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Exploring exciting biochar potential in Alberta

Overview

Low-value waste material from Alberta’s forestry and agricultural sectors, as well as reclaimed building materials and municipal waste, can be converted into more valuable biochar through pyrolysis. Biochar, a form of charcoal produced by heating biomass in a low or no-oxygen environment (pyrolysis), can be used in a variety of commercial applications.

Carbon-rich biochar can adjust soil pH and improve soil biology, allowing it to retain more moisture and nutrients. When applied to marginal land, biochar can increase sustainable crop yields. The material can also be physically or chemically treated to clean water, reduce odour and adsorb toxic pollutants.

While biochar’s potential is tremendous, Alberta is still in the early stages of developing its production and application expertise. Commercialization, distribution and market development within the province are all in their infancy. To date, no-one is producing the material on a commercial scale in Western Canada.

Challenge

 
 Biochar is the carbon-rich residue produced by pyrolysis, a process of burning organic matter such
 as agriculture and forestry waste, in a low oxygen environment.
  • Many potential producers and users of biochar in Alberta are unfamiliar with pyrolysis technologies, biochar and its many potential applications. Expertise in pyrolysis technologies and the use of biochar is currently limited.
  • Production costs are dependent on sufficient commercial scale and market size.
  • Alberta’s biochar supply chain is still in the early stages of development and the market is presently too small to be economically sustainable. The unusually low energy prices Alberta and the rest of the world are currently experiencing have temporarily reduced the need for biochar.
  • Markets for biochar and biochar-based products in Alberta and throughout Western Canada are evolving.

Solution

Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (AITF) has conducted research on biochar production and applications, often in collaboration with representatives from academia, industry, business and government, for more than a decade at its Vegreville and Edmonton facilities. The corporation’s researchers have:

  • Determined which feedstocks work best in Alberta (softwood, aspen and other forestry residues) and can work quite suitably with reclaimed construction materials.
  • Optimized different pyrolysis production systems. AITF operates two mobile demonstration-scale pyrolysis units supported by extensive lab facilities and analytical equipment.
  • Explored biochar’s potential as a key material in the remediation and reclamation of land and stressed waterways.
  • Established AITF as a leader in biochar research and development in Alberta and Canada.
  • Built and maintained a network of researchers, entrepreneurs, industry reps and government reps that stretches across the province in collaboration with Lakeland College in Vermillion, Alberta. The network, called the Alberta Biochar Initiative (ABI), was established in 2012.
  • To date, ABI has achieved the following key outputs and outcomes:
    • Engaged nearly 60 network partners
    • Conducted 10 technology demonstrations
    • Conducted 37 network activities, technical seminars, workshops, meetings, and tradeshows
    • Developed eight best practices
    • Completed six projects with private industry
    • Processed and characterized seven different feedstocks
    • Made three regulatory submissions to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency
    • Submitted biochar greenhouse gas protocols to the Government of Alberta

Outcome

Significant current projects include:

  • AITF continues to engage provincial and federal regulators in an effort to have biochar approved for use in Canada as a soil amendment on farms that produce food for human consumption.
  • AITF is providing $90,000 of technical support to Edmonton-based Innovative Reduction Strategies Inc. (IRSI), which plans to produce biochar by reducing waste material that would otherwise end up in landfill sites using pyrolysis technologies.
  • AITF is providing technical expertise to Emergent Waste Solutions (EWS) in the evaluation and testing of its pyrolysis process in support of the company’s permit application to Alberta Environment. EWS’s process will transform crumb rubber from recycled tires to carbon black and fuel oil.


For more information, please contact:


Don Harfield
Team Lead
Thermochemical Processing
Office: 780.632.8271
Mobile: 780.632.1717
don.harfield@albertainnovates.ca