Feb 17, 2011
One of tomorrow's solutions By Kathy Coatney Eric Twombly, president of Biochar Products based in Halfway, Ore., is excited about the future. His company is in the early stages of developing a biochar plant that produces two products -- biochar, used as a soil amendment, and bio-oil to be used in place of fuel oil. Most people are familiar with bio-oil, but biochar is formed when agricultural waste or biomass is converted into a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal. It's basically the type of charcoal that has been used for centuries, according to Twombly. "It is the same darn thing as charcoal that you get in your briquette, except that it doesn't have a bunch of glue in it to hold it together." Twombly spent 36 years as a range conservationist and a forester for the U.S. Forest Service and became interested in biochar. He and two associates created Biochar Products to take biochar research to the next stage. Portable Machines Currently, Twombly is testing a one-ton prototype fast pyrolysis (or gasification) biochar machine that produces both biochar and bio-oil. The biochar machine was built by Advanced Bio Refinery Incorporated (ABRI), a Canadian company. The pyrolysis of biomass can be done slowly or fast. Done slowly, the process only makes charcoal, while the fast method makes both bio-oil and charcoal. "Fast pyrolysis charcoal is more recalcitrant, which means it stays in the soil longer than slow pyrolysis charcoal, because the volatiles are removed better by the fast pyrolysis process," Twombly explains, adding he sees the real profits coming from producing both charcoal and bio-oil. And Biochar Products is currently working with ABRI to develop production 20-ton and 50-ton production machines. A 20-ton machine would sit on two 40-foot trailers with articulate rear wheels. "You could steer the rear wheels. You could turn them around on a landing. You'd sit them side-by-side," Twombly said, adding it would be easily portable. A 50-ton unit would sit on six trailers. "It probably would take two weeks to move," Twombly says, adding it would most likely be moved only a few times a year. The company anticipates the 50-ton plant would be situated in an area that has a large supply of material. "They'll move them around wherever there's a good supply, and I would say you're not going to move them from one landing to the next. Most likely, what you'll do is, you'll park one at a good centralized location, then you'll haul the biomass in short distances," Twombly said. The machines will be composed of three units -- the control unit, the reactor, and the dryer. The control unit will control the entire system and be equipped with a computer screen that displays all the temperatures in the various units. Each unit has pumps. "There's a pump that pumps the bio-oil through the system for cooling. There's a pump that the reactor biomass is moved through the system with hydraulic motors," Twombly says. There is also a pump that runs antifreeze through a radiator and through various units to cool down the char. Another unique feature is the built-in dryer. "Most biochar production systems have to depend on some usually fairly expensive external system to get the biomass dried down enough to run through it," Twombly says. "This biochar machine from ABRI can handle wet and dry material and get good results. Everybody else has a heck of a time getting their biomass in the proper form to run through the reactor, and this does it all by itself beautifully." The ABRI biochar machine also produces syngas. "If we can get our generator run by bio-oil, then we're 100 percent energy self-sufficient," Twombly says, except for the electric motors. Down the road, the company envisions the machines going out in the woods with loggers or near mills. The products could be used on site or sold. Twombly adds, "We expect that when these machines are in production, they'll run five days a week, 24 hours a day." Profitability Making biomass profitable is difficult. One of the key issues is hauling costs. "It's a very low value product," Twombly says. He estimates that while charcoal energy is only worth about $100 a ton, the charcoal in biochar form (when used as a soil amendment) will sell for around $300 a ton. And every ton of waste that runs through the biochar machine can produce 100 gallons of bio-oil -- worth about $1.25 a gallon. Biochar Products believes they may have the solution. Transporting the bio-oil is much simpler than transporting conventional oil. The bio-oil can be easily loaded onto any tank on a goose-neck trailer, and a crew in the woods could haul the bio-oil out every night. "There would be no haul costs except for just getting your crew in and out of the woods," Twombly says. The Future Twombly is hoping to have a machine fully operational within two years, and he initially sees the forest industry as one of the first to use them because of the volume of biomass they have. "I think it's probably going to be kind of a 50/50 thing. I think the farm waste community is going to be right on top of it," Twombly says, especially feedlots that need to remove manure waste. Brush removal from orchards would be another source. The future could very well be processing forest slash seven to eight months of the year and farm waste the rest of the year, Twombly says, adding the alternative would be to stockpile slash and run it in the winter. "In fact, it will only be profitable if you can run pretty much most of the year." Currently, Twombly is in negotiations with ABRI. "We've sent a whole series of engineering needs back to them… They're working on what it's going to take to put together the next generation. So by next spring, we might have the next generation machine that has a lot of the problems that we've got (now) resolved."