The lumber yard in Enfield held hundreds of stacked spruce and fir logs at the turn of the new year, ready to be transformed into boards and used to build whatever a carpenter might dream up. But a sawmill’s work also produces wood chips — billions of them — and they are often either left unused, sent to pulp and paper mills, or turned into biofuel.
But a new use is coming into view: biochar.
Biochar is a grainy, charcoal-like substance that can be used to rejuvenate soil, helping it to hold on to water, reduce the need for fertilizer and capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
People around the world have historically relied on amending soil with charcoal, but turning biochar into a business is another matter altogether.
That is what Portland-based Standard Biocarbon Corp. is doing in Enfield, where it is building a plant to produce high-quality biochar from wood chips by springtime. It is anticipated to be the first time that biochar will be produced for commercial purposes on a mass scale in New England, said Fred Horton, the owner of the company.
Standard Biocarbon is setting up its plant on a purchased, two-acre parcel located on the same site as Pleasant River Lumber, which will provide the wood chips to be turned into biochar. The foundations for Standard Biocarbon’s prefabricated building were raised in Enfield on Wednesday. It received a shipment of its German-made machines just a few days before Christmas.
“We expect to move the machines into the building in February … and start production in the April to May timeframe,” Horton said. “We can deliver the biochar by early spring.”
The plant was initially planned for the former Great Northern Paper mill site in East Millinocket, but setting up at the Pleasant River Lumber site reduced shipping costs and provided a benefit for both companies, said Horton and Pleasant River Lumber operators.
The plant will produce about 100 tons of biochar a month initially, Horton said, and he expects to begin selling to local farms for agricultural use in the spring, expanding as the market grows.
In Maine, some companies interested in turning wood chips into electricity and other products either over-promised or didn’t materialize. Similar developments are often met with skepticism by the forestry industry.
Horton’s company, however, plans to start small and expand its production as demand grows.
Jason Brochu, a co-owner of Pleasant River Lumber, is excited about the plant setting up onsite and the new market it could create. The process through which the biochar is created produces waste-heat that can be supplied to Pleasant River Lumber to dry its wood.
“We’ve been approached by other companies to use our biomass for different purposes, and they talked about these large-scale projects that don’t get off the ground,” Brochu said. “We have 100 percent confidence in this.”
Horton believes this emerging industry could put Maine on the map for biochar because of the state’s abundant forests, forestry industry and excess biomass.
“It is really timely for the world we’re in now,” Horton said. “We can produce gigatons of this stuff here in Maine, in a clean way.”
Biochar is a charcoal-like substance made from burning organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes, in this case wood chips.
“It looks granulated, like ground coffee,” Horton said. The carbon-rich, organic material can last in the soil for thousands of years, and it sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.
“We get credited three tons of carbon removal for every ton of biochar, approximately,” Horton said.
Biochar is produced through a process called pyrolysis, which involves high temperatures and the absence of oxygen. The kilns are initially fired up by oil or gas to begin the decomposition process of the wood chips.
In Maine, biochar is already produced as a byproduct at power plants. But, depending on the source, it can have high traces of heavy metals, which is bad for the soil. Horton intends to have more quality control by producing biochar on a site where he can track the source of wood chips.
The machines that Horton’s company will use to produce the biochar are manufactured by the German company PYREG.
“It’s the first PYREG machine making biochar in the United States,” Horton said. PYREG recently set up its first United States office in Portland.
The two-story high machine has three main components: the reactor chamber, furnace and filter.
First, the furnace is fired up with propane until it heats up and the wood starts to shed a biogas, called syngas, or volatile hydrocarbons. They are filtered out and sucked up through a ceramic filter. The propane is then turned off, and the material continues to burn at 1,600 degrees Celsius. The chips are fed in, and they work their way through an airlock chamber, to keep out oxygen, until mostly carbon is left. The product made through this process, biochar, is more than 80 percent carbon. It gets sprinkled with water to prevent combustion and is put into sacks.
There’s excess heat leftover through this process, which goes out as steam. Horton intends to supply it to Pleasant River Lumber to dry its lumber.
“We need heat to dry the lumber in our kilns, so if they can generate steam and feed it back to us then that’s an efficiency gained for both of us,” said Mike LeBrun, the general manager of the Enfield site of Pleasant River Lumber.
‘Provide a pure product’
The source of wood chips is key to producing high-quality, pollutant-free biochar to use on soil.
Yongjiang Zhang, an assistant professor of applied plant physiology at the University of Maine, has been leading a study for more than five years about how wild blueberry crops respond to climate change and environmental stresses. He has found that applying biochar is more effective than regular mulching for mitigating drought effects, which is increasingly becoming an issue for blueberries and other crops in Maine.
Biochar is highly porous and can increase the water-holding capacity of the soil. Building up the health of the soil, in turn, also can help prevent erosion and protect groundwater quality.
Zhang believes that biochar is generally safe for the environment and doesn’t find per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” to be a huge concern when it comes to the organic substance.
“But I do understand that if we are to use this on farmland, then we have to be completely sure that it doesn’t have high levels of heavy metals or PFAS,” he said.
Through the course of his research, Zhang plans to test Standard Biocarbon’s biochar and other biochar sources for heavy metals and PFAS, before applying biochar to the field to test its effectiveness. If the research is successful, biochar could be an affordable solution available on a mass scale for wild blueberry farmers to apply to their fields, Zhang said.
Standard Biocarbon will use a tracking system to trace its product from the forest to the mill.
Each 2-cubic-yard sack of biochar will have individual barcodes for buyers, Horton said. The barcodes will provide information about the product such as the date of production, how it was processed and results of tests for any contaminants.
“We will sample, test and maintain the results for every production run,” he said. “Our inventory tracking system will maintain all the data about the production of the biochar, the feedstock and test results.”
The quality is assured by the forester in the woods and Pleasant River Lumber’s licensed wood scaler who will verify that the logs meet their specific requirements, LeBrun said.
“We own some of the land, saw logs in the woods, truck it in our own truck, and we saw and dry it with our own equipment,” LeBrun said. “We can track the supply and provide a pure product for Standard Biocarbon.”
The spruce and fir lumber at the Enfield site comes from Reed Plantation in Aroostook County, which is owned by the Brochu family, and the rest comes from as far as Machias to the Golden Road by Baxter State Park, LeBrun said.
The PYREG technology that Standard Biocarbon will use has been tested in California for destroying PFAS, Horton said.
“1,600 degrees Celsius is the combustion temperature of the furnace. If there was PFAS, it would be burned,” he said.
Where the project stands
If all goes as planned, the plant should be up and running by April or May.
“We expect to meet our timeline,” Horton said.
Standard Biocarbon has secured its funding by raising a total of $2 million in equity from individuals mostly in Maine. It also received a $998,588 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The company received $100,000 in 2021, and more recently a $500,000 grant, from the Maine Technology Institute.
Standard Biocarbon has also sold carbon removal credits to a company in Canada called Carbon Streaming Corp. to deliver 90,000 tons of carbon removal credits over the lifetime of the plant. The credits will be sold by Carbon Streaming to companies seeking to offset their carbon emissions.
“We are paid money in return for delivering future carbon removal credit,” Horton said.
In addition to securing funding, the company has received all necessary state permits, including its air emissions license.
“I do not recall any major emissions concerns with this plant,” said Jane Gilbert, the air licensing program manager at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Quality Bureau.
“It’s a new facility with a process that is new to Maine,” she added.