Biochar, a soil enhancement that is produced from pyrolysis or gasification of biomass, is quickly becoming a hot commodity for the agricultural sector. In 2020, the global biochar industry was valued at $170.9 million, and in 2030 that number is expected to hit $587.7 million, according to analysis done by Allied Market Research, Portland, Oregon.
For Paul Kuhar, vice president of Champion Waste & Recycling in Dallas, the potential opportunities for biochar are endless. However, the company got into the market more out of necessity.
Champion Waste & Recycling grinds most of its wood scrap to produce mulch, biomass and other landscaping products. However, excess material led the company to find a new way to process it. “This business kind of fell on our lap,” he says.
Kuhar says he began researching biochar. With no one he knew in the area producing the material, he decided the market in northern Texas was untapped. In 2020, he purchased a carbonizer—a wood debris conversion system—and has been experimenting with producing biochar ever since.
The best materials for biochar production are pallets and wooden planks, Kuhar says.
Tom Miles, executive director of the United States Biochar Initiative, Golden, Colorado, adds that wooden packaging, wooden frames from demolished buildings and materials such as grass and straw also make for good biochar.
However, Miles says wood that’s been treated with chemicals, such as the preservative chlorine phenol, should not be used because of the health and safety risks it poses.
The costs associated with Kuhar’s biochar business are small, with his biggest expenses being fuel for the carbonizer and salaries for the two workers who run the unit. This includes an excavator operator to load material into the machine and someone to monitor the air levels.
“The costs associated with running a biochar operation depend on the size of the operation,” Miles says, adding that economies of scale enable higher production at a lower cost per ton. Processing costs include those associated with recovering the feedstock through a material recovery facility, if required, as well as those associated with the operation of the thermal conversion system, he says.
Right now, Kuhar has no plans to sell the biochar he’s producing. Instead, he is providing biochar to the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association, Chicago, to assist in studies around sequestering hydrogen sulfide gas in landfills. Research from the University of Florida also shows the potential benefits of using biochar and biochar-blended fines in landfill applications to neutralize per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
“We’re still researching it because this is so new, especially in our industry in this area, that we’re having to get with people to talk about ways biochar can be used,” Kuhar says. “Plus, with the amount of wood we put through the process, we don’t make enough to sell.”
Miles says the return on investment for biochar production is typically about 20 percent to 30 percent.
While Kuhar hasn’t sold his biochar products, he says several markets are interested in the product, including organic composting. Other markets with growing demand for biochar include stormwater management and landscaping applications.
Expanding end markets
Biochar is experiencing the most growth in soil markets, which accounted for more than two-fifths of the global biochar market in 2020. This is expected to grow by a compound annual growth rate of 13.5 percent from 2021 to 2030, Allied Market Research says.
According to the International Biochar Initiative, Canandaigua, New York, adding biochar to soil reduces leaching of nitrogen into groundwater, may reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, increases cation-exchange capacity to improve soil fertility, moderates soil acidity, increases water retention and increases beneficial soil microbes.
As Construction & Demolition Recycling previously reported, beyond soil applications, biochar also has been used in environmental remediation for purposes such as sewage and water treatment and oilfield and land remediation. It also has been used as a nonsoil carbon product in building products and other applications.
Tapping into resources
While the market is growing, Miles and Kuhar say many factors should be taken into account when considering adding biochar production, including local regulations, markets and equipment.
Kuhar says one of the top priorities when considering investing in biochar is learning local regulations and codes. Making sure the operation does not interfere with local zoning ordinances or codes permitting biomass burning should be a company’s first step.
Learning about biochar markets also is important because, without knowledge of where the product can be sold, a business can’t properly budget for how much or the quality of biochar that needs to be made.
“Another thing to consider is that only 20 to 25 percent of biomass is going to come out as biochar,” Miles says. “The rest is going to come out as energy. If there’s not enough value in the biochar you’re selling, you have to recover value from the energy through power.”
Kuhar adds that knowing the equipment you’re using and being patient with it is another important aspect. The equipment has a difficult learning curve and it takes time to make adjustments that fit an operation’s needs, he says.
Kuhar advises companies to have a backup plan in case the investment doesn’t pan out
He says the most important thing a company can do is research and network with other companies that operate similar operations.
“Before we invested in the equipment, we went out and watched other operations make the product,” Kuhar says. “The best thing you can do is reach people that you can have an honest conversation about the business and where the setbacks and successes are.”
The author is the digital editor for the Recycling Today Media Group. He can be reached at email@example.com.