Winner: Dr Adriana Downie, Pacific Pyrolysis Pty Ltd

Slow burning to capture carbon

Biochar has great potential—from taking carbon out of the air, to improving the quality of soil. Young leader Adriana Downie is separating the reality from the hype.

Dr Downie has been awarded the 3M Eureka Prize for Emerging Leader in Science for her work in slow-pyrolysis technology—converting waste products into bioenergy and biochar.

Biochar is a soil improver with potential to mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon from the air. It’s made by slowly burning straw, sawdust and other plant waste.

But if you think biochar sounds like the magic bullet that will save the planet, think again. The scientific and commercial challenges are significant, and there are a multitude of different disciplines and industry sectors to work with. Fellow researchers, industry partners, government bodies, environmental NGOs and international collaborators must all be kept informed, motivated, and on track.

Adriana tackles those challenges as a ‘triple threat’—taking on the roles of scientist/engineer, entrepreneur and communicator. She’s taken a lead role in applying for research funding, successfully gaining over $5 million in government funding. And she’s been instrumental in organising biochar conferences, public regional meetings, and researcher networking sessions.

She’s driven by a clear vision of contributing to a sustainable future.

She is inspired too by the knowledge that man-made soil has been used for millennia—thousands of years ago in the Amazon basin, farmers seeded soil with charcoal, bio-matter and pottery shards, producing dark, rich soil more fertile than the surrounding land even now.

“Adriana has worked tirelessly to develop biochar technology and to communicate the technology’s potential to those outside the field,” Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay said. “Her enthusiasm and passion for the challenge ahead is nothing short of infectious.”

This is not the first time Adriana’s leadership skills have been recognised. She was a finalist for the Eureka Prizes for Young Leaders in Environmental Issues and Climate Change (2008), and Emerging Leader in Science (2012), and was named one of the country’s next 100 emerging leaders by The Australian in 2009.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards. The Eureka Prizes have been rewarding science since 1990—celebrating 25 years in 2014.

The other finalist was Dr Ravi Bakaraju of the Brien Holden Vision Institute, who’s developed a contact lens that cures eye-disease—a project so compelling he recruited his CEO as lead guinea pig.

Watch Adriana's YouTube video

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