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Biochar: How converting wood waste can combat climate change

This company is combatting climate change by turning organic waste into a carbon-rich material called biochar.
Biochar: How converting wood waste can combat climate change
Posted at 12:07 PM, Jun 06, 2023

Retrieved as trash and unloaded as treasure, piles of dead wood are dropped off at this biochar facility in Berthoud, Colorado, for an opportunity at a second life. James Gaspard is the CEO of this business, Biochar Now.

"What Biochar Now does is we take non-merchantable waste wood and other organic matter, and we convert it through a chemical reaction called pyrolysis into a pure carbon. We're taking a product that has no other market, and we're creating a market for it," Gaspard said. "So at this site we take clean wood, non-merchantable clean wood, which would be pallets and crates, and dead trees, and forest fire debris, limbs. We take in wood that no one else can use."

However, the biochar process can be used with materials beyond that list.

"At other facilities we're approved to take in treated woods. We have a facility that's taking in major railroad cross ties and we convert it into the same carbon. We can take in telephone poles, we can take in painted woods, old fencing that's been treated," Gaspard said.

SEE MORE: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels saw another steep jump in 2023

Once the wood is collected, it's shredded and put into kilns with little to no oxygen, at temperatures three times as hot as fire. This thermal decomposition process turns the matter into a solid form of carbon, which prevents emissions from entering the atmosphere.

"So if they don't come here, the most you could do with them is put them in a landfill, which would then turn to methane, which is a lot worse than anything," Gaspard said. "For every ton of carbon we produce, we create 3 tons of carbon credits. So for every ton of carbon we produce, we literally sequester 3 tons of carbon dioxide that would have went into the atmosphere."

As a scientist and professor at Colorado State University, Francesca Cotrufo has been studying the benefits of biochar for years.

"So it's not just the carbon benefits the char can offer, but it's a number of environmental benefits that attach to water, fertility, contamination and so forth," Cotrufo said.

She explains biochar can be beneficial in agriculture. Farmers use heavy machinery, along with fertilizer and manure, to grow their crops. Those processes allow greenhouse gases to get released into the atmosphere. Current research says biochar is one of the best proposed management practices for achieving zero emissions, in combination with other efforts.

SEE MORE: UN report: We're losing progress in fight against climate change

"So I think biochar can be one of the many interventions that are needed ... there are many interventions that can be and need to be put into place as soon as possible because the problem is serious," Cotrufo said.

Beyond farming, biochar can be used in a multitude of products, including plastic and concrete.

"The solutions do exist. They just need to scale," Gaspard said.

But in order for it to be a realistic solution as climate change continues, both Cotrufo and Gaspard say the net needs to be wider.

"Basically to make an impact, we're going to need to be at the gigaton level. We have the sales pipeline to support that kind of carbon removal," Gaspard said. "Now it's just scaling up, so you would have hundreds of these locations around the world and then you would basically be removing gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere every year."

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