Out of the Ashes: Researchers Looking to Turn ‘Trash’ Into ‘Treasure’

Out of the Ashes: Researchers Looking to Turn ‘Trash’ Into ‘Treasure’

By Matt Hargreaves, Editor, Countryside Magazine

Innovation is a buzzword that is tossed around in many fields of work, including high-tech, business, and automobiles. But what about the innovation that literally benefits the fields of agriculture? Hardly resting on the laurels of farming practices of their ancestors, researchers and farmers are working together to stay on the cutting edge of discovery.

Despite the constant drive for innovation, it can be difficult to fully appreciate successes found along the way until THE big moment arrives. But such is the mission for Darren McAvoy of USU Forestry Extension and folks at Amaron Energy out of Salt Lake City. The two groups have been working since 2010 on ways to create sustainable energy from existing natural, renewable resources.

“It’s a long road and it might not work out, but that’s the price of innovation,” McAvoy said. “I’m trying to make value out of trash, and it’s hard.”

Their current project has many people talking about the potential for reducing huge amounts of dead biomass in our nation’s forests, rehabilitating our rangelands, improving productivity for farmers and generating profitable by-products.

So far, the project is all going up in smoke – but that’s the point.

McAvoy and the team of researchers has been working on a process known as pyrolysis, in which biomass products (typically pinyon-juniper wood) are superheated in the absence of oxygen, in order to create three products – biochar, bio oil, and syngas. USU Extension partnered with Amaron Energy to create a mobile pyrolysis machine that can be taken to sites with excess biomass to be converted. Making the machine mobile eliminated one of the early challenges of biomass – the cost of transporting materials.

The main result of this super-cooking of woody products is to produce a charcoal-like product called biochar, which could be applied to rangelands, gardens, farms or other landscapes to vastly improve the amount of water that the ground will hold. This could have dramatic impacts for arid landscapes in the west.

“It’s like putting a million of microscopic sponges in the ground,” McAvoy said. “Increasing organic matter increases the holding capacity for water, making land more resilient to extreme weather. This isn’t a fertilizer – there are no nutrients by itself – but this provides a structure for the soil to retain water.”

Current research is being done by USU Extension Horticulture Agent Britney Hunter at the USU Botanical Center in Kaysville to see what impact adding biochar could have on tomatoes, melons, and lettuce for increasing microbial activity, decreasing soil compaction and reducing disease problems in the root systems.

The research is in the early stages, with more information needed to draw conclusions, but both Hunter and McAvoy have been pleased with initial results.

The Other Stuff

While the biochar derives much of the attention with the biomass researchers and farmers, the byproducts of bio oil and syngas can’t be ignored. Syngas is able to be used to produce synthetic fuels, but also holds the promise of powering the machines used to make the biochar.

While it may seem like ‘pie-in-the-sky’ to think of bio oil being used to create glues for plywood or made into plastics you carry around in your wallet, readers should remember the thousands of products we use everyday that come as byproducts of the petroleum industry. Everything from ink and solvents, to aspirin and golf balls come as a result of refining oil. Why couldn’t the same thing happen with bio oil?

Challenges Remain
Despite the allure of promise, challenges certainly remain in the biomass project in order to be applied in the large scale. First of all, the mobile pyrolysis lab has been limited to processing about 20 tons of biomass a day. While this may seem like a lot, compared with the mounds of biomass that exist in our forests, the challenge is daunting.

“We have huge piles of [wood] available that is currently being wasted. Piles bigger than buildings of this low-value wood,” McAvoy said. “One machine will not even make a scratch, but if this technology were widely adopted and there were many machines, we could make a dent.”

Another challenge is the application and the cost. Current costs associated with biochar make it cost-prohibitive for wide-scale (aerial) application on rangeland, and use on lower-value per acre crops like alfalfa isn’t feasible.

“It’s just not cost effective in the short-term,” McAvoy said. “But it could be for high-value crops like produce. This stuff stays on forever, so you won’t have to reapply every year like fertilizer.”

Competition from other fuel sources is a challenge for the syngas, with oil prices at historic lows. Because of the low cost of oil, McAvoy and others are working to find other uses of the syngas besides fuel.

While McAvoy acknowledges the challenges in both the science and the economics, he remains undeterred in his search.

“Real world applied research is messy. It’s not as black & white as it may be in a lab,” McAvoy said. “But this is all about innovation. The cost of innovation is a lot of dead-ends.”

McAvoy credits the support of USU Extension, which he said certainly supports the process of innovation.

10,000 Ways That Won’t Work
Positive results have yet to yield the ‘pot of gold’ for McAvoy and his associates. But such is often the case with innovation and breakthrough. The words from innovator Thomas Edison are sure to push researchers forward.

Familiar to most school-age kids are the stories of determination that propelled Edison forward in his invention of the light bulb despite a mountain of failures. “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” At another time, Edison added more inspiring words for those pushing innovation, stating, “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”

With this mindset, researchers, farmers, and everyday amateur inventors will continue to push forward undaunted. Our modern society can certainly look back through history and be grateful our ancestors didn’t give up.