Saturday, December 2, 2023

Slash competition a winner for Tairāwhiti

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Taking its cue from a global tech award, Scion is incentivising local tech to find a solution to the problem of forestry debris.
Ag First farm consultant Peter Andrew is unconvinced about the practicality of many of the ministerial report’s recommendations.
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After enduring a stream of ministerial visits, inquiries and analysis, Scion researchers are hopeful Tairāwhiti residents will soon see some proof that forest slash is being dealt with well before it ends up on farms, in rivers, and on beaches.

The forest research agency and Callaghan Innovation recently hosted a “design sprint” workshop to deliver solutions on the slash problem sooner than later.

Marc Gaugler, Scion’s head of distributed circular innovation, says Tairāwhiti residents are rightly impatient about the slash problem and how to solve it.

From the design sprint they determined that a two-tier approach is needed, one with its sights firmly set on getting solutions in play very soon. The second requires taking a longer-term view on alleviating the issues, including how to get more sustainable forestry practices and forests in place.

Inevitably there is no silver bullet to the slash problem, but the design sprint came up with the “S-Challenge” (S for slash) competition. It is modelled on the highly successful startup competition XPRIZE, a global award that helps incentivise disruptive breakthrough technologies to help solve global problems.

The technology competition is open to all comers, “giving innovators, companies, start-ups and communities the opportunity to pitch their solution to the slash problem”, Gaugler says.

“The aim is to get a pilot project on the ground sooner than later, hopefully by the middle of next year.”
Tairāwhiti’s ability to grow pine trees is a strength as much as the region’s isolation is a weakness when it comes to formulating possible slash solutions.

Scion’s head of distributed circular innovation Marc Gaugler says Tairāwhiti residents are rightly impatient about the slash problem and how to solve it.

Transport of low-value slash to a processing site is a key challenge, particularly when it may then have to leave the region to be transported to the outlet using pelletised wood products for fuel.

“The low-hanging fruit is something around the wood fuel-energy side of things. It could be to create energy security for the region, providing fuel for a steam-driven power plant, for example,” Gaugler says.

Some success has been enjoyed by Genesis Energy, which trialled imported wood pellets in Huntly power station. Meantime Fonterra is considering its wood fuel options for its milk-drying plants.

Gaugler says he sees a few other technologies that have potential to add more value, helping overcome the tyranny of distance and cost to market.

They include converting slash to biochar for soil remediation, a process that can also produce syn-gas for powering the biochar plant, and biochemicals that are a viable alternative to hydrocarbon-sourced chemicals.

“Whatever the options, from the design sprint we learnt it is important the returns from the technology come back to the region. This is the tricky part – to blend a regional resource back into the region’s economy.” 

Outwardly simple solutions like building a wood pelletising plant in Gisborne need to consider wide market influences, such as what the competition impact is if a similar plant is set up elsewhere in the North Island, for example.

Scion researchers also have a biomass conversion study programme focusing on technology that could provide mini conversion factories on logging skid sites to utilise wood slash.

With partners, a project in the Central North Island is well underway – including internationally sourced technology, with results expected in coming months. 

Other work in Northland includes a study on the value of biochar and its value in soil remediation.

Whatever the project winner is, even if it can be quickly deployed it will require a longer-term view of how it will fit in with future forestry development in the region. 

If future policy includes more indigenous and less exotic plantings, then a slash solution needs to be capable of remaining viable, or adapting to the greater distance between forest and plant and different raw material.

“There are some very good candidates out there and we are seeking the funding for the competition to get the winners on the ground with their projects,” Gaugler says. 

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