Next-generation biochar technology inspiring young professionals

Aravind Surapaneni (left) and Isobel Decru (right) on-site at one of South East Water’s water recycling plants.

South East Water is working with several research partners to pilot new technologies that transform biosolids into biochar. Early trials indicate this process can also remove pathogens, contaminants, and microplastics that may be present in biosolids. Isobel Decru, a Research Officer at South East Water, has been involved in this work as a young professional in the water industry.

Isobel Decru participated in South East Water’s internship program in 2019-20, before officially joining the Research and Development team in 2021. She also works with the ARC Training Centre for the Transformation of Australia’s Biosolids Resource as a project officer.

“Throughout my university years, I found myself drawn to courses that explored the dynamics of water systems,” said Decru. “However, it wasn’t until my internship at South East Water in 2019/2020 that my fascination with the water industry truly blossomed. Immersed in the company’s daily operations and strategic initiatives, I gained invaluable insights into the multifaceted nature of the water sector.”

Decru witnessed firsthand water’s pivotal role in sustaining communities and driving innovation. Her time at South East Water saw her passion ignited to contribute to ongoing efforts within the industry to ensure water security, sustainability, and resilience.

Biosolids and biochar

Her current manager, Aravind Surapaneni, sparked her interest in biochar and biosolids. Before her internship, Decru had little knowledge of biosolids and found working with Surapaneni an eye-opening experience.

“Aravind introduced me to the concept and its potential applications, particularly in land application,” Decru said. “As an Environmental Science graduate, I was acutely aware of Australia’s challenging soil conditions, and learning about the transformative impact of biosolids on soil health and fertility was inspiring.”

Decru’s journey into the area of biochar began with the understanding that land application of biosolids may have limitations due to the potential for traces of contaminants to remain in processed biosolids, and the need for an alternative. The South East Waters partnership and her involvement in the DEECA Functionalised Biochar project sparked her interest in biochar. It was facilitated by the Intelligent Water Networks (IWN) and operates on the second version of RMIT’s Pyrolysis Pilot Plant (PYROCO Mark 2).

“Currently, I’m involved in research into the conversion of biosolids into biochar and the associated destruction of contaminants using PYROCO Mark 2,” she said. “Our ongoing investigations are centred on understanding the production of quality of biochar and its potential uses, and the fate of contaminants within PYROCO Mark 2, and early results show promising outcomes. PYROCO Mark 2 has garnered substantial support from other water utilities, leading to plans for a second phase of trials in the coming months. This collaborative effort underscores our commitment to the circular economy, addressing contamination challenges, and advancing innovative solutions for its remediation.”

Isobel is part of a team that includes university researchers and other water utility specialists with the skills and expertise to conduct in-depth scientific investigations. Decru says her involvement in South East Water projects has been an incredible learning opportunity.

“I’ve had the privilege of working alongside these researchers and water utility experts, contributing to the collective understanding of biosolids transformation and its implications,” Decru said.


In late 2023, South East Water teamed up once again with RMIT University, Intelligent Water Networks, Greater Western Water and Barwon Water to progress trials of an innovative pyrolysis technology (PYROCO) as part of the second phase of a $1 million Biosolids to Biochar project.

The project uses next-generation pyrolysis technology to transform biosolids generated from wastewater treatment plants into biochar. The agriculture industry can use this safe and nutrient-rich material to regenerate soils. It can also be utilised in construction and to develop advanced carbon materials.

Biochar is a stable form of carbon and prevents further carbon emissions from being released into the environment, drawing carbon out from the emissions cycle.

“My experience with the collaborative effort on PYROCO alongside other water utilities has been truly enlightening,” said Decru. “It has underscored the complexity of biosolids transformations. Through this cross-collaboration, I’ve come to appreciate that biosolids and its contaminants can vary significantly, and the ultimate solution will need to be flexible and robust enough to deal with this unique challenge..”

This collaborative endeavour has the potential to transform the way the water industry manages waste. The research is advancing society’s understanding of biosolids by pooling resources, expertise, and insights. It is also paving the way for innovative solutions that are built from the ground up based on genuine industry problems to solve. The collective efforts on PYROCO represent a step forward in enhancing the resilience and sustainability of water management practices, ultimately contributing to the protection of the environment.

“The future of removing contaminants from biosolids looks promising, particularly with advancements in thermal technologies such as the pyrolysis of PYROCO Mark 2,” Decru said.

New uses for biochar

Biochar is of considerable interest to the water and wastewater industries due to its range of applications. Each use case is influenced by its unique composition and properties.

“One particularly ground-breaking development that has garnered significant attention is the exploration of biochar’s potential in energy storage,” said Decru.

“Initial studies have shown that biochar could be the potential carbon source in batteries. This application holds promise for revolutionising energy storage technology, offering a sustainable and cost-effective alternative to traditional sources of carbon for batteries.”

The implications of such advancements extend beyond energy storage, potentially reshaping the activities of water utilities and their approach to biosolids transformation and biochar utilisation. By diversifying the uses of biochar, water utilities can explore new revenue streams and leverage biochar as a valuable resource in various sectors, including renewable energy and environmental remediation.

“Furthermore, biochar is easier to manage and transport and has the potential for lower emissions than its precursor biosolids. This could enhance water utility operations and their overall sustainability and resilience,” she said. “It could pave the way for more environmentally friendly practices and reduce carbon footprints.”

As these applications continue to evolve, water utilities need to stay informed and proactive in embracing emerging technologies that hold the potential to transform their activities and contribute to a more sustainable future.

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