Out of the Atmosphere and into the Soil: How re:char Powers Development with Carbon
This post is one in a series of profiles of the 2010 class of Echoing Green Fellows. Through its two-year fellowship program, Echoing Green provides start-up capital and technical assistance to young, emerging social entrepreneurs to help them launch their organizations and build capacity.
While Jason Aramburu was a student at Princeton University, he went to Panama with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to work on a soil science project. That’s when he first heard about biochar.
“It’s a really ancient concept. Farmers in the ancient Amazon would make charcoal and bury it in the ground. They called it terra preta — dark earth, and they did it because they knew it worked to improve crop yield,” Aramburu, now 25, tells me.
That got Aramburu to thinking. After working with the poverty-stricken farmers in rural Panama, he realized that if he could figure out a way to supply small farmers in the developing world with biochar, he would not only help them to bridge the gap between famine and feast, he could also work to offset carbon and help fight global climate change.
Biochar from biomass
How? In order to make biochar, you need to heat biomass – environmental waste such as corn husks, wood waste and animal waste — in the absence of oxygen – a process called pyrolysis. It’s carbon negative: all the carbon that would have been released as CO2 gets captured in the charcoal instead.
“If we take the waste and instead of burning it, we turn it into charcoal and then we bury that charcoal in the ground, research shows that globally that actually works as a carbon sequestration mechanism. So the carbon that would have been released if we burned the stuff or just left it to rot, it’s actually immobilized in the soil. It can’t get out.”
In 2008, a year after he graduated from Princeton, Aramburu started re:char, a company that designs and builds equipment that makes biochar.
“Our model is a mobile unit actually that can be moved from farm to farm, it’s a trailer mounted unit and that allows us to process the waste actually on site. Part of the reason that people don’t do anything with biomass waste is that it’s very hard to move. It has virtually no value. So one of the big innovations of our technology is that it’s mobile so that we can actually take it to where the waste is and convert it on site.”
For an in-depth understanding of how re:char works, take a look at this video:
Aramburu, whose company is based in Austin, Texas, is now working with subsistence farmers in Kenya, but that wasn’t his original plan.
“Initially I was interested in agriculture markets in the U.S. and clean technology in the United States,” Aramburu tells me. But he soon realized there were too many roadblocks, and he wanted to get his idea off the ground.
“It’s hard to compete with a fossil fuel-based economy,” he explains. “So it occurred to me that why couldn’t we take this technology to the developing world where the alternative isn’t a nitrogen fertilizer that comes from natural gas, the alternative is nothing.”
In fact, most farmers in East Africa subsist on one to two dollars a day. “It’s not that they don’t know about fertilizer, and it’s not that they don’t know that new farming techniques exist, they just don’t have the money.”
A big question for Aramburu is how to make biochar accessible and marketable to the people who need it most. One organization that Aramburu hopes to work with is One Acre Fund, which I wrote about earlier this year.
“There are models, like the One Acre Fund’s micro-credit model that can bring fertilizer to people, and so we’ve been talking with [One Acre Fund founder] Andrew [Youn] about piloting biochar in some of their plots because we believe that biochar offers a low cost alternative to chemical fertilizer.”
But why bank on biochar?
“When you add this product to the soil, it’s almost like putting a sponge in the soil. Charcoal is very absorbent, it holds on to whatever it’s in contact with. So that means once you’ve applied biochar and then you add water, fertilizer, any kind of additive, the biochar is just going to hold on to it,” Aramburu explains. The results are not only impressive, they’re having a real effect on farmers’ livelihoods.
“We’re finding that adding this product can have an effect anywhere from a 125% increase in crop yield, in some cases up to 200% improvement in crop yield, depending on the soil conditions, the type of crop, and how much biochar you apply.”
There’s also a very real possibility that biochar can actually offset CO2 emissions. A recent study published in the journal Nature found that biochar has the potential to offset about 12% of the world’s carbon emissions.
When Aramburu started working with the Kenyan farmers, he realized that biochar can also be used for cooking and heating fuel.
“In places like Kenya, about 80% of people rely on fuel charcoal as an energy source. Cutting down trees and turning them into charcoal is actually about a billion-dollar business in East Africa. But the problem is that it’s led to massive deforestation. We realize the biochar we produce can also be turned into charcoal briquettes and be used in stoves that millions of people rely on.”
Taking biochar to Haiti
Aramburu’s newest venture takes him to Haiti in January, where his company will produce biochar to be used in just that way. Re:char is collaborating with an NGO already on the ground that distributes charcoal cookstoves.
“Haiti is actually in worse shape than East Africa right now. They have very poor soil, they are totally deforested and the consequence is that they have about double the charcoal prices of East Africa. People in Kenya pay about 10 cents a kilo for charcoal, Haitians pay about 20 cents a kilo. And many of them are subsisting on below a dollar a day. So it’s a very interesting application and we think this will really solidify the business case for what we’re doing.”
Aramburu has hope to expand from Africa and Haiti to Latin America – and beyond, turning the farms re:char works with into de facto carbon-negative power plants.
“Ultimately I don’t think one organization can single handedly solve this problem or reach 12% offset, but our goal is to get to the point where we are engaging a million farmers globally and that will easily take 5 years or more, but that’s our long term goal. And if we can do that, that could mean offsetting 10 million tons of CO2 annually, which is not insignificant.”
Photo courtesy of re:char