Adelaide-based company Bygen has developed a breakthrough new technology that can produce activated carbon from plastics and agricultural waste, raising the potential of a new sustainable option in the multi-billion-dollar industry.

Activated carbon is one of the most widely used materials for environmental remediation in the world. It contains small holes, or ‘pores’, which give it an extremely high internal surface area, which allows pollutants to ‘stick’ to the inside of the carbon, removing them from the ecosystem. Activated carbon can be used in a range of applications, including water purification, remediating contaminated soils, treating air pollution, and recovering gold from mine sites.

Globally, approximately 3 million tonnes of activated carbon are used every year for the purposes of cleaning up contaminated soil, water, and air, as well as recovering precious metals. Most activated carbon is made from expensive and non-renewable hardwood or coal, rather than cheap and abundant sources of agricultural waste, or from coconut shells in developing countries.

Founded by Dr Lewis Dunnigan and Ben Morton, Bygen has ambitions to become the world’s first sustainable producer of high-quality, bespoke activated carbon. The company first began transforming low-value agricultural waste into activated carbon in 2018, but a recent breakthrough by Bygen now allows it to turn plastic waste, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET), into the high-value material.

“Currently, not only is activated carbon typically made from non-renewable materials like coal in hugely carbon intensive processes, but the products available in the market also suffer from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, with little to no tailoring for the wide array of users,” says Dr Dunnigan. “The end result is that customers are paying significant sums for unsustainable activated carbon that has not been optimised for their application. Our novel activation method allows us to produce activated carbon at a fraction of the traditional manufacturing cost, while also allowing us to tailor the properties of the product in order to achieve significant improvements in performance for different applications.”

Bygen’s production sites are situated either next to, or on-site, at locations where there are significant quantities (more than 5,000 tonnes) of waste either generated or processed every year. This offers significant amounts of co-generated energy to the waste provider, while reducing transportation costs.

“By using renewable materials such as agricultural wastes, we are ensuring that farmers can value-add to current wastes, and that harmful practices such as open burning of agricultural wastes are avoided,” Dr Dunnigan explains. “Importantly, our method works to ensure activated carbon is made in a safe and responsible manner.

“In addition, our technology can be used for mixed or contaminated plastics, which are causing so many problems in the recycling industry. This is particularly true in Australia now, with several countries having stopped accepting our waste.”

Bygen is currently working with a number of companies involved in a diverse range of industries, including water treatment, soil remediation, and petrochemical refining. The company has demonstrated the technology in its pilot-plant with industry standard testing. It is currently in the process of raising a second seed round of $600,000 to add to its initial seed round of $300,000. Bygen will look to do its ‘Series A’ funding round towards the middle of the year, which will go towards building a full-scale plant capable of producing commercial quantities of activated carbon.

Bygen is one of four companies in the current Startmate climate accelerator program, which is backed by Michael Cannon-Brookes’ Grok Ventures. Startmate’s climate accelerator stream invests $75,000 in up to 15 start-ups at their latest valuation. The three-month-long climate program, which runs alongside Startmate’s regular accelerator program, is focused on launching the next wave of ambitious start-ups working on innovative technologies that will have large CO2-equivalent reduction.

Startmate is backed by some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, making up a world-class community of mentors and alumni. Startmate shares that knowledge through its 12-week accelerator program, one-on-one bespoke coaching and in-person events. Startmate encourages ambitious founders to hit their next milestone, and offers invaluable resources, advice and support along the way. Since 2010, Startmate has been welcoming exceptional founders into a community for life as they create ground-breaking businesses of tomorrow.

“Startmate is such a prestigious program with so many great connections and amazing alumni,” says Morton. “We have been blown away by the help offered by the mentors and the squad we’ve been paired with. There’s no doubt that the company is advancing quicker now with all the help and support we are getting from Startmate.”