LEBANON, Ore. — A blast of intense heat escapes the Carbonator 500 as Anders Ragnarsson opens the combustion chamber, revealing leftover tree limbs, branches and woody debris from a recent timber harvest engulfed in bright orange flames.
Normally, loggers burn this type of unprofitable forest waste in large slash piles, but the Carbonator 500 — a behemoth mobile system created by Ragnarsson and his company, Ragnar Original Innovation — is designed to convert the material into biochar, a valuable substance with serious potential for improving soil.
Ragnarsson and his business partner, Matt O’Connor, were on hand Jan. 30 for a demonstration of the Carbonator 500 on private timberland near Lebanon, Ore. Other demonstrations were also held across Oregon, including stops in Wallowa, Fossil and Lakeview.
“Everybody is looking for a way to find a solution for the reduction of woody debris that doesn’t have a viable market,” said O’Connor, director of the carbonizer division at Ragnar Original Innovation. “We are sequestering all of that carbon that can then be utilized in a beneficial manner, with greatly reduced emissions.”
Making biochar is not an original concept. The history of the substance dates back to prehistoric Amazonian tribes in South America. European settlers came to know it as “terra preta,” or “black earth.”
Carbon-rich biochar is now proving in contemporary research to boost crop production, since it acts like a sponge in soil to soak up and hold water. As a soil amendment, biochar can also raise the pH levels of overly acidic farmland caused by applying ammonium nitrogen fertilizers.
Limited production and high cost remain key barriers for increasing biochar in the marketplace. Based in New Hampshire, Ragnar Original Innovations developed the Carbonator 500, capable of burning 15-20 tons of forest waste per hour, with 5-10 percent converted into biochar.
Ragnarsson said he expects to build between 30 and 35 units in 2019, as more companies and forest managers learn about the benefits of making biochar.
“The trick here is not to burn up all the carbon in the wood, because then it would go up in the atmosphere,” Ragnarsson said.
The Carbonator 500 is built like a tank, and operates by remote control. Because it can drive directly to the site, Ragnarsson said it eliminates additional transportation costs of hauling woody debris from the forest.
Slash is dropped into the combustion chamber, which burns the wood at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. A 148-horsepower diesel engine powers fans that create an air curtain around the fire, keeping in smoke and emissions while keeping out oxygen — a process known as pyrolysis.
As the material burns, it breaks up and falls beneath a grate into a chamber where it is quenched in water to stop combustion. Auger conveyors remove the finished biochar from the vehicle, where it can be cooled and collected.
Walking Point Farms, a company owned by disabled veterans that brokers with government agencies and partners to provide agricultural products such as biochar, fertilizer and herbicides, has expressed keen interest in the Carbonator 500.
Chris Tenney, vice president of business operations, said they are working with Ragnar Original Innovation to help the technology gain a foothold in the Pacific Northwest.
“This thing could offer solutions for just about anyone here who touches biomass,” Tenney said.
Jim Archuleta, biomass and wood innovation coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service in Portland, has worked with a nonprofit organization, Forest 2 Farm, interested in providing forest waste as a source of material for biochar that can then be used on farms.
Archuleta said the Carbonator 500 is promising because it can create a finished or near-finished product in the woods.
“This is an opportunity to create a bridge from the forest to the farm,” Archuleta said.
Tom Miles, an energy and engineering consultant in Portland, works with the International Biochar Initiative and helped to schedule the Carbonator 500 demonstrations in Oregon. He said there are currently about 135 biochar producers in the U.S., though he expects that number to grow.
“We have a huge educational challenge,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get people interested in what biochar is, and how it can help.”