BCIA / FedUni Scholarship

BCIA - Brown Coal Innovation Australia scholarship

Project: Enhanced yield and quality of humic products from lignites

Scholarship value: $27,596 per year (indexed annually) stipend to support living costs with a Top Up valued at $5,000 per year.

Project support: $6500 per year to support the cost of the project

Location: Gippsland campus of Federation University Australia, Churchill 3842.

Conditions of Scholarship: Scholarship is for a period of three years (max). Application is open to domestic and permanent residents and will require the candidate to be domiciled in the Latrobe Valley region. Standard leave entitlements apply. This position and scholarship are full-time, with no possibility of being undertaken as part-time. Students will be required to commit to a minimum of four days per week on campus and may be required to participate in occasional industry placement at key times during the term of their candidature.

How to apply: Complete the BCIA Scholarship application form in addition to the Application for candidature admission Form, which is available on the FedUni HDR Apply page. All applicants should check their eligibility prior to applying. Prospective candidates should indicate on the Application for Admission Form that they are applying for the BCIA PhD Scholarship. Applications may be submitted via mail, in person, or email to research.degrees@federation.edu.au

Closing date:Thursday 31 January 2019:

Commencement date: Successful applicants will be advised by 28/02/2019, and will be expected to commence by 1/04/2019, however, the commencement date may be negotiated by the successful candidate.

Project details:  The use of lignite in agriculture is restricted due to its low ‘added value’ compared to established fertilisers, agrichemicals and competition from local composts. However, lignite’s are inherently rich in humic compounds, which are niche agricultural bio-stimulants that enhance food production and have a worldwide market. The value of liquid humate concentrates and market demand has enabled the growth of a local manufacture/export industry in the Latrobe Valley. However, the yield and properties of humic compounds are coal-dependent with significant variation (20-95%) across and within the various mines and deposits. The coal seams that are rich in humic materials are difficult to identify and access, posing a significant risk to the Latrobe Valley humic industry. The value proposition in this project is delivering research outcomes of practicable chemical processes that maximise the yield of lignite humics and enhance their properties regardless of coal source.

Omnia has developed a successful and growing manufacturing business in the Latrobe Valley based on humic products, and there is now a research opportunity to chemically upgrade run-of-mine (ROM) coal into a tailored, humic-rich feedstock.

The PhD candidate will work with Omnia to adapt standard oxidation techniques that are safe and able to use existing humate production infrastructure (stirred tank vessels) to perform the controlled partial oxidation of ROM brown coal. The process must be cost effective in terms of reagents, clean up/waste disposal and reaction time. The innovative oxidation reaction conditions will be tailored to produce the optimum mix of both fulvic and humic compounds. The recent upgrade of the Omnia’s humate production facility and concomitant increase in demand for humate-rich coal feedstock makes this the right time to develop a process that is suitable for a wider variety of coal quality.

Research project outline

The problem / opportunity this project is aiming to solve / realise;

The use of lignite in agriculture is restricted due to its low “added value” compared to established fertilisers, agrichemicals and competition from local composts. However, lignite’s are inherently rich in humic compounds, which are niche agricultural bio-stimulants enhancing food production with a worldwide market. The value of liquid humate concentrates and market demand has enabled the growth of a local manufacture/export industry in the Latrobe Valley. However, the yield and properties of humic compounds are coal dependent with significant variation (20-95%) across and within the various mines and deposits. The project involves developing a practicable tailored lab based oxidation process which converts any lignite to humic and fulvic acids. The value proposition for the candidate undertaking this project is the expert supervision, industry placement, commercial relevance, top up scholarship, additional funding support, state of the art lab facility and supportive team.

The technology base for the project;

Weathered lignites such as US Leonardite have been sold as humic acids for many decades. Chinese lignites have taken market share with a likelihood that several have had their humic acid content boosted by oxidation post mining. The proponent has conducted preliminary wet oxidation experiments on Victorian lignite resulting in marked increases in humic and fulvic acid yields. The chemistry involves the controlled use of oxygen and hydroxyl radicals. Research may include the use of reagents to introduce nitrogen and sulphur and modify the product’s ion exchange and surface properties. The ideal product will have properties that are desirable for the end-user (eg, suitable for foliar spray equipment) as well as maximising bio-stimulant properties.

The research plan to deliver the project’s objectives;  

  • Review state of the art (including literature) on extraction, production and beneficiation of humic materials.
  • Develop and refine lab-scale production technology to prepare target products from lignites.
  • Characterise brown coal humin, humic acid and fulvic acid products and compare to commercial products that are known to be more and less effective.
  • Work placement (6 months total) with Omnia as the industry partner on related research

This project will utilise the lab scale preparation and analytical capabilities at Federation University to develop a commercially practicable and safe means of oxidising ROM brown coals. Coal type, oxidant cost and consumption along with reaction rate and product yield are key variables.

A Ph.D. student under direction by the Principal Investigator (PI) will develop targeted oxidation processes for brown coals. Criteria for the selection of oxidation methods include cost effectiveness, environmental impact, safety and practicality at industrial scale. The Ph.D. student will focus on research into optimising the oxidation process and its research its effect on the structure and yield of the humic products.

Outcomes

The HDR student will gain valuable research and industry experience whilst on regular placement with Omnia. The project will deliver the experimental lab data (proof of concept) and cost estimate to facilitate decision regarding progress to pilot scale optimisation and commercialisation of the coal oxidation process. The technology developed here to tailor the preparation of quality humics in high yield, regardless of coal source will negate the need for selective mining, which is a major barrier to their local production.

For further information:
For questions related to the research project, please contact Assoc Prof Vincent Verheyen, (03 51226451 vince.verheyen@federation.edu.au)

Industry Partner:  Omnia Specialities

Academic Supervisor:  Assoc Prof Vincent Verheyen, Leader Carbon Technology Research Centre
M: +61 428 322 595

Vincent Verheyen is an associate professor in the School of Science Engineering and Information Technology at Federation University. He started his research working on marine lipids and became interested in the analytical chemistry of more complex organic systems such as coal and its products and waste streams. He worked for ten years each as a research chemist/specialist consultant in both the public service (Victorian Brown Coal Council and Coal Corporation of Victoria) and private industry (HRL Technology) before returning to various university roles. His research focus is applied in assisting local industries to improve their products and reduce their environmental impact. He has been instrumental in assisting local industry to develop and commercialise value-added humic acid products from brown coal. He specialises in the use of chromatographic and spectroscopic techniques to answer coal research questions that have a chemical structural component. Current projects include those in CO2 capture, waste water treatment and manufacture of products from lignite.

Industry Co-Supervisors: Dr. Teferi Belayneh, Commercial & Technical Development Manager
M: +61 448 911 994

Beginning life in Ethiopia, and coming to Australia after study in Egypt and completing his doctorate in plant physiology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, Teferi brings a wealth of knowledge of the inner workings of plants.

Leading Omnia’s Research and Development program, Teferi has a rare ability to make the complicated understandable, and excels in his ability to identify the critical factors in crop performance. Teferi spends much of his life travelling the world (he speaks five languages) and also leads Omnia’s international exports.