Lithgow Silicon Smelter

Lithgow Smelter Approved

The State Government has given conditional approval for Australian Silicon to build a silicon smelter at Lithgow.

As part of the conditional approval, the operator will be required to use rail to transport silicon products through the Blue Mountains. The fluxwood for the furnaces will have to be sourced from plantations. The operator will also be required to establish an 8,100 hectare native hardwood plantation to offset some of the greenhouse gases created by the smelter project.

The Society has campaigned that, if it does go ahead, the Lithgow Smelter should be made as environmentally friendly as possible. The Government has gone some way in this direction, and we congratulate Mr Debus for this.

The most surprising condition concerns the production of charcoal for the smelter. The Government requires that the majority of the charcoal be made from timber sourced from outside NSW. This condition will go some way toward protecting NSW old growth forests, but still leaves open the unsustainable logging of forests in other states.

The charcoal manufacture requires 230,000 tonnes of hardwood each year. We will continue to lobby for an alternative source for the charcoal. We understand that CSIRO are investigating this area, and that low-ash coal has potential.

One of our main concerns is the impact of greenhouse gases from the smelter and its related activities.

The greenhouse issue is potentially catastrophic and new, large scale, projects must be greenhouse neutral before they are approved. The smelter project will add about one million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year. The requirement for an 8,100 hectare hardwood plantation to offset some of these greenhouse gases is just a drop in the bucket - it should be ten to fifteen times larger.

There were a total of 659 submissions, of which 14 came from state and local government organisations. The remaining 645 were from the public and community organisations. All 645 opposed the smelter - none in support.

Smelter Update

Environmentalists have had some minor achievements in regard to the proposed silicon smelter for Lithgow. Pine forests, not native forests, in the Lithgow and Bathurst areas are proposed for the furnace fluxwood. Goonoo and Pilliga Forests are to be protected from being incinerated as charcoal and Mr Debus has said he supports the use of rail.

However, the charcoal industry still requires 160,000 tonnes of native hardwoods each year. This timber is expected to come from the New England Tableland area further east of Gunnedah. According to National Parks Association there is still a risk that future governments could open up Pilliga and Goonoo for charcoal production.

There is also a possibility of landholders being asked to sell hardwood from their woodlands to the charcoal industry.

A letter from the Minister for Forestry states that the possibility of dedicated timber plantations is being discussed with Australian Silicon Ltd. This is good news for the future, but what will we have left after 20 years of logging for the smelter while the plantations mature ?

So far, Government has not indicated it intends to reduce the 615,000 tonnes per annum of greenhouse gases that will be produced. Nor has it indicated that it requires the proponents to have a greenhouse neutral smelting industry.

Given that the State Government is committed to the silicon smelter proceeding, the role the Society is taking is to lobby for Green, environmentally sustainable industry at the Minerals Processing Park in Lithgow.

Letters about the smelter to Mr Debus could ask for:

Please write to The Hon R Debus, Minister for Environment, Level 25, 59-61 Goulburn St, Sydney NSW 2000.

A public information meeting was held at Katoomba on 7 April. The meeting, organised jointly by the Blue Mountains Environment Centre, National Parks Association and BMCS, was attended by about 125 people. Speakers included BMCC Councillor Carol Gaul and Deputy Mayor Angelique Henson. Other speakers were Greg Standen (Lachlan Regional Transport Committee), Noel Plumb (NPA) and Jon Rickard (BMCS).

Sentiments expressed at the meeting ranged from outright opposition to the smelter to acceptance of the smelter, provided it met environment sustainability criteria. The Society's Management Committee view generally aligns with this latter approach.

Key environmental criteria included the need for the smelter's carbon to come from a truly sustainable source - certainly not native forests. Transportation of the smelter's raw materials and finished products should be by rail. Jon Rickard spoke about the 615,000 tonnes per annum of greenhouse gasses attributable to the smelter, and the need for carbon sinks to be created to absorb this amount of carbon dioxide.

Resolutions passed at the end of the meeting covered these main issues. These will be forwarded to Mr Debus and the Premier for consideration.

Communities and Governments have long accepted that heavy industry has to be dirty and environmentally degrading. This proposed smelter presents a very real challenge to environmentalists to sell a different point of view.

Silicon is used for a multitude of modern purposes - cells for solar energy, aluminium alloys for cladding aircraft, sealants, resins, plastics, enamels and rubbers, to name just a few. (Electronic chips consume less that 1% of world silicon production.) If we want these products, surely it's better that they be made in Australia in an environmentally friendly way, rather than force them overseas where they may not be made with environmental sustainability considerations taken into account.

This smelter is being proposed for an area where jobs are short. Why not have the jobs that are offered by the smelter, plus the extra jobs that come from the associated forestry activity needed to provide the carbon sink?

Why can't we have heavy industry that is an environmental showpiece? Are our Governments and business decision makers listening?

Good News for Pilliga and Goonoo

Conservationists have welcomed the Premier's announcement to save the Pilliga and Goonoo forests from being burnt for charcoal for the Lithgow silicon smelter furnace.

But Not for Other Western Woodlands

The Government is still looking to feed 190,000 tonnes a year for 40 years of other western woodlands and forest to the charcoal furnace and the Lithgow silicon smelter. The Premier's announcement lessens the threat to the Pilliga but concentrates it elsewhere - notably in the New England Tableland forests, Mudgee and Lithgow and Upper Hunter.

AND No News for Local Forests

In the smelter proposal, an additional 30,000 tonnes of timber is needed for fluxwood or woodchips from local forests. The life of the smelter is 40 years. The impact of logging on local forests over this time would be considerable, and there is no evidence to show the sustainability of this logging.

The Smelter EIS fails to define local forests and to name tree species that would be logged. We are assuming that the Forestry Department would log native hardwood forests within a 2-3 hour drive of Lithgow, an area which includes some forests of high conservation value and other remnant native forests which provide refuge habitats to wildlife.

When will research commence in this area as part of the Comprehensive Regional Assessment process under the supervision of the Resource and Conservation Council?

On Silicon Smelting, Biomass, Charcoal and Silica Fumes

Denis Rice
Consulting Scientist
64 Cliff Drive
Katoomba NSW 2780
3 April, 2000
(revised version)

It appears that metallurgical grade silicon has to be at least 99.4% pure. Silicon�s many uses include its major uses in photovoltaic cells for harnessing solar energy, in aluminium and other alloys, and in silicone lubricants, hydraulic fluids, resins, plastics, enamels and rubbers. It has been estimated that less than 2% of current world silicon production is used (after further purification by zone refining) in miniaturised electronic circuits and computer chips. World demand for silicon is growing. The Roskill Consulting Group has reported on the 1997 world demand in their publication: "The Economics of Silicon and Ferrosilicon", 9th edition, September 1997, price US$1560 (website:

Silicon is the second most common element in the Earth�s crust after oxygen. So it is an unfortunate irony that the chemistry of silicon seems to dictate that there is no easy way to make elemental silicon from quartz (silicon dioxide).

The presently preferred process for producing silicon on an industrial scale involves reaction of quartz pebbles and charcoal lumps (in contact with slowly-being-consumed, compressed charcoal electrodes) in a submerged-arc, high-temperature furnace. The overall reaction is highly endothermic (i.e. requires high inputs of heat energy and electrical energy, namely 11,000 to 15,000 kWh of electricity per tonne of silicon produced) and can be represented by the chemical equation:

SiO2 (s) + C (s) � Si (s) + CO2 (g)

Present sources of charcoal for use in silicon smelters include oak trees (for silicon smelters in the U.S.A. and probably elsewhere), and native jarrah forests in the south-west corner of Western Australia (for the silicon smelter operating since about 1989 near Bunbury, Western Australia). In the U.S.A., oak charcoal in minus 4-inch plus 1-inch lumps, is sold at a rate of US$200.00 per ton FOB kiln and a walking floor truck typically holds 20 to 22 tons (initial website reference: The ash content of this oak charcoal is typically less than 1.65% and is controlled by stripping the wood from all bark prior to the kilns.

A November 1999 proposal to obtain charcoal from the ironbark eucalypt, Pilliga and Goonoo Forests in western New South Wales, for a proposed silicon smelter near Lithgow, New South Wales, has met with considerable public outcry. On environmental grounds, the Premier of New South Wales, Mr Carr, on 15 March 2000, vetoed the use of these forests for charcoal production. Mr Carr also announced then that the CSIRO would be helping in obtaining charcoal from other sources. This smelter, if it goes ahead as proposed, would be on quite a large scale, requiring up to 30,000 tonnes of charcoal per year and producing up to 30,000 tonnes of silicon per year (most of which would be exported).

On 29 March 2000, a CSIRO media release entitled "Pure Metal, More Trees from High-Tech Combo" stated that the CSIRO has developed a unique fluidised bed carbonisation process (now licensed to Enecon Pty Ltd) for obtaining charcoal from timber and timber wastes. This media release also announced that CSIRO was investigating the agglomeration (or briquetting) of this charcoal to make it suitable for use in a silicon smelter. (CSIRO contact people:

* Mr Mick Crowe, Communication Manager, CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products, P.O. Box E4008, Kingston ACT 2604, phone +61 2 6281 8357, fax +61 2 6281 8312,

email [email link removed as it is no longer valid]

* Mr Jason Major, Communication Support, CSIRO National Awareness, P.O. Box 225, Dickson ACT 2602, phone +61 2 6276 6058, fax +61 2 6276 6273, email [email link removed as it is no longer valid])

It seems likely that such a fluidised bed device for making charcoal from timber would also be very suitable for making charcoal from fast growing plants such as kenaf and industrial hemp. Such devices would have to be not too costly to instal and operate, so that a number of them could be set up in rural regions, close to where such plants are cultivated. This would minimise transportation costs and also create minimum further congestion on already congested highways. Such charcoal manufacture would then provide increased job opportunities in country towns.

The conversion of hemp into charcoal is discussed on pp.104-109 of the book "Hemp: Lifeline to the Future" by Chris Conrad (Creative Xpressions Publications, Los Angeles, 1994). Because of environmental considerations, especially the need to conserve old-growth forests, it would appear that charcoals from fast growing plant species, such as hemp, kenaf, or present-day crop wastes from, say, western New South Wales, merit investigation as the major source of charcoal for silicon smelters. Informative websites on hemp and kenaf are: [link removed as it is no longer valid] [link removed as it is no longer valid]
    and [link removed as it is no longer valid]

The last-mentioned website gives the following quotation:

"Why use up the forests which were centuries in the making and the mines which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the fields?"� Henry Ford

For charcoal to be suitable for use in silicon smelting, it has to contain very low levels of trace elements, especially aluminium, iron, titanium, phosphorus, calcium and sulfur. As mentioned already, such charcoal has to be capable of being agglomerated (i.e. formed into briquettes)

Hence, to establish whether plant-derived, rather than tree-derived, biomass charcoal can be used in silicon smelting , there is a need for both agglomeration studies and reliable trace-element information on such charcoal. A number of charcoal samples, derived from plants grown in various locations and soil types, will have to be studied. Trace elements can be reliably determined by such analytical procedures as those used for determining trace elements in coal at, for example, the laboratories of the CSIRO Division of Energy Technology at Lucas Heights, New South Wales.

There are other environmental as well as occupational health problems associated with silicon production. Much attention needs to be paid to reducing to an absolute minimum the pollution of the air, in the vicinity of the silicon smelter, by dust emissions and by silica fumes escaping entrapment by the baghouse filters. Such filters are said to be at least 99.5% efficient, but why can�t they be at least than 99.9% efficient? And there are other questions, such as:

The author would be grateful for any feedback or information on the above matters. Please send to the above address, or email to:

Submission on Environmental Impact Statement

In our Submission on the EIS to Dept. of Planning, our first objection was that the proposal is incomplete and misleading. The whole development includes a quartz mine at Cowra, a charcoal industry, intensified logging of western NSW and local State Forests. Environmental assessments of these four associated industries have NOT been done. The smelter EIS can only be properly considered in conjunction with the environmental assessment of these four industries.

NSW forests are to be logged for charcoal and fluxwood (woodchips). The proposal's assurances about the sustainability of current forestry practices in western and local forests are not supported with any evidence.

The amount of logging involved is estimated to be 150,000 tons per year, which is more than is currently logged from the whole southern forestry area - from Nowra to Narooma, where timber regrowth is faster. Increased logging of western NSW will be unsustainable at this rate and will cause species extinction. Bird populations in this area include 33 threatened endangered species and 16 rare bird species.

In addition, the proponent wants another 30,000 tons per year from local forests, so Newnes State Forest with old growth forest will be logged. Fluxwood, or woodchips, are added to charcoal to add oxygen in the smelting process. Newnes State Forest has been part of the proposed Greater Blue Mountains National Park since l932. The Society advocates the inclusion of Newnes State Forest into the Gardens of Stone National Park.

There will be an adverse impact on Cox's River Catchment. The proposal is vague about groundwater runoff which will flow into the Cox's River. Cooling water with biocides are to be discharged into the Wallerawang sewerage plant, adversely affecting the decomposition process and reducing water quality in the Cox's River.

Rail transport has been rejected. Road transport is to be used to transport chemicals such as LPG and liquid oxygen from Sydney along the Great Western Highway.

The proponent opts for the largest allowable vehicles to transport material such as silicon to Port Botany. B-doubles will be used to transport quartz, timber and charcoal on all roads west, south and north of the smelter. Whilst B-doubles are not allowed on the Great Western Highway at present, it is clear that they are the preferred choice of transport. B-doubles are 25m in length, with a capacity of 38 tonnes per vehicle. Do we want these travelling through the Blue Mountains World Heritage area? - NO!

Greenhouse gas emissions are not adequately minimized. The proposal involves very high usage of electricity from Delta, with resultant CO2 emissions not calculated. The burning of timber for charcoal plus the burning of the charcoal will add to emissions and is very old and inappropriate technology. The reduction in timber supplies and loss of carbon credits also need to be considered. The proponent rejects the alternative of low ash coal which is considered suitable for use in other silicon smelter technology.

Please write urgently to the Premier, The Hon R Carr (Parliament House, Sydney) to express your objections, and ask for:

The former Premier Bob Carr rejected Charcoal Logging!

The following press release from the National Parks Association was good news on the Silicon Smelter issue.




The National Parks Association of NSW warmly welcomed the announcement by the former Premier, Bob Carr, that there will be no logging of the Goonoo and Pilliga Forests for charcoal production.

"The Premier has heard the widespread community opposition to this unacceptable mining of the forests and has intervened decisively," said Noel Plumb NPA Executive Officer. "This is a commendable decision by the Premier."

"The Government has heard the strong scientific and community concern about the proposal to take 160,000 tonnes of timber for charcoal production from western woodlands. There was never enough timber in western woodlands and the Government has now recognised this."

"We look forward to Goonoo State Forest being quickly declared a major new national park and Mallee Fowl reserve. There are no significant logging operations in the forest. With the charcoal proposal dropped there is every reason to swiftly declare the new park which will provide an important economic stimulus from nature based tourism. "

"This decision also clears the way for a genuine conservation assessment of the western woodlands and particularly of the extensive logging operations in the Pilliga which have never had an environmental impact assessment."

"NPA first raised the alarm on this issue in May last year and held the first public meeting of opposition in Dubbo in July 1999. It has been a long battle but the Premier has now decided on the side of the forests and their threatened wildlife."

"The issue however has focussed the whole community of the Central West on the enormous environmental values of the woodlands. Not only are they the last refuge in the west for many, many threatened species but they are also the last buffer against increasing dryland salinity. The issue of logging and salinity is now firmly on the agenda."

For further information: Noel Plumb 9299 0000 or 9290 2525