BERTHOUD, Colo. (AP) — James Gaspard points to a pile of charred logs, burned in the 2013 Black Forest fire, and says, “What else were they going to do with it?”
What else, he means, than shred the 50 truckloads of trees, cook the wood at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit and sell it as a high-quality carbon product called biochar, which is what his Berthoud-area company does.
Biochar Now, which the Loveland resident founded with local serial entrepreneur Bill Beierwaltes in 2011, has 40 large steel kilns operating on the 17-acre property it leases southeast of Berthoud.
Beierwaltes, the company’s former CEO and still a part-owner, has retired from active involvement, Gaspard said.
With a few million dollars of investment, Biochar would be ready to increase its Berthoud operation to 120 kilns and fire up the technology nationwide, Gaspard said.
“We’re negotiating expansion sites currently in California, British Columbia, the southeast United States,” he said.
Biochar Now’s product has a variety of uses, Gaspard said. Added to the soil, it holds and slowly releases water and fertilizer and dramatically increases yields, he said.
“Anecdotally, some of our customers are reporting doubling and tripling of yields,” he said. “It’s not a subtle effect this has on crops.”
Dropped into algae-choked lakes in long cloth “socks,” it sucks up the excess phosphorus in the water and starves the algae.
The negatively charged carbon also attracts and holds heavy metals such as arsenic and lead and is used to clean up water in mine-reclamation work. And the biochar effectively removes mercury from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, he said.
Biochar Now products have won the acclaim of producers of specialty crops such as berries, vegetables, grapes and citrus, Gaspard said, and he sells his char to two national lawn-care chains.
In Colorado, the cannabis growers are loving the results, he said.
“We greatly increase the potency and yields of the cannabis and the hemp,” he said.
The product is expensive, he said, so a farmer with acres of alfalfa wouldn’t be as inclined to use it. But the smaller producers recover their investment in one season, he said, and the product stays effective in the soil “forever.”
Biochar Now also sells its char to producers of high-end potting and gardening soils available to consumers.
A future cash crop that Gaspard is looking forward to exploiting is the carbon credit.
“If you leave the dead trees in the woods, they rot, and the carbon goes back into the air, the methane goes back into the air,” he said. “Biochar is one of the only technologies that has been verified to take gigatons out of the air ... to roll back global warming.
“We literally break the carbon cycle,” he said.
In use in other countries but not yet widely implemented in the United States, a carbon-credit system gives credits to companies such as Biochar Now that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Those companies can then sell the credits to companies that release carbon, allowing them to reduce their net carbon footprint.
So what, exactly, is biochar? Is it just charcoal?
“Yes and no,” Gaspard said. “We’re talking about a whole different grade of charcoal. We process our product at about three times the temperature of regular charcoal.”
HIGH HEAT, LITTLE OXYGEN
An electron microscope photo shows the open, honeycomb structure of Biochar Now’s product that allows it to hold five times its weight in water, attract certain molecules and serve as a home for microbes, he said.
“Regular charcoal is just baked wood that burns easier,” he said. “This is a totally different product. We probably ought to change the name.”
To create that special char, the company shreds clean waste wood — beetle-killed pine, logs from forest fires, pallets and crates and, soon, tree trimmings diverted from the Larimer County Landfill.
In 11-cubic-yard kilns fabricated in Fort Collins, the company uses propane burners to start a chemical process called pyrolysis that, in an oxygen-free state, turns the shredded wood into chunks of biochar. Introduce oxygen into the kiln, and the wood turns to ash, he said.
The process takes six to 14 hours to complete, depending on the type of wood and the moisture content. Then the kiln is left to cool for a day.
Gaspard won’t say how his company creates the oxygen-free state inside the kiln, nor will he divulge how it keeps the kiln emissions clean.
He said his previous company, Colorado Biochar, hadn’t solved the emissions puzzle, and he brought on Beierwaltes to help devise an answer.
“We struggled with that for four years and several million dollars,” he said.
SMALL, SMALLER, POWDER
After the wood is turned into char, the chunks are fed into a machine that crushes it into four sizes: chips, rice-sized medium pieces, small chips the size of sand and powder.
Depending on the size of char used, it can be added to soil before planting, spread on top of grass or even suspended in water and sprayed on, he said.