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Governments invest to research charcoal-like product

thumb Biochar-InfographicThe federal and provincial governments invested more than a million dollars in 2012 to help promote the biochar industry in Alberta.

But commercialization in the province is still a long way off.

Biochar is a form of charcoal made from organic wastes—usually from agricultural or forestry discards. It's produced through pyrolysis, a burning process that takes place in a low oxygen environment.

Biochar-InfographicInfographic courtesy of Alberta Biochar InitiativeBiochar advocates say it has potential to boost crop yield, clean up wastewater, reclaim mine sites and reduce carbon.

That is why the federal government and the Alberta government research arm - Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, or AITF- granted $1.35 million to Lakeland College.

The grant money was used to allow the Vermillion, Alberta college to buy two mobile pyrolysis units.

Anthony Anyia, the scientist who oversees the biomass pyrolysis program at AITF, said that the mobile units allow researchers to travel directly to forestry and agricultural waste production sites in Alberta, removing the high cost of moving the waste materials to a centralized location for treatment.

Anyia said a commercial greenhouse is expected to open in Whitecourt, Alberta in 2014 that will use biochar produced from wood waste at the local pulp mill.

Biochar is also being investigated in Alberta and elsewhere for its carbon sequestration potential. Research states that the carbon in biochar resists degradation and once the material is buried in the soil, the carbon will stay sequestered for increased periods, making it carbon negative.

According to Anyia, biochar is also being considered for use in green roofs as it is significantly lighter than most soils, holds water well and supports retention of soil nutrients.

He said he hopes that biochar may be an effective treatment for oil sands and tailings ponds.

Anyia said that biochar has the potential capacity to absorb toxins from the water in tailings in the same general fashion as an activated carbon filtration system.

The product is also is expected to be less expensive than activated carbon and can be more easily sourced if made from locally available forestry waste, he added.

The International Biochar Initiative says on its website, "Successful commercialization of biochar systems will take many different pathways depending on desired outcomes, local conditions and national and international policies."

The initiative lists over 100 companies and organizations that it says to be committed to support researchers, commercial entities, farmers and gardeners interested in promoting biochar production and use.

Scott Lundy, an AITF spokesman, said that such niche applications might be where commercialization of the product first occurs.

Anyia agreed, adding that, in Alberta, "At the end of the day, commercialization will be driven by industry and economics."