Startup Profile: Biochar Engineering: Sequestering Carbon and Sustaining Agriculture
April 9, 2011 | Robert Puro
UPDATE – 05/10/2011 – Biochar Engineering Corporation has sold its IP and R&D facility to a private company that has the capital necessary to rapidly scale biochar technology. All other company activity, including research support services, biochar sales, and the commercialization of the existing pilot-scale technology has been spun off into a new company, Biochar Solutions Inc.
ORIGINAL STORY – 04/09/2011 – What if I told you that charcoal could remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and act as a carbon sink. Or that charcoal has the potential to play a major role in the future of agriculture through its ability to restore and invigorate topsoil that is essential for all crop growth. You’re probably rolling your eyes right now.
Yes, charcoal can be used for barbecuing a steak, or for generating electricity, but the promise it holds when buried in the earth to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as its ability to sustain agriculture is what it will ultimately become known for.
A nascent commercial market for Biochar, the name created to describe charcoal that is used in the manner described above rather than for fuel, is beginning to sprout. To learn more about this market, Seedstock recently spoke with Jonah Levine, VP of Business Development for Biochar Engineering Corporation (BEC), a Colorado-based company that develops biochar production equipment and sells biochar.
Background on Biochar
Biochar has actually been around for thousands of years. Pre-Columbian Amazonian natives first created it by burning their agricultural waste in pits that they covered with soil. It is believed that they intentionally used the resulting biochar to increase soil productivity in constrained or infertile soil.
In studies, biochar has been shown to both prevent the leaching of nutrients essential to plant growth and to increase soil water retention, in turn greatly reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.
Biochar can also sequester carbon from agricultural waste, woody biomass, dying trees, or any other organic matter that naturally releases carbon into the atmosphere as it decomposes. Studies have shown that approximately 50% of the carbon that would otherwise be generated by natural organic matter decomposition or from slash and burn agriculture can be sequestered in a highly stable form in biochar.
Biochar Engineering Corporation (BEC)
Today, biochar is produced and synthesized by using industrial grade pyrolysis systems. Think of these systems as industrial strength kilns that heat agricultural waste, woody biomass, and other organic matter to elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen in order to produce biochar.
Biochar Engineering Corporation (BEC), which designs, develops and fabricates pyrolysis systems that produce biochar, is among the first companies to apply such technology to the biochar market. According to Levine, the company currently produces a range of products from small batch units that can process as little as 10 lbs of woody biomass per hour to larger continuous mobile units that can be deployed on site and process up to ¼ ton per hour.
BEC also sells char by the pallet (250 lb sacks), barrel (90 lbs of char dust or 50lbs or char chips), box (25 lb), and sample bag (1 lb) to researchers, backyard gardeners, environmentalists, or to anyone else who might be interested in biochar. Levine says BEC sold nearly 50,000 lbs of biochar last year and hopes to sell 100,000 lbs this year.
BEC’s largest customers are government agencies in the U.S. and Canada who contract the company to aid in land reclamation (biochar is used in distressed or contaminated soil to decrease leaching, stimulate soil health, and encourage ground cover growth that impedes further erosion), forest management (converting dying trees that would otherwise release C02 into the environment either naturally or from incineration into biochar), and biomass management.
Customers also include mining and oil & gas companies, which are required to perform reclamation on land damaged by their operations. Biochar produced by BEC has been shown to be highly effective in absorbing oil.
BEC also sells biochar to soil blending companies to use as an additive in their soil products.
Biochar and Commodity Agriculture
According to Levine, “commodity growers typically have decent soil with good C02 content” and are not yet motivated to purchase biochar given its hefty price tag of around $1/lb. Levine does not dissuade ag producers from purchasing biochar, but for BEC “right now the best market and the best prices for biochar are where there is no carbon” in the soil. This is where biochar can have the biggest impact in its ability to kick-start the carbon cycle in recalcitrant soil.
Levine believes that ag producers growing with resource constraints (nutrient and water deficient soil) will be the early adopters of biochar for use in commodity agriculture.
The Biochar Market
The biochar market is in the early stages of growth and has yet to scale, but the potential is huge. Levine says that the “amount of land that could benefit supersedes production.” BEC sells every pound of biochar that it produces and is essentially growing the market at the rate that its equipment can produce biochar. Levine says the market is growing organically, and will continue to grow as biochar becomes less difficult to produce and obtains more scientific and engineering credibility. The market will also need to institute quality standards as not all biochar is created equally.
Levine hopes that in the next twelve months BEC will ad 4 – 8 new ¼ ton per hour capacity mobile production units, and produce 100,000 lbs of biochar. He also hopes that the number of people of talking about biochar increases exponentially.
BEC’s ultimate goal is to provide cost effective solutions to transform waste biomass into biochar to increase soil fertility and sequester carbon that would otherwise enter the atmosphere. As the U.S. alone generates 1 billion tons of agricultural waste per year, 368 million tons of forest product waste, and another 60 million tons of wood waste from the Rocky Mountain pine beetle epidemic, there is ample opportunity for BEC to achieve its goal and play a leading role in the biochar market.
 Biochar Sequestration In Terrestrial Ecosystems – A Review, by Johannes Lehmann, John Gaunt, and Marco Rondon. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global change 403, 404 (2006).