This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.co.nz.
In one sense, proving Carbonscape's novel one-step process can cheaply produce highly porous charcoal was the easy part.
Now the Blenheim-based cleantech company faces the potentially far greater challenge of nationally and globally commercialising its method of turning biomass such as sawdust into what is known as activated carbon (AC).
Carbonscape co-founder Nick Gerritsen describes what his team has developed as an "enabling technology,", and a part of the push to use waste as a resource.
Carbonscape has recently obtained patents around the novelty of its microwave technology, which in a continuous flow produces high-grade and highly valuable AC. AC has a huge surface area, typically measuring more than 500m2 per gram.
Its large surface area gives it a range of uses, including cleaning contaminated soil and water, and capturing large amounts of CO2 emissions from power stations.
It is also used in industries such as metallurgy, chemistry, agriculture, timber processing, gold extraction, nuclear energy, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, medicine and food processing, and its demand is globally growing at a compounded 5% a year.
The method's ability to lock up the greenhouse gas CO2 almost indefinitely was behind it receiving the Judge's top choice in the 2008 Financial Times (UK) Climate Change Challenge.
But wait; there's more.
There are other methods of producing AC, which almost all employ pyrolysis, which uses the gases and oils given off in the combustion to help drive it.
Carbonscape's method allows the capture of these valuable feedstocks, such as in pine saw or other organic materials, before the conversion into AC.
The microwave technology was the brainchild of British based (but with his parents living in NZ) Prof. Chris Turney.
Carbonscape's two-and-a-half man team developed and tested a prototype microwave machine over the past couple of years, validating earlier smaller scale trials and pointing the way to larger apparatus.
The 1.5 x 1.5, 30kW power microwave's advantage over typical catalytic pyrolysis ovens is that a much more precise temperature control can be maintained, and particular volatile products targeted from the material being charcoaled.
It is the tight control Carbonscape has over its data set that gives it confidence to produce, promote and look for investors to take it up to a three-metre model.
Such an oven could be put in a container and shipped to the organic waste source.
Gerritsen's New Zealand focus has been the huge quantities of forestry waste produced in, firstly the production of logs, and secondly by sawmills.
It is now estimated that the average dump cost of removing waste from a pine harvest site is $300,000-400,000/site.
It is estimated that 13 million tonnes a year of forestry waste is annually produced in New Zealand.
"Imagine if we're able to deal with that waste, on-site, and be able to mitigate part of that cost," Gerritsen says. "There would be big ramifications for forestry. The adjunct is you can also produce a stream of bio oils, which are a feedstock of biochemicals and fuels."
As an enabling model, Carbonscape's method can use any biomass waste stream. It can work with the waste's owner to whatever they want to produce - from biochar to its specific biochemicals.
And, having developed the technology and being confident it can be replicated at larger scales, Gerritsen is open as to how it is taken to market.
As a serial entrepreneur, he is well aware of the challenges of attempting to take technology developed in this country to the world stage.
With patents in place, and having financed the operation's development through friends and family and close associations with high net worth individuals in Australia, the UK and Japan, Carbonscape's speed of development is definitely "a function of our access to capital," Gerritsen says.
The company's reviewing its various options and has interest from a number of parties, he says.
Gerritsen appreciates the company is approaching the NZ venture capital 'valley of death' scenario - too big for more angel investment, not big enough for the $10m+ investment required by bigger VC investors.
As he works on the challenge, Gerritsen says that waving a magic wand, and having access to a chunk of capital, then Carbonscape could employ skilled people, create a centre of excellence around the technology and create an intellectual property creation engine.
Carbonscape also wants to work with large corporation to prove its technology in another environment, and also develop alternative routes to market rather than thinking it has to build and operate all its technology and machines itself.
"The smartest thing for us to do is create the intellectual property around the technology," Gerritsen says.
"That puts it in a form that has value, is lighter and is easier to export...rather than trying to build everything ourselves. It's better to clip the ticket that way, thinking about how we use our dataset and IP."
Peter Kerr is a journalist, writer and consultant in the innovation space. View his work and that of 35 other scientists and science writers at Sciblogs, New Zealand's largest science blogging network.
This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.co.nz.