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Water Today Title January 22, 2020

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Update 2019/12/18
Biochar


ALBERTA COMPANY HAS THE DIRT ON SLASHING EMISSIONS, AMENDING SOIL, INCREASING FOOD SUPPLY, AND CLEANING WATER




By Suzanne Forcese

In the book, Burn: Using Fire To Cool The Earth, authors Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper state, “Once we understand carbon – and how in particular we can go from squandering carbon to banking it in a virtuous cycle of improvement called ‘carbon cascades’ we can begin to see the opportunity it presents rather than only the threat of planetary proportions we’ve all been focused on.” In her speech at COP25, in Madrid 2019, Greta Thunberg said, “We need to keep the carbon in the ground.”

Perhaps the solution is right under our feet. An often over-looked element of the carbon cycle is soil. Taking carbon out of the carbon cycle by holding it in the land for longer periods would give the Climate Change Emergency a break.

Alberta company, Pure Life Carbon, is positioning to lead the world with a solution to keeping carbon in the ground while producing the added benefits of (pesticide/ fertilizer free) increased crop production; improved nutrient cycling; soil-less agriculture; healthier livestock; cleaned up waterways and wastewater treatment plants; pollutant-free drinking water – to name a few.

One might call it ‘designer dirt’ – an advanced form of biochar that has been created and researched in collaboration with Dr. Nick Savidov of Lethbridge College. Dr.Savidov, affectionately referred to as the ‘yoda of aquaponics’, spoke at length with WaterToday about biochar (his work of almost 20 years) and its potential which is nothing short of miraculous.

“I completed a project two years ago funded by NSERC. We got remarkable results.” Dr. Savidov, who trained in the world’s most respected institutions for science and agriculture (Russian State Agricultural University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the University of Alberta), was the first researcher to suggest using carbonized agricultural by-products (biochar) as a soil-less medium for the production of greenhouse vegetables. One of his most notable contributions has been the development of a fully automated zero-waste aquaponics system – the first in the world – which has stimulated the aquaponics industry and initiated commercialization of the technology in his collaboration with Pure Life Carbon.

WaterToday dug into the topic with Gary Symons, VP of Strategy at Pure Life Carbon. Symons, who recently came on board, had scrutinized the company through the many lenses of his former experiences as an investigative journalist, entrepreneur and corporate finance consultant. “When I saw what Pure Life Carbon was doing I dropped everything to be a part of this team. At this stage of my career it had become my goal to be involved in something meaningful to the planet, something to mitigate climate change and something to address my lifelong concern – food scarcity.”

Biochar is nothing new. In fact archeological studies going back over 2000 years ago indicate native populations of Amazonians prospered in agrarian civilizations by amending nutrient poor tropical soils with the application of charcoal and organic matter. Biochar is found in soils around the world as a result of vegetation fires and historic soil management properties.

In recent years biochar has been receiving attention as one of the potentially most useful techniques for soil restoration and carbon sequestration. “Intensive study of biochar-rich dark earths in the Amazon (terra preta) has led to a wider appreciation of biochar’s unique properties as a soil enhancer….Biochar also improves water quality and quantity by increasing soil retention of nutrients and agrochemicals for plant and crop utilization. More nutrients stay in the soil instead of leaching into groundwater causing pollution.” (Biochar International)

In its production, a biomass is smoldered by pyrolysis (heated anaerobically -- ie. without oxygen). The transformation is biochar, a carbon that is recalcitrant to decomposition and has a lengthy lifespan. Biochar creates richer, healthier soil. More notably, biochar has the ability to play a major role in a carbon- balanced economy by reducing emissions from biomass that would otherwise degrade to greenhouse gases.

However, there is biochar… and there is biochar, as WT learned in a telephone conversation with internationally recognized authority on soil ecology and soil organic matter dynamics, Dr. Francesca Cotrufo, (University of Naples, Italy; and Colorado State University). “Biochar can be produced from many different types of biomass. Depending on the specific charcoal it can be highly beneficial – but you have to add the right properties for the problem you need to address and for it to make sense you have to use a renewable source.”

Pure Life Carbon has that covered.

Symons explains the differences with an analogy to plastics. “There’s the space age plastic that is very hard and could be used in the manufacture of an automobile and then you have Styrofoam – two very different plastics with two very different purposes.” Based on Dr. Savidov’s work, Pure Life Carbon uses a renewable and sustainable organic feedstock which is very hard in the pyrolysis process. This prevents the carbon skeleton from crumbling when used and retains its highly developed pore structure when converted to biochar.

“Our particular biochar is so hard it can endure for 1000 years and it does not degrade. It can be reused – not recycled but reused-- by sterilizing to remove any organic or inorganic contaminants or heavy metals and recharging it with nutrients and probiotics according to use and then put back into action either in the soil or in a soil-less medium. So for example if certain nutrients are required in a greenhouse growing environment we add that to the biochar,” Symons adds.

As a soil amendment, biochar has many attractive properties as a multi-tasker repurposing organic waste, improving yields, and reducing run-off that has the possibility of contributing to eutrophication (growth of algae) in waterways. Daniel Ronald, Pure Life Carbon’s, CTO, told WT, “By using our products we are able to hold nitrogen in place without leaching it into water.” Because of its sponge-like quality biochar absorbs water which is important during wet times to mitigate or avoid flooding. “It seems to know exactly what crops require,” says Symons. The water is released during times of drought. It also retains nutrients thus reducing the need for fertilizers.

“A square metre of our biochar has 10,000 acres of surface area. So it can hold a great deal of water and a great deal of nutrients,” Symons told WT. Or to put it another way, Dr. Savidov told us, “One gram of biochar has a surface area of 250-300 square metres. That’s larger than a surface area of a standard doubles tennis court.”

Biochar
Dr. Nick Savidov holds the equivalent surface area size of a doubles tennis court


And speaking of water – “It could completely revolutionize our water resources,” Dr. Savidov says. “If calculated properly, filters would not have to be replaced because bacteria will break down organic matter so it becomes self-maintaining.” Pure Life’s biochar is an effective new solution for treating wastewater by removing endocrine-disrupting chemicals, absorbing herbicides, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. “The potential to treat Canada’s wastewater treatment plants is enormous considering the volume that Canadian cities have to treat every day. I think it’s in the future. We have to educate industry and government.”

Symons adds that the company is looking at the possibility of building water treatment facilities. “Most people have heard of activated charcoal filters but we can produce filters that are like carbon on steroids. We can even filter out E. coli bacteria.” And then there’s future promise for fish farming. Dr. Savidov’s own work with the use of biochar in aquaculture has proven that biochar’s zero waste ability can eliminate pollutants from fish farming. “Solid waste and liquid waste in colloidal sized particles are not captured in current practices. Biochar is the only method that has worked. It is a capture and re-circulate process where solid waste is cycled back to aquatic plant life. It is the only technology with zero waste.”

To date Pure Life Carbon has been on track with its progress in soil-less agriculture. “We have been working with cannabis producers who have increased their yield by 47% in a 2-3 week shorter growing time with biochar as a growing substitute for rockwool, peat moss or coco coir (an earlier innovation by Dr. Savidov.) Rockwool does not degrade and therefore creates a real problem for the environment. Although rockwool is sterile, molds will grow – and bugs live in mold. Coco coir attracts fungus. The problem with peat moss is it releases carbon into the environment when you dig it up. Our product eradicates those issues. It also stores carbon so when you are done with it you can actually use it in the soil and improve our global warming situation.”

“We have also seen it cure cattle of gastric problems.” Definitely a plus in animal husbandry.

With an eye to feeding a hungry world, reducing carbon emissions, remediating soil, protecting ecosystems and protecting our water resources –with zero waste-- Pure Life Carbon is bringing their A Game to the next phase of their mandate.

“We have recently acquired a facility in Kelowna where we will continue our research to develop science based protocols for governments,” Ronald told WT. “Farmers could then be paid for using our products.”

Pure Life Carbon already has an outreach of support from both provincial and federal governments and is in the process of inviting further investors as they prepare to launch toward a global goal of ending the climate change emergency.

“What we are trying to do is build an economically sustainable industry with biochar’s numerous applications and zero waste,” Dr. Nick Savidov concludes. “If we don’t do it – it’s not going to happen.”

suzanne.f@watertoday.ca






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