Water Treatment into AgTech

8.07 Billion….that’s the current population of the planet, based on UN figures. It’s a staggering number, and considering that this population needs food and water to exist, in an era where rapid climate change is dramatically effecting both necessities, it’s little wonder that AgTech is a rapidly expanding industry.

To further highlight the significance of the growing food crisis and impact on the planet, nearly 11% of the global population is undernourished. Every day, roughly 30,000 people die of hunger according to the UN World Food Programme. These are numbers that underscore the BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) that SPARC wants to contribute to – how can we reverse this trend and increase food supplies? 

Artificial Humic Matter

Vertical farming, genetically engineered crops resistant to disease, and hydroponics are just some of the technologies in the AgTech space. But, increasing crop yields from existing agricultural land is another way. Novel, low-energy intense fertiliser production is a growing area of research. However, so too is artificial humic matter generation – an area sited by IPUAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) as one of the top ten emerging technologies in chemistry. Humic matter is the enriched material that remains when organic matter naturally decomposes over time – think peat and permafrosts in the Arctic. This material enriches the soil, giving valuable nutrients for plant growth. But just like permafrost, the process generates large amounts of CO2 and methane.

Synthetic processes look to speed the breakdown of biomass as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, the leading technologies generate very low-grade humic matter, requiring large dose rates to effect sufficient crop enrichment and growth. Any new research and technology developed in this space to simultaneously improve the quality of the humic matter generated and reduce the carbon emissions would not only make for a great AgTech business but also greatly advance society.

How does SPARC fit into this space?

Currently, we’ve got several projects in the water treatment and energy space. But we’re always looking to leverage our findings in one area into tangential areas – horizontal growth. Developing products for new, seemingly unrelated, market sectors because the underlying chemistry is similar, or the waste streams of one sector can be the raw material streams for another. All organic matter eventually breaks down to humic matter….and wastewater treatment systems create large amounts of biomass perfect for humic matter creation. The development of novel water treatment additives that speed this process would be a unique material on the market. And it’s these types of cross-sector ideas that also pool the talents of multi-disciplinary researchers and collaborators – similar to our current projects and university partners. All stemming from one BHAG – how can we inspire and contribute towards a better world.

One team, one vision!

To find out more of what we’re up, read or download the current newsletter below.

SPARC Grant Success and Future Prospects

In our March newsletter, we mentioned that SPARC was submitting a grant application in the federal government’s Critical Minerals Development Program. The program is designed to fund projects which increase the supply chain of critical minerals in Australia to further boost the economy in the renewable energy sector. I’m happy to say that SPARC was one of thirteen successful application to receive funding! Fellow awardees are the likes of Evolution Mining, Ecograf (with ANSTO), and IGO Ltd (a refinery partner of Andrew Forrest), which highlights the strength and competitiveness of the program.

Froth flotation process

Our project involves further development and commercialisation of lithium selective frother additives for spodumene ore processing. Currently, the refining of lithium from spodumene ore is roughly 85% efficient, meaning 15% of the lithium resides in the tailings, along with other valuable minerals. Our technology will improve the extraction efficiency to between 90 and 95%, giving a sizable boost to the lithium supply chain.

The economic benefits of this project are quite massive. Based on last year’s mining figures of 55 kilotonnes of lithium extracted, this technology could extract an extra 6 kilotonnes of lithium residing in the tailings, worth more than USD$400M – in Australia alone! Therefore, this could significantly add to the Australian economy and the lithium supply chain. But there is much more than just an economic benefit to this technology, there is an environmental aspect as well.

Mining and mineral processing generates significant amounts of carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases, into the environment. And while it’s unavoidable, it can be mitigated by improving the efficiencies of the process involved in the extraction. According to estimates, 9 tonnes of CO2 are generated for every tonne of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) refined. Roughly a third of this, 3 tonnes of CO2, is due entirely to the mining and extraction process (here in Australia), not the shipping and reprocessing. So, by improving the extraction efficiency to increase the supply chain, this process would mitigate roughly 17 kilotonnes of CO2 per year – the equivalent of removing 3700 cars from the road!

Check out the rest of our June Newsletter below for more on this project, as well as what other work SPARC is looking to develop and how you could make an impact.