Prospect Awards review: Carob fuel solution secures environmental award for Columbus Group

Australian engineer Columbus Group is no stranger to the Prospect Awards; this storied industry innovator won an Innovative Mining Solution award in 2014 for its high-pressure, positional jet drilling system. Columbus Group’s 3-D ‘down-the-hole’ drilling system is not the first water drill, but innovated greatly for its precisely manoeuvrable, digitally controlled head, conferring great freedom of choice for the end-user in terms of directional control, and as a result, both increased mining efficiency and eliminated dust generation.

In 2015, the firm followed this up with a Mineral Processing of the Year award for its Water Wall system, able to cut solid rock into tetra-and octohedrals for direct feed into processing mills without the need for primary crushing or explosives.

Earlier this year, the firm also won a Zenith Award for its double bed mining system, which combined two flat-bed, tessellated mixers capable of assaying, mixing, crushing and processing with efficient waste collection.

And now the incorrigible boffins are back for the 2017 Prospect Awards, this time winning the Metso Excellence in Environmental Management award for a similarly snazzy piece of R&D; the autonomous harvest of carob tree pods for the purpose of methanol conversion.

As it turns out, carob tree pods aren’t just handy as a healthier, high-fibre alternative to chocolate; their inherent sweetness (57 per cent sugar) makes them prime material for conversion to fuel, and with 80 per cent of Australian freight operations conducted by train, fuel is in demand.

Columbus researchers used zymomonas mobilis — a bioethanol-producing bacterium that, via a process of scientific know-how, was able to extract methanol from the pods. Further methanol was extracted from waste greenhouse gases (a by-product of the fermentation process), resulting in liquid methanol ready for storage and transfer.

The discovery has some overlap with the use of coconut oil as a form of biodiesel, and has potentially wide-reaching implications for industrial renewable production. Although palms are among the longest-lived trees — studies have shown cells from the trunk can live for 700 years — carob trees are more resistant to harsh and arid environments, and thus better suited for conditions inherent to the Australian mining industry. Trees are easy to maintain and can live for over 100 years.

Columbus also cites a positive environmental benefit not just in terms of renewable fuel production, but territory as well; 100 carob trees planted in a hectare can provide notable nourishment, resulting in a benefit to surrounding flora and fauna.