FIRST FLUSH OF SUCCESS: SCU research fellow Shane McIntosh tests samples in relation to the new project adding value to organic wastes on the Northern Rivers.
FIRST FLUSH OF SUCCESS: SCU research fellow Shane McIntosh tests samples in relation to the new project adding value to organic wastes on the Northern Rivers. Marc Stapelberg

POO POWER: Uni's smelly plan to turn poo into profit

IN THE future, going to the toilet in the Northern Rivers could mean more than just going to the toilet.

Instead of seeing human excrement as something to get rid of - which has long been the case in Australia - Southern Cross University and industry businesses are looking to turn it into something useful, and even profitable.

Dr Dirk Erler from the University's School of Environment, Science, and Engineering said the two-year project was to study ways of converting organic wastes into nutrients and energy, by applying techniques to dairy processing solids (the Australian dairy industry produces millions of litres of liquid organic wastes annually) and human waste in the Northern Rivers.

Dr Erler said the project's two major objectives were to convert local waste into products which could be sold for profit - such as energy and fertilisers, and to integrate undergraduate students into projects that were solving local issues in the science and engineering space.

"These technologies are not new around the world but there is very little happening in the North Coast and Australia in terms of conversion of organic waste...so it's unique for the area and for Australia," Dr Erler said.

New way to power your home: Project leader Dr Dirk Erler from the University’s School of Environment, Science, and Engineering said the two-year project was to study ways of converting organic wastes into nutrients and energy, by applying techniques to dairy processing solids (the Australian dairy industry produces millions of litres of liquid organic wastes annually) and human waste in the Northern Rivers.

"Energy is a problem for everyone, costs are sky-rocketing and there's an opportunity here that we can convert theses organic wastes that have to go to landfill into actual energy that can be burnt and can produce electricity for the local plants."

He said as part of the project, pilot trials with Southern Cross Plant Science were looking at putting the products into the soil to see if it had agronomic benefits.

"The aim of the project is to apply these technologies on local wastes to see if they work, and then investigate ways of maximising energy and nutrient recapture," said Dr Erler.

Dr Terry Rose from Southern Cross Plant Science said the project was exploring if processed human excrement and dairy by-products had potential as fertilisers.

"At the moment farmers in the region spend significant amounts of money on fertilisers, where they should be getting it cheaply from the wastes being generated in other local industries," Dr Rose said.

The project has received $500,000 in funding from the federal government's Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment, and industry partners the Richmond Valley Council, NORCO, and Richmond Dairies have collectively contributed an additional $180,000 to the study.

Richmond Valley Council

Operations engineer Aidan Mcqueen said council were hoping to get savings on energy usage.

"We're hoping we will be able to save the energy costs of running a treatment plant and possibly powering domestic dwellings."

He said with a plant the size they were looking at they would hopefully supply power for around 100 homes.

NORCO

Factory manager at Norco Foods Lismore, Mark Harrison said it was about turning the waste stream, which currently goes to landfill, into a profit.

He said options of their waste by-products were to turn it into fertiliser to put back to land care, and also turn it into energy.

"To me it's all about sustainability in the dairy industry and manufacturing. We want to make sure we can value-add where we can."

Richmond Dairies

Chief financial officer Craig Kelly said the industry used "a lot of nutrient-heavy chemicals as part of the cleaning and hygiene systems" used at the plant.

"Those then end up in our waste streams. We generate an enormous amount of waste because the hygiene requirements in the food industry.

"We're primarily an exporting company therefore we have the high standards we have to deliver overseas.

"We want to be more efficient on how we use that waste stream, if we can recover the nutrients from it and beneficially reuse it then it's a huge benefit to us.

"Before we start doing anything on a commercial basis we have to prove the research."