Nova Scotia

How biochar could be good business for N.S. lumber company

The company wants to rezone some of its property to construct a biochar facility. The process uses wood chips to create a type of organic charcoal using a process called pyrolysis, or heating the chips at extreme temperatures without oxygen.

Charcoal-like substance has applications for agriculture, soil cleanup

Researchers in Newfoundland and Labrador have been studying the use of biochar on agriculture fields in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

The head of a lumber company in Elmsdale N.S., is hoping a proposed expansion will lead to a new market for wood chips.

Elmsdale Lumber wants to rezone some of its property to make way for the construction of a biochar facility.

The process uses wood chips to create a type of organic charcoal using a process called pyrolysis, or heating the chips at extreme temperatures without oxygen.

"This technology from Europe came to us, we listened to a presentation and our team kind of looked at each other and said, 'Well, why would we not look into this,'" company president Robin Wilber said in a recent interview.

The company has been exploring new opportunities for wood chips and low-grade wood since Northern Pulp, the largest consumer of such products in Nova Scotia, shut down a little less than a year ago. Wilber said it would augment other markets for chips, such as pellet production.

Biochar has been shown to attract and hold on to moisture and nutrients in soil, meaning crops can be grown with less water and fertilizer. It also has the ability to neutralize soil acidity and remove heavy metals, making it an attractive product for agriculture and remediation work.

Robin Wilber is president of Elmsdale Lumber Company. (CBC)

The facility Elmsdale Lumber wants to build would be about 50,000 square feet, with the option for a further expansion of 20,000 square feet for a potential packaging plant.

The operation would use about 45,000 tonnes of wood chips a year, most of it from the Elmsdale yard, and produce about 8,400 tonnes of biochar each year.

The plan is to produce and sell the product in bulk, but Wilber said they'd also look at eventually selling it in hardware stores as a consumer product. He believes home gardening could present a marketing opportunity.

The actual process of cooking the chips takes about 15 minutes at temperatures above 500 C.

The product is then removed, cooled and packaged. Nothing is added, no chemicals are involved and there is no effluent.

During a public information session earlier this month, company officials said hot gasses created during the process can be used to create steam. Some of that steam would be used to pre-dry feedstock and the rest is available for other uses, such as generating electricity or in the mill's kilns.

If approved by the Municipality of East Hants, company officials estimate it would take about 18 months to construct and commission the plant, and that the new operation would create 25 new full-time jobs.

Planning staff for the municipality are preparing a staff report that will go to council sometime in January or February to consider first reading of the proposed amendments.

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