Biochar Network Expands as Knowledge Grows

August 27-28: The Alberta Biochar Initiative (ABI) hosted a production workshop at AITF’s Vegreville facility on August 27 and 28 in an effort to transfer years of operational know-how from AITF and Lakeland College to ABI partners and stakeholders.

Forty people took part in this event, with a balanced representation of industry (35%), research organizations including university, college and government (38%), and policy makers including regulators, AI-Bio Solutions, towns and cities (28%). While most participants were from Alberta, several came from further afield (British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec).

Left: AITF Vegreville’s machinist Blair Kolenosky repairs the ABRI-Tech “auger retort style” mobile biochar unit ahead of its demonstration. 
Right: Program Lead Don Harfield (centre, with dark brown hat) explains how the BiGchar “multi-hearth furnace style” mobile biochar unit operates to workshop participants on August 27.

Barry Mehr, AITF’s VP of Food, Forestry and Agriculture, kicked things off by providing participants with a summary of AITF’s work over the last 10+ years on biochar research and commercialization, an overview of what ABI has accomplished in the last 2.5 years, and his assessment of where ABI and biochar are heading next.

“Don’t be discouraged by the fact biochar is costly to manufacture and lacks a market and supply chain right now,” said Barry. We’re still working to create a successful and lucrative biochar industry in Alberta. When you stop to think of it, all kinds of things that are in common use today were considered ‘pie in the sky’ or unfeasible just 10 years ago. It takes vision, time, effort, skill, resources and patience to assemble all of the pieces needed to achieve success.”

Over the last decade, AITF has become internationally recognized as a leader in biochar R&D by:

  • successfully moving its applied R&D from lab scale to pilot scale, and on to demonstration scale through the ABI
  • steadily accumulating comprehensive analytical facilities and expertise in “all things biochar”
  • conducting extensive greenhouse and growth chamber trials for agronomic benefit
  • functionalizing biochar for specialty applications (such as tailing process waters treatment and alternative activated carbons)

With the aid of a financial model, Peter Fransham  from ABRI-Tech Inc. demonstrated how the profitability of a biochar production plant depends on various factors such as feedstock cost, scale of operation and their relative sensitivity. The model is available for free on ABI’s website.

Stephen Legaree from Alberta Urban Garden demonstrated how he inoculates his biochar before applying it to the soil in his garden. Approximately 25 gardeners have replicated his experimental design to compile empirical evidence on the effects of biochar on plant growth.

Of course, no biochar production workshop would be complete without an equipment demonstration or two.

Left: The BiGchar mobile biochar unit is started by igniting biomass in one of the unit’s hearths with a propane torch. 
Right: ABRI-Tech Vice President of Technology Peter Fransham (right) tells workshop participants how his company’s “auger retort style” mobile biochar unit works on August 28.

Participants were treated to a demonstration of ABI’s BiGchar unit on August 27. The “multi-hearth furnace style” unit is started by firing up the first batch of biomass (in this case ground wood) on the hearth using a hand-held propane torch.  When it’s time to shut it down, all an operator needs to do is stop the feeder belt that carries the biomass feedstock to the hearth. While a single operator can run it, the unit works best when another person occasionally assists because feedstock needs to be replaced and biochar needs to be moved. The unit produces clear and transparent emissions when it is in steady-state operation. It produces a few minutes of smoke whenever it is started or stopped – just as diesel engines do.

The following day, 20 participants observed the larger, heavier ABRI-Tech unit in operation. The “auger retort style” unit, which underwent major repairs to its hearth in the days leading up to this workshop, generally performed well. On its re-commissioning run, the feedhopper didn’t operate smoothly because of technical issues related to the slightly oversized feedstock being used. While it didn’t achieve steady-state operation in the demonstration, it gave participants valuable insight into how your equipment design dictates the feedstock types and sizes. The unit is quite forgiving when it comes to handling moist feedstock and finer materials compared with the BiGchar unit, but it has a harder time handling larger pieces of biomass.

The workshop was a success because it brought a diverse group of interests related to biochar together. Some of stakeholders, including Bill Gibbs from Gibbs Custom Sawmill, are starting to work on biochar production. Bill and his father are currently developing their own home-built biochar production system to augment their sawmilling operation.

Others, like Lallemand Plant Care, are looking at potential biochar applications. Lallemand is currently investigating biochar as a carrying agent for their soil inoculant.

The Town of Vegreville is currently exploring three ways it might showcase biochar’s potential in the area of land reclamation. It might be used to:

  • improve soil quality in the Columbria Garden in the town’s cemetery
  • improve soil quality along 47 Street North where new trees will soon be plantedreduce land fill by converting construction and demolition waste into biochar

We believe ABI is heading in the right direction and that momentum is building. We look forward to continuing to grow Alberta’s biochar stakeholder network in late October, when ABI holds its next Technical Seminar in Calgary.

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