop our own system.”

After nine years of R&D the founders' efforts paid off and they successfully developed the ECHO2 technology, which produces low cost, base load fuel gas or electricity from organic residues.

All that's needed for energy production is sustainable biomass residues. Examples include: cereal straws, wood chips and shavings, green, food and animal wastes. These residues are put in to ECHO2. What comes out is Syngas and charcoal/biochar.

“ECHO2 does the complete conversion to clean Syngas in one simple process. It converts the solar energy stored in the biomass residues into a different form of energy that we use to generate electricity, heating and refrigeration.”

From both an environmental and energy return perspective, this is a win-win because the Syngas - which is a mixture of hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen -  is clean and strong enough to be used in applications that need combustible gas, such as high efficiency gas engines for generation of electricity and high efficiency boilers and chillers.

The by-product charcoal/biochar can be used in agriculture, horticulture, building materials, and in many other applications. Charcoal/biochar is also good for gut health, speeds up organic composting processes and improves the nitrogen balance in soil. The overall process is very environmentally-friendly, generating renewable energy from biomass residues while removing CO2 from the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years (locked up as carbon in the biochar).

“100% of our funding goes to R&D and this was mostly self-funded equity. Getting equity is hard and getting industry involved is very hard…The RDTI has kept us in business.”

PETER BURGESS

Following on from its prototype ECHO2 unit, in 2017 the company secured its first commercial sale - a $1.4 million turnkey unit for the Holla-Fresh herb growing company in Mt Gambier, South Australia.

“This will be delivered in early 2018. It is a fully-automated unit that will convert wood wastes into hot water, electricity and CO2 for the Holla Fresh glasshouse,” Mr Burgess says.

1 http://biomassproducer.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/01AustralianBioenergyRoadmap.pdf

How the Research and Development Tax Incentive helps

Mr Burgess says the RDTI has allowed the company to investigate, develop and commercialise the ECHO2product. It now has several other potential customers who have made inquiries.

One of these is a very large woodchip port where there is interest in using wood chip fines to provide local power and heat. The other is a large poultry farm. Both of these companies are suitable applications for ECHO2, due to their available surplus biomass and the inherent energy embedded within that unused waste.

Mr Burgess says any businesses or communities using purchased power and LPG or Natural Gas for heating and who have a supply of low-cost biomass nearby, may find that the ECHO2 technology has significant financial, environmental and social benefits.

“We've had ten years of support from the RDTI. This gives us credibility.”

PETER BURGESS

Sales like these would obviously benefit Rainbow Bee Eater, but there are multiple trickle-down benefits too. For example, most of the ECHO2 unit is manufactured in Australia, which leads to manufacturing jobs. The installation of these units will also lead to local employment for biomass and biochar logistics and for the operation and maintenance of the module.

Mr Burgess believes that as well as the local employment, which is so critical to regional communities, long term benefits will also come from the lower energy costs and the availability of low cost biochar which research is showing can reduce fertiliser and chemicals inputs to food production.

“When agricultural crops and plantation trees are harvested, a large percentage of that biomass is not turned into food or furniture or paper. In many cases those residues are burned or landfilled. If we do it properly, these residues can have these very big positive impacts for businesses and communities.”

Depending on the biomass type, each ECHO2 module converts ~½ tonne an hour into ~250kW of electricity and biochar. Hot water and clean CO2 rich flue gas can also be produced for glasshouses. Magnify  ECHO2to a bigger scale and it has enormous potential.

However, even just looking in to the immediate future - where farmers use their waste to supply their own biofuel on demand and use biochar in their fertilizer - the environmental and economic returns are clear.

“Australia is a fantastic place to do R&D because we have the RDTI. You need to back your own idea, but it funds you to keep going. It's an enormous assistance.”

PETER BURGESS

RDTI Impact Facts

  • Partnerships with SDA Engineering, Kalannie Distillers and NSW Department of Primary Industries
  • Allowed for full commercialization of their ECHO2 product
  • Potential to reduce Australia's fossil fuel dependency
  • International patents pending for the ECHO2 technology
  • Increased Australian knowledge of biomass technologies and applications of how energy from small generators can be used locally or sold via the grid
  • Provides customers with a technology that makes them more energy independent, uses surplus biomass waste, and earns income from energy and biochar sales.
  • Increases local employment via biomass logistics and preparation, operation and maintenance of the unit, biochar value adding and logistics and the multiplier effect of these jobs.
  • Potential for increased long term agricultural yields, soil health and reduced chemical and fertilizer inputs using biochar by-product
  • Potentially powerful tool for mitigating climate change

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