25 November 1998

Benefits flow from Gatton waste treatment plant

A waste fermentation plant at the University of Queensland's Gatton College, 80km west of Brisbane, presents a classic win/win situation, according to one of those primarily responsible for the project.

Phil Matthew, senior lecturer in land management at the College, said the plant provided teaching and research benefits to students and at the same time safeguarded jobs at a Toowoomba yeast-making factory.

The plant might also eventually benefit vegetable growers in the surrounding Lockyer valley through use of its end product, a potassium-rich liquid fertiliser.

The fermentation plant, which has been operating for many months, was officially opened by the Minister for Primary Industries Henry Palaszczuk today (Wednesday November 25).

Mr Matthew said the plant represented a major financial commitment by Mauri Yeast Australia to the University and to the Queensland environment. About $1 million had been allocated for capital works and another $750,000 as an operating grant over five years.

"The waste fermentation plant is a significant teaching and research platform in waste treatment technologies, resource recovery practices and applied environmental management," Mr Matthew said.

"It is a classic example of industry and academe cooperating to develop better solutions to today's problems. It is taking a problematic wastewater which was difficult and expensive to dispose of and reusing it in a productive and environmentally friendly way.

"It will provide the basis for numerous ongoing student research projects over the next five years and is also providing a significant funding boost to the research program at the college."

Mr Matthew said the plant treated waste from the manufacture of bakers yeast at the Mauri Yeast factory in Toowoomba. The dark brown material was a dilute molasses solution and contained no toxic compounds or dangerous bacteria.

For some years the yeast byproduct was disposed of in the Toowoomba sewerage system under licence from the city council. But following an upgrade of the sewage treatment plant, this wastewater was now considered too rich an organic load for the new scheme.

For a time the problem of what to do with the waste seemed to threaten the future of the Toowoomba plant, so the Gatton solution offered direct social and economic benefits to the community, Mr Matthew said.

"The plant provides the factory in Toowoomba with a sustainable waste disposal system and a long term future. This has given the 30 staff at the factory, and their families, some economic security for the foreseeable future," he said.

The yeast waste is trucked to a four million-litre fermentation pond at Gatton. The pond, which acts as a huge anaerobic digester, is lined with thick polythene and sealed with an inflatable plastic cover.

The main gases produced during this phase are methane and carbon dioxide. The former was currently being burnt off but Mr Matthew said there were plans to harness this energy source for heating water at Gatton.

From this first pond a gravity-fed pipe runs about 300 metres to a second much larger ring tank, a huge 80 million-litre storage pond lined with thick black plastic and recently covered with a plastic lid.

Mr Matthew said there was potential to apply liquid from the rink tank, which was rich in potassium, to farmland in the Lockyer region used for growing vegetables and lucerne. Research trials on 400 hectares of the Gatton College farm had proved "very successful" to date.

He said eventually this recycled wastewater could be sold commercially to help fund ongoing operating costs. If the project proved ecologically and economically sustainable, there was every chance it could be taken up as a model for use in other locations.

For further information, contact Phil Matthew (telephone (07) 5460 1360).