A process more like alchemy than coal mining has seen New Hope Group on a journey to produce liquid ‘gold’ from lumps of coal.
The fundamentals of turning coal into a liquid have been around for almost a century
and are far from being a dark art.
However, when New Hope decided to build a concept plant at Jeebropilly it took
several years for the company’s Projects Department to detail the process to suit their
vision before the design was finalised.
Through a process called pyrolysis, coal can be ‘baked’ in an inert, or non-reactive
atmosphere, releasing gas which is captured and then further processed, or distilled,
using Fischer Tropsch (FT) synthesises to produce fuel such as diesel.
New Hope Project manager Hans Paustian says while the process has been proven in
large scale operations, the challenge for New Hope was to prove a scaled down version
would work safely and prove environmentally compliant in the Australian context.
“Basically we needed to see if it was economically viable for a small scale plant to be
located at a mine site, producing a suitable fuel for the site’s diesel powered
equipment,” explains Paustian.
“Although the project involved an overseas secondment for several years, the most
difficult aspect was in verifying and modifying the equipment to meet Australian
standards and regulations.
“Like all projects this was a group effort and we called on the skills and experience of
both in-house workers and external consultants.
“Once in Australia the entire New Hope Projects department checked every piece of
equipment, its design and aspect of risk, safety and environment to ensure it was
suitable for use.”
Paustian says the work overseas consisted of becoming competent with the technology
and arranging the shipping of the equipment.
“We set up a laboratory in Pittsburgh where we conducted tests to verify the process
At the same time in Australia, the trial site at the Jeebropilly Mine outside of Ipswich
quickly became a hive of activity.
“The Projects team took a few hectares of grassed rehabilitated land to put in roads
and foundations for the process plant and associated tanks and buildings,” Hans said.
“The equipment from the US made up only part of the process. They were typically
container sized to aid in shipping and were plugged in to the Australian designed
components to produce the overall process system,” continues Paustian.
“The process was designed to consist of two parts, firstly produce gas from the coal
before then using the gas in the F-T synthesis to produce diesel.”
Paustian says the first part of the process was constructed and tested and produced a
suitable pyrolysis gas that was able to power a gas generator to prove its energy
“The coal would enter the retort, which acted just like an oven, and cook the coal. The
heat within the retort would break down the coal into a char and a gas.”
“While we were able to gain important operating knowledge and improved gas
qualities from subsequent tests, our work was cut short through a drop in oil prices.
“The bottom literally fell out of the oil market and prices dropped by more than 50%, making the process uneconomical,” points out Paustian.
The decision was made to mothball the site and look for other options.
Paustian states fortunately an agri-business was interested in purchasing the plant – lock,
stock and barrel.
“The business makes organic feed for cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep, using the char
as a base before including the various nutrients,” says Paustian.
“Their feed additive ranges are specially formulated biochar blends for animal ingestion that will benefit overall health of the animals.
“They will use the equipment to produce an organic char from specifically cultivated
plants, shrubs and trees.
“While it is disappointing that New Hope could not make the process viable for our
own purposes, it is great to see the process is being put to good use,” concludes Paustian.