Categorized | Agriculture, Business

Carbon plant combines high-tech, ag in Kawaihae


Karin Stanton/ Contributing Editor

Kawaihae is entering the world of high-tech with ground-breaking planned this month on a $20 million plant that will churn macadamia nut shells into granular activated carbon.

Big Island Carbon is a fully financed start-up company that will integrate agriculture with high technology by bringing macadamia nut shells from island macadamia processors together with a new biomass conversion method. 

The plant will convert feedstock (macadamia nut shells) into granular activated carbon, to sell in national and international markets to pharmaceutical, environmental, military and other industries, and also produce 750,000 gallons of biofuel annually to run the plant and for sale on island. 

“We have worked long and hard to bring Big Island Carbon’s plant to reality,” Big Island Carbon CEO Rick Vidgen said. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been interesting.”

Vidgen said the plant is all good news for the island.

“This is an ideal industry that will provide quality year-round employment unrelated to the cycles of tourism while supporting agriculture with a positive cash flow to the struggling macadamia industry,” he said. “Big Island Carbon’s plant will help to diversify the island’s economy, create new high tech jobs, support agriculture, and be ‘green’ in the process.” 

Vidgen, a former mac nut farm president, envisioned the venture more than a decade ago and believes the plant won’t run out of raw materials.

Farms currently spend $5 per ton to dispose of the shells; Big Island Carbon is offering $10. He expects to shovel 10,000 to 12,000 tons of shells into the plant annually.

The high quality carbon then can be sold for up to $4 per pound.

While industries and economies around the world seek to find firm footing once again, Vidgen said the carbon industry is growing, a particular bright spot for a state that traditionally relies on tourism.

“Manufacturing is in trouble globally,” he said. “The sorts of things this gets used for keep going.”

The project is funded by Denham Capital, an energy-focused private equity firm, and already has its Clean Air Permit, grading permit, and has completed environmental and archeological assessments.   

Construction and employment

Vidgen said he expects to sign a 50-year lease this week with Department of Hawaiian Home Lands for the 13-acre site. While the plant will use only 4 acres, he said, the rest will be used for shell storage and possibly sub-leasing.

Big Island Carbon, LLC expects construction of the plant on 4 acres of land in the Kaie Hana Industrial Park to employ about 100 people and last about 10 months. Tinguely Development has been retained to oversee the construction phase of the various buildings.

“We were lucky to get Tinguely,” Vidgen said.

The plant will include materials handling and packaging equipment and a quality control laboratory, which will employ about 30 people.

Big Island Carbon will work with DHHL on job training for some of the skilled positions that will be required. The location of the Kawaihae plant means many workers will have jobs near their homes. 

The hiring process likely will begin in August or September.

Production process

Big Island Carbon will manufacture premium grade granular activated carbon (GAC) and bio oil from macadamia nut shells. Macadamia nut shells have been proven to have superior properties to other feedstock, which allows Big Island Carbon’s product to be used for higher value specialty applications in air and water purification, Vidgen said. 

“The activation process changes the molecular structure of the carbon,” Vidgen said. “It increases the surface area and it’s all about surface area. Activated carbon is the best natural scavenger known. It absorbs all kinds of crud and garbage, removes impurities from gas and water.”

Once fully operational, the plant’s GAC production will convert macadamia shells into char by heating them in the absence of air. The process has been used effectively for thousands of years to produce charcoal from wood. A similar low-tech approach is used for coconut shells in Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Thailand.

A previous high-tech venture using mac nut shells in Australia ended in a fire, Vidgen said.

The Big Island Carbon plant process will occur in a closed system operating under vacuum on a continuous basis and carefully controlled to maintain a constant output quality.

“Basically, it’s a big box with ceramic tiles inside,” he said.  

After heating, the char — the residue likely will be about 10 percent to 15 percent of the original weight — passes to a $2.5 million activation kiln, which is currently being custom manufactured in Kansas. The combustible gases from the char reactor will be recycled to fuel a boiler used for steam generation. 

Products and uses

The output will be sold to specialty users in the upper end of the growing market for GAC in a world increasingly demanding products that clean up gas and liquid phase materials to eliminate pollutants and impurities, he said. 

GAC is commonly used in water filters and gas masks, and has a variety of other applications. Many applications are proprietary or flat-out secret, Vidgen said, but there is demand for high quality GAC.

“It’s an industry we need to understand from the inside,” he said. “We’re certain the product is better than anything else that’s out there.”

Vidgen said a variation of the carbon is being explored for possible use in protective suits worn by first responders in the event of accidental or deliberate chemical releases.

“It’ll do an extraordinary job in removing garbage,” he said. “And carbon is completely inert. It will not decompose.”

Bio oil will also be produced as a by-product and sold on island as biofuel. It will also be used as a fuel source by Big Island Carbon to power the plant.  

The GAC will be shipped directly from Kawaihae Harbor.

Energy ties

Big Island Carbon fits into the energy policy goals of the state and DHHL. 

“The production of combustible gas and biofuel is considered a ‘firm’ renewable energy source and an important part of our overall Energy Policy,” said Micah Kane, chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission (HCC) and director of DHHL. “Reducing our dependence on foreign oil is important for the state and our economy and we are pleased to partner with Big Island Carbon, LLC on this renewable energy project.”  

About Denham Capital

Denham Capital is a global private equity firm, with offices in Boston, Houston, Short Hills, N.J., Sao Paulo, and London. With approximately $4.3 billion of invested and committed capital, Denham makes direct investments in all aspects of the energy and commodities value chain, including oil and gas, mining, timber, power, carbon assets and energy-related infrastructure and services. 

The firm invests globally, with investments currently in the US, Canada, South America, Europe, Russia/CIS, Asia, Australia, and across all parts of the capital structure and all stages of the corporate and asset lifestyle, from development projects to mature, operating businesses. 

Denham typically targets investments in the $50 million to $250 million range.  

— Find out more:

DHHL Energy Policy:

Denham Capital:

Big Island Carbon Fact Sheet

Big Island Carbon is a start-up company that will bring macadamia shell from Big Island macadamia processors together with a technology developed originally at Georgia Technical University, modified to fit specific requirements, and financing from energy specialists Denham Capital, a leading energy-focused global private equity firm, to develop a $20 million project on the Leeward Coast of the Big Island. The land will be leased from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) and ties into the department’s Energy Policy goals.  

Technical Background:

The macadamia tree produces a “fruit” that has three components:

* An outer husk (green in color on the trees) and is relatively soft and easily removed in the “husking” or “hulling” process. It has some fertilizer value due to its high potassium content.  This husk is used directly as compost or added to soil in a compost mix.  It is 50 percent by weight of the “fruit.”

* A very hard shell, difficult to crack, which protects the inner kernel and represents 75 percent by weight of the “Nut in Shell.”  Some of this is burned (inefficiently) as fuel for drying the nuts and the rest is useful only as a landfill and usually dumped by processors.

* The delectable macadamia kernel which is highly prized as a snack nut or an ingredient for chocolates, cookies, ice cream, or in salads or cooking.

For Big Island Carbon it will be the shell that becomes the feedstock in its biomass conversion process. 

Macadamia shells have traditionally been an unusable waste product from macadamia processing and used either in (relatively) inefficient boilers for drying Nut in Shell or for landfill where they break down slowly.  

The output of this high tech operation will be sold to specialty users in the upper end of the growing market for Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) in a world increasingly demanding products that ‘clean up’ gas and liquid phase materials to eliminate pollutants and impurities.  GAC is the product used in water filters, gas masks and a wide variety of other applications. 

Activated Carbon is a “scavenger” that can be used to remove impurities or pollutants from either gas or liquid phase from a wide range of materials.  It is probably the most efficient member of a group of products known as “adsorbents.” 

Activated Carbon can be defined as an amorphous carbon characterized by a very large surface area per unit weight due to an enormous number of fine pores.  These products are capable of collecting gases, liquids, or dissolved substances on the surface of their pores.  Compared with other commercial adsorbents, Activated Carbon has a broad spectrum of adsorptive capacity, and excellent physical and chemical stability.  

Although Activated Carbon product specifications can be complex, a simple classification would be products that are either Liquid or Gas Phase.  Another simple classification is by particle size, either pelletized, powdered (PAC), and granular (GAC) forms.  

In general, the value/applications of Activated Carbon are derived from its surface area, pore size, and the distribution of the pores.  It becomes complex since the phenomena of adsorption lacks any single unifying principal.  

Activated Carbon is a black solid substance resembling granular or powered charcoal.  It is extremely porous with a large surface area, and typically produced from organic precursors such as bamboo, coconut shells, palm-kernel shells, wood chips, sawdust, corncob and seeds. 

The raw material is first heated in an inert environment to obtain the carbonaceous material, which is activated further to derive a highly porous final product.  For the activated material, surface areas typically range from 500-1400 m²/g.  The Activated Carbon particle has mainly two types of pores existing in it, viz. macropores and micropores, through which adsorption takes place. 

The macropores provide a passageway to the interior of the particle into the micropores but do not contribute substantially to the particle surface area.  The micropores, on the other hand, are responsible for the large surface area of Activated Carbon particles created during the activation process.  It is the micropores where adsorption largely takes place. 

Thus, two main parameters are relevant to the performance of Activated Carbon; namely, the surface area and the pore volume or structure.  The pore volume limits the size of the molecules that can be adsorbed whilst the surface area limits the amount of material, which can be adsorbed.  The mechanical strength of Activated Carbon is also an important factor for prevention of damage due to regeneration, recycling etc. 

Activated Carbon has an increasing number of important uses including solution purification (as in the clean-up of cane, beet and corn-sugar solutions), removal of tastes and odors from domestic and industrial water supplies, vegetable and animal fats and oils, alcoholic beverages, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and in waste water treatment.  

It also finds use in purification of gases, liquid phase recovery, separation processes and as catalyst and catalyst supports. Many organic compounds such as chlorinated and non-chlorinated solvents, gasoline, pesticides and trihalomethanes can be adsorbed by Activated Carbon.  

It is also effective for removal of chlorine and moderately effective for removal of some heavy metals.  It is used for liquid phase adsorption of de-colorizations which are usually light, fluffy powders produced from low-density material such as sawdust or peat.  

However, for gas phase adsorption, there is a need for hard, dense granular materials produced from high-density raw materials such as bamboo, coconut shells, palm kernel shells, coal or coke. 

The characteristics that make macadamia shell so hard are also properties that make it an excellent feedstock for the production of high-end Activated Aarbon.  This is not a “new” discovery and there have been a number of attempts to manufacture Activated Carbon from macadamias but generally these have lacked a technology that can effectively control the process to the extent needed to produce a very high-end product. 

Macadamia shells have an extremely small pore size which, when carbonized (transformed into charcoal), create the very high surface area which is extended further by the activation process. 

The Plant:

The Big Island Carbon plant will include two major processes which will convert the macadamia shell feedstock into granular Activated Carbon. 

The initial process of “Gas Pyrolysis” will occur in the Char Reactor which will convert the shell into charcoal by heating in the absence of air.  The process has been used effectively for thousands of years to produce charcoal from wood but in this case it will occur in a closed system operating under vacuum on a continuous basis and carefully controlled to maintain a constant output quality. 

The char will then pass to the activation kiln while the combustible gases from the char reactor will be either used internally to fuel a boiler used for steam generation or condensed into distillate oil for sale as a biofuel. 

In the activation chamber (which is a 45 foot long by 6 foot diameter rotary kiln) the char will be subjected to further heat and super heated steam under controlled conditions to complete the “activation” process.  In this process the molecular structure is modified to increase the active surface area further which produces the very effective adsorptive granular product for sale and use in a wide variety of applications. 

The plant will occupy approximately 4 acres of land in the Kaie Hana Industrial Park at Kawaihae (sublease being finalized from Department of Hawaiian Homelands). The plant will also include materials handling and packaging equipment and a modern quality control laboratory. The dry conditions at the site will allow the shell feedstock to be stored outside.

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