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A Sustainable Soil Solution: Scaling up Novihum, an innovation to convert bad soil into better, make brown coal clean and barren land green, and profitably advance food security in Europe and beyond

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - Scaling up Novihum (A Sustainable Soil Solution: Scaling up Novihum, an innovation to convert bad soil into better, make brown coal clean and barren land green, and profitably advance food security in Europe and beyond)

Reporting period: 2016-12-01 to 2018-05-31

Soil is a vital – though often neglected – tool for increasing the resilience and security of food production, as recognized by the UN’s declaration of 2015 as the International Year of Soils; improving it can reduce erosion and enhance drought tolerance, crop yields, water and nutrient efficiency, and long-term land fertility.

NOVIHUM is a uniquely scalable innovative soil conditioning technology that replaces natural stable humus (organic matter) in degraded and arid soils, significantly increasing crop yields while reducing water use and pollution. It is produced by enriching abundant lignite (brown coal) in a highly efficient industrial process, and is affordable, easy to use, long-lasting (>10 years), and good for the environment. Its unique set of properties makes NOVIHUM novel to the market and highly competitive with all other soil conditioners, which are typically difficult to use, transport, or scale up. Novihum Technologies GmbH (NHT) was founded in 2012 to commercialize the patented technology, and has attracted venture capital investment from the EU and US.

NOVIHUM is thus poised to play a major role in enhancing the resilience of the European and global agricultural sectors to climate and resource challenges. The business opportunity is enhanced because NOVIHUM provides a unique opportunity for coal-rich regions to repurpose their lignite assets away from CO2-intensive energy generation into sustainable soil technologies, mitigating climate change while significantly enhancing the productivity, efficiency, and ultimate security of food production.

The objective of the Project was to scale up the NOVIHUM production technology from prototype to a Pilot Facility in Germany. It also set out to demonstrate NOVIHUM’s high-value impacts to potential customers and expand the product line. It reached a successful conclusion in May 2018 with all objectives met, and has resulted in the technical expertise, track record, and market traction to bring NOVIHUM to the markets and regions around the world that need it most.
In October 2016 NHT’s 1000 tonne/annum capacity Pilot Production Facility in Dortmund, Germany entered fulltime operations, and has since then successfully produced more than 1000 tonnes of NOVIHUM. This critical milestone has proven that NOVIHUM can be produced at industrial scale efficiently and reliably to the highest quality standards. The Pilot also served as a platform for ongoing optimization of the production technology and the development of new product extensions, resulting in multiple new products based on the core NOVIHUM technology.

In tandem with the operations of the Pilot Production Facility, the sales and marketing team have built significant customer traction in Germany, Spain, and North America, with NOVIHUM in commercial use for crops ranging from potatoes to lettuce to wine grapes to lemons.

In addition, trials providing independent proof of NOVIHUM’s impacts for a range of high-value applications were completed in Europe and North America in cooperation with world-leading research institutes, including the Institute for Post-Mining Landscapes (FIB) in Germany, IFAPA and CDTA in Spain, and Texas A&M in the U.S. These trials provided compelling independent evidence that NOVIHUM offers short payback periods to its customers and uniquely combines the characteristics needed to improve soils at scales from front yard to farm.

Strategic market replication activities sought to expand NOVIHUM’s global market further, both in geography (e.g. early trials and market development in Australia) and applications (e.g. uses in vegetable transplants, or for commodity agricultural crops). These efforts built on the market traction generated by NOVIHUM’s early commercial success with early adopters to bring the technology at scale to mainstream markets around the world. Partnerships and cooperative trials were developed with key industry- and market leaders in both Europe and North America with potential to open country- and continent- scale markets to NOVIHUM in the coming years.

Building on these technical and market successes, NHT proved the interest of financial investors in supporting its future growth by closing a successful fundraising round in December 2017. High-level government stakeholders in Germany, the U.S. and Australia have also been intrigued by NOVIHUM’s ability to increase agricultural resilience, sequester CO2, and stimulate economic development in coal-dependent regions. NHT’s work through this Project has attracted international acclaim, when it won the 2016 European Enterprise Network “New Directions” Award and was selected as one of ten finalists for the 2018 Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) Prize.

Ultimately, all of these successful strands of activity delivered NHT to a point where it has the technical, commercial, and financial expertise, track record, and resources to confidently move ahead to build its first industrial scale production facility.
Sustainably improving soil rapidly on large scales is very challenging; only a few candidate technologies are under development, and many face sustainability challenges of their own. None has yet been brought to market at a commercial scale.

There is therefore a market-driven need for products that improve soil health, and with it crop yields, efficiency, and resilience, which can be expected to grow significantly over the coming years as food demand and climate pressures concurrently increase. Rising awareness of the environmental damage wrought by inefficient agricultural practices – for example, the contamination of water resources by the runoff of excess nutrients – will further drive demand for technologies that increase efficiencies and reduce waste.

This Project confirmed that NOVIHUM provides a uniquely scalable solution to these challenges, as an innovative solution that moves beyond the state of the art because it:
• behaves like stable soil humus;
• can be produced efficiently at industrial scale reliably to the highest quality standards, such that its production can be scaled up rapidly to serve global markets;
• is produced by chemically enriching lignite, an abundant natural resource that is a globally available commodity, such that it can be manufactured at very large commercial scales in many regions.
• offers significant economic and operational benefits to its users, such that is has won commercial traction in key markets.

The potential socioeconomic impact of NOVIHUM is very large, with millions of hectares in need of its benefits and global annual sales potential of more than €2 billion in the agriculture, horticulture, recultivation, and landscape sectors in the EU, North America, and around the globe. Once scaled up, it can also offer a new, environmentally-friendly future for lignite and the regions that are economically dependent on it. Longer term, NOVIHUM has the potential to help combat desertification and deforestation while increasing economic opportunity, resilience, and food security in emerging and developing regions.

The results of this Project have confirmed that NOVIHUM is poised to realize this potential and play a major role in enhancing the resilience of the European and global agricultural sectors to climate and resource challenges, while driving growth and job creation in multiple business sectors and countries in Europe and beyond.