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Bountiful biochar
Vegreville Observer
May 29, 2013
By: Michael Simpson


  Biochar is a charcoal created in a low or no-oxygen environment that can be used in a variety of applications ranging from soil enhancement to oil and gas reclamation techniques including wastewater. The best part is, this potentially revolutionary new product and the process behind it is being spearheaded in Vegreville and Vermilion through a partnership between Alberta Innovates Technology Futures and Lakeland College. (Michael Simpson/Photo)

A first glance at a handful of charred material may not yield much to the imagination in terms of value, but to industry the return on that same handful can mean millions saved or millions earned.
 
It’s called Biochar, a type of charcoal produced by burning waste organic material, or biomass, through a process called pyrolysis, where heat is applied to material in a low or no-oxygen environment, resulting in the blackened remains which were on-hand for examination on May 23 at Alberta Innovates Technology Futures Vegreville (AITF) during the public unveiling of the Alberta Biochar Initiative (ABI).
 
Biochar is being touted as able to sequester carbon dioxide, adjust pH levels in soils for farmers and greenhouse operators to help increase crop yields, assist in soil reclamation efforts for partners in the oil and gas industries, and also help reclaim waste water, such as tailings ponds.

  The Auger Retort, an indirect heating unit, is displayed outside the Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (AITF) building on May 23. It’s one of two units that are currently used for demonstrating the pyrolysis processes used to create biochar from organic waste materials. (Michael Simpson/Photo)

At the ABI unveiling on May 23, two mobile units mounted on trailers were displayed, which use two different methods to achieve the same result; Auger Retort and Multi-Hearth. The Auger Retort applies indirect heat to the biomass while the Multi-Hearth applies heat directly. The units represent a year’s worth of hard work starting with an idea and taking it to a tangible process with a valuable outcome. AITF Partnered with Lakeland College in Vermilion on the project and received funding through Western Economic Diversification to help purchase and build the units.
 
The creation of commercial biochar technology will result in shipping and transportation growth, Scott Lundy said, who handles communications for the project through AITF. “Farmers and forestry industries can supply and use the stock, industrial operations can reduce their waste and turn it into something profitable, oil and gas industries can use it as a carbon-emission offset.”
 
The research teams working on the project out of Vegreville and Edmonton are already finding interest in the technology from leaders in industry who are anxious to integrate the biochar process into their operations as soon as it’s commercially available. “We’re finding interest from people in Fort Saskatchewan, from pulp mills and so forth. Initial users would be end users too who would be able to take [the] mobile units and create biochar and either use it or distribute it themselves,” ABI Senior Researcher and Business Unit Manager Anthony Anyia said.

  After multiple successful demonstrations using two different types of pyrolysis converters, ABI Senior Researcher and Business Unit Manager Anthony Anyia said the next step is locking down a balance between the cost of commercializing the technology and the price that the markets for it will bear. (Michael Simpson/Photo)

The need for mobile units arises in answer to the question of logistics involved with getting the biomass to the burners, Anyia explained. Farm operations can move the units to where their waste products are stored, or, forestry operations can set up the units beside their wood-chip piles or industrial operations such as pulp and paper mills can apply pyrolysis technology to waste-sludge left over from the creation of paper products. Anyia said a company that creates newsprint in Whitecourt has estimated that having such a piece of equipment attached to their plant will save them nearly a million dollars a year in disposal costs. Other biomass that can be converted includes paint chips or even animal carcasses.
 
With the mobile units already proving that the project has the potential to greatly diversify the economy in the province, Anyia said the next step is to figure out what the cost of the technology can be reduced to in terms of market sustainability. Currently, the idea is to use low-value biomass to create a cheaper product for resale that users would be willing to purchase, which include oil and gas companies or growing operations that produce crops.
 
Increasing value-added technology
 
This type of value added technology is something that has already been identified in studies carried out by Alberta Hub as a new way to expand economic growth for the region.
 
One such observer at the unveiling was Henk ten Wolde, a trade commissioner from the Netherlands who has an office in Edmonton. “The Netherlands is the second largest food exporter in the world, yet the country fits between Edmonton and Calgary,” ten Wolde said. “We specialize in taking a product, adding to it, and shipping it back out and reselling it. One thing that isn’t done well in Alberta is value-added products.”
 
Speaking on behalf of his country, ten Wolde said the Netherlands is interested in working with Alberta to increase its value-added industry, and took advantage of the value-added demonstration at AITF on Thursday to do some networking.
 
Locally, Don “Mr. Biochar” Harfield leads a team of researchers who process the biochar, and helps individuals such as ten Wolde, who may have questions about the technology. “The two technologies that we’ve got here are from BIG (Black is Green) out of Australia from James Joyce, and ABRI-Tech out of Quebec through Peter Fransham. We have world-wide problems such as too much carbon dioxide in the air from greenhouse gases and in the soil from poor agricultural practices and overuse of synthetic fertilizers that deplete carbon content in the soil. These technologies address both those issues.”
 
Harfield said it’s vital to be on the front end of the new technology and making it commercially vital. “We’ve got to get the carbon dioxide out of the air and back into the soil.” Harfield is the local connection for industry wanting more information on the project, and can be reached at (780) 632 8271.

  Vegreville – Fort Saskatchewan MLA Jacquie Fenske and Vegreville Mayor Richard Coleman cut the ribbon on the Alberta Biochar Initiative unveiling in Vegreville on May 23. Coleman, a former researcher in the days of the Alberta Research Council (prior to it being renamed AITF) said he’s pleased to see the project being developed locally. (Michael Simpson/Photo)