MUCH of Doug Phillips’ time is spent in a bluestone building at the quiet end of Portland’s Julia Street.
From its door you can see out to bushland on the city’s western fringe, a green smudge punctuated by homes, power lines and the occasional flock of cockatoos.
Mr Phillips often works alone. His job title — Greening Australia’s Alcoa Landcare South West Seedbank manager — offers some insight as to how he spends his days, though many of his endeavours cannot be neatly described.
The Julia Street seedbank, which receives funding from Alcoa and support from the Victorian Education Department, was established in 1991. It stocks seeds from about 100 native species, which are distributed for planting across the Glenelg Hopkins catchment area.
These are primarily used to revegetate private farmland, though Mr Phillips has also worked with forestry companies keen to restore land not being used for plantations.
“A kilogram of our seed will do a hectare of revegetation … we’d have about a metric tonne (in stock),” he said.
For some time Greening Australia has been investigating how its interests can be integrated into farming businesses.
In the past two years this has led to work on bioenergy and biochar, both of which are expected to become far more prominent in Australian landscapes.
Since January this year the Alcoa Foundation has provided funding for the Biochar and Energy from Trees Research (BETR) project, which has begun to produce impressive results.
Mr Phillips has been working with locally based senior project officer Dave Warne and a committed Greening Australia BETR team to deliver the project’s research objectives.
“A component of our project is actually to go out and do measurements as to how quickly some of our revegetation species grow,” Mr Phillips said.
“As part of that, with the permission of landholders, we were able to take some of those species and effectively put them through a woodchipper.
“We then subsequently weighed all of the material, so we could accurately calculate the above-ground biomass.”
Samples were retained and dried before being introduced to a modern gasification system near Canberra, where high-quality syngas was produced.
Syngas — synthetic gas — consists primarily of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and often some carbon dioxide. The syngas produced in this experiment was capable of running internal combustion engines, gas turbines and boilers.
“We took 20 samples over three landscapes of various species that we commonly use in revegetation, with an eye on some that we knew grew fast,” Mr Phillips said.
“We ran them through the gasifier and got the syngas analysed from each sample to determine its suitability for power generation.
“Therefore we could calculate what we call a mass energy balance, where we could actually determine the amount of material that would be required to produce a given output of electricity.”
Power generation is not the process’s only application: biofuels can also be derived from syngas through ‘cracking’ processes.
Mr Phillips said samples of biochar — also known as organic charcoal — were taken from each of the species included in the trial and analysed by Portland Aluminium to determine their total fixed carbon and other properties.
“(Biochar) is a byproduct of thermal bioenergy processes,” he said.
“Some charcoals could be of sufficient quality to be used as a metallurgical alternative to petroleum coke, as an example. “There’s a large number of profitable outputs that could be derived from these mixed species plantations.
“If you can bury (biochar) or use it to substitute for petroleum coke or coal-based coke, or use it for water filtration for example, you’ve got a nice little carbon storage and renewable outputs loop going.”
Trial sites near Portland, Edenhope and Kaniva are being used to assist biochar research. While their configurations vary, each has the same number of plants and receives identical treatment.
In what is called the storage trial, biochar is added to the soil at three different rates, the greatest of which replicates 50 tonnes per hectare.
The question is then whether the six Australian native species involved at each trial site will withstand the addition.
A separate trial is taking place at the same time as the storage trial to examine if biochar is beneficial to both growth rates and tree resilience, while soil moisture monitoring is also under way to see whether biochar boosts water retention.
“The storage option is great — if (biochar) is recognised as an international storage mechanism for carbon that’s fantastic, and in Australia it is already looking good for the Carbon Farming Initiative,” Mr Phillips said.
“If we can get other improvements through growth rates or moisture retention, they’re all bonuses for us.”
Mr Phillips said he would prefer to see mixed native plantations used to create biofuels, for example, rather than monoculture plantings of exotic species, many of which have a high weed potential.
Mixed native species plantations could be incorporated into farmers’ operations as a way to diversify their incomes, with the added bonus of boosting biodiversity.
Species studied to date include golden and black wattles and manna-gum. Biochar’s potential to improve germination in such plants is also being explored, with Mr Phillips presenting a paper on his findings at the Asia Pacific Biochar Conference in Kyoto during September.
“Obviously we’d like to get more germination in the field than we currently do,” he said.
“We’d love to say that in a number of different vegetation types we could replace something more like the full suite.
“If we could get better germination in the field — assisted hopefully by biochar — then that’s a great outcome for us, and a further justification for putting this material underneath trees.”
Alcoa has been working with Greening Australia for almost three decades. Several projects are delivered with funding from the aluminium giant, among them the landscape restoration initiative Habitat 141.
“We have a strong emphasis on reconnections in our landscape and resilience, and we believe that research projects like (our work with bioenergy and biochar) may deliver some of those resilience outputs and some connectivity outcomes as well,” Mr Phillips said.
“It all ties in to our transforming landscapes vision: we want them to be healthy, biodiverse and productive.”
The Portland district resident, whose own property is home to one of the BETR test sites, acknowledged some people would raise an eyebrow on learning Greening Australia was felling trees for research.
“You would still continue to have permanent plantings — particularly in strategic areas you need permanent plantings and you don’t want disturbed systems there,” Mr Phillips said.
“There is logic in trying to achieve that great mosaic. You want this mosaic of uses in the landscape. It’s all about the future.”