BioChar from Wood Residue

This week the British Columbia government tabled its latest budget in the Legislature. The focus was on fiscal restraint, with most attention aimed at LNG and future revenue streams from that sector. The Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations receives an additional $30 million in funding, which replaces what was slashed in the previous budget. Most of this increased funding will be used to address the timber permitting backlog.


There is also a very small amount for capital improvements in the public sector to reduce carbon emissions.
The subject of emissions is currently a hot topic for both the forest and energy industries. There is a lot of effort being put into realizing new ways to find value in reducing carbon volumes, usually in some form of tradable offset. As well, researchers are investigating outright reductions of carbon released from decomposing materials.
The production of biochar — a type of high-quality char or charcoal that can be used as a soil amendment — from woody biomass residues presents an opportunity to displace coal combustion and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
Biochar is the umbrella term which describes the material created with the application of heat and pressure, whether through thermochemical conversion or pyrolysis. The process also produces heat and gas. A type of charcoal, biochar can be made simply and cheaply from any organic material.
The process converts ‘labile’ carbon in biomass, carbon that is easily degraded and recycles continuously in the biota, into ‘recalcitrant’ carbon which resists degradation and can sequester carbon in soil for centuries. The product is identical to charcoal, except it is primarily used for soil amendment purposes. However, it has myriads of applications like cleaning water, reducing odour, and adsorbing toxic pollutants on soil, just to name a few.
Whereas decomposition and combustion return about 99 per cent of the carbon in biomass to the air, pyrolysis traps up to half of it in the form of biochar.
Another process, hydrothermal carbonization (HTC), creates ‘HTC-biochar’  or hydrochar, which can easily be separated from the water. Approximately 75 – 80 per cent of the carbon input from HTC is found in the solid phase; about 15 – 20 per cent is dissolved in the liquid phase, and the remaining 5 per cent is converted to mostly CO2 gas.
The elemental composition and calorific value of most of the HTC-outputs are very similar to brown coals.
The properties of biochar vary depending on the process and the agricultural material used. It can improve soil health and resilience in crop production, and, proponents say, may be one of the best defences against climate change through sequestration of carbon in the soil. Researchers hope to find an economical way to produce biochar that can boost crop yields, add organic matter to soil, and reclaim soil that’s become too acidic.
Work is also being done to use the gas created by the process to generate electricity or heat a farmer’s home or out-buildings.
Other higher value end-uses of biochar include soil amendment, media filtration, carbon sequestration, and energy storage. And, in extremely dry conditions, biochar retains water, making it available to plants for a longer time.
Lakeland College and Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, with assistance from Western Economic Diversification Canada and industry support, have developed the Alberta Biochar Initiative (ABI), says the agency website. The ABI is intended to develop and demonstrate technologies that will enable the large scale commercial deployment of biochar products and biochar applications, and envisions a robust commercial-scale biochar production, application and carbon trading market in Alberta by 2016.
ABI has submitted a proposal to include biochar in the American Carbon Registry, a carbon offset program.

Forest Residue as Feedstock for Biochar Production

The mission of the ABI is to support the development and commercial deployment of biochar production technologies and the generation and collation of data that assists in the establishment of commercial markets for biochar products made from local feedstock.
Biochar could also be used in existing voluntary markets or future regulatory markets for carbon sequestration, according to the non-profit International Biochar Initiative, based in Westerville, OH. Climate change advocates say using a gasifier reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emitted compared with burning the waste.
Forestry residue is a top choice due to its low value and accessibility compared with other agricultural residues such as straw and seed cleanings, researchers at Biochar Initiatives explain.
In BC, a new report by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS), a collaboration of BC’s research-intensive universities led by the University of Victoria — “Industrial and Market Development of Biochar in BC”—says biochar can substitute for coal in electricity or heat production. This provides an immediate opportunity to reduce net carbon emissions.
“BC has enough excess forest residue and wood waste to create five million tonnes of biochar per year, which would account for 270 per cent of the province’s internal coal usage,” said lead author Geoff de Ruiter, from the University of Northern British Columbia. “Substituting that amount of biochar for coal or natural gas could drop GHG emissions by 22 per cent, which would take BC two-thirds of the way toward its legislated emissions reduction target of at least 33 per cent below 2007 levels by 2020.”
Elsewhere, according to Eurostat, in 2011 the EU-27 imported carbon products worth around €22.6 billion. Meanwhile, the European Compost Network’s report, Strategies for Sustainable Management of biowaste in Europe, states that the EU generates some 80 million tonnes of wet biowaste which could be effectively recycled to carbon materials by means of Hydrothermal Carbonisation (HTC).
With this in view, the recently launched NEWAPP (‘new technological applications for wet biomass waste stream products’) project hopes to help meet this challenge by turning wet biowastes into high-value products through Hydrothermal Carbonisation. NEWAPP is funded by the European Commission, under the ‘Research for SME associations instrument of the 7th Framework Program’.