Carbondale company rises to Virgin Earth Challenge
November 14, 2011
CARBONDALE – A Carbondale start-up is among 11 companies worldwide tabbed to take on an ambitious global challenge – remove massive quantities of carbon from the atmosphere on a yearly basis.
Biochar Solutions has been chosen to take part in the Virgin Earth Challenge, a competition conceived by British business magnate Sir Richard Branson, who put up $25 million for the entity that can demonstrate a commercially viable means of permanently removing greenhouse gases – namely carbon dioxide – from the Earth’s atmosphere.
It’s a big leap for the tiny company, whose founder worked with the U.S. Forest Service and other nonprofits to pilot the local use of biochar to reclaim the tailings pile at the Hope Mine, south of Aspen. The project involved the largest purchase of biochar in the country last year.
Since then, Biochar Solutions has ramped up production of its own custom biochar products for horticulture and other uses, according to Morgan Williams, who started the company last March after helping guide the mine project in his role as executive director of the Carbondale-based nonprofit Flux Farm Foundation.
The company has a staff of four in Carbondale and has paired with a Pueblo industrial fabricator to make the processors that create biochar, a carbon-rich, charcoal product created when biomass – trees killed by Colorado’s beetle epidemic, for example – is heated in a closed container with limited air. At the Hope Mine, it was used to increase the contaminated soil’s ability to retain both moisture and nutrients.
“Right now we’re producing about five tons a week,” said Morgan, who anticipates production to soon ramp up to 15 tons per week.
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It will take a lot of biochar to meet the goal of the Virgin Earth Challenge – removing 1 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere annually.
“It’s a massive amount,” Williams said. It’s the carbon equivalent of half the trees in the forests of Canada, he said.
Through fossil fuel combustion, people put 8 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually, Williams explained.
Branson announced the competition in February 2007 along with former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore, creator of the 2006 film about climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Biochar Solutions didn’t yet exist, but Williams was already at work on his ideas for biochar when the application process began. The 11 finalists were chosen from among 2,600 applicants. Six of the chosen 11 are U.S. companies and three are involved in biochar, Williams said. Another uses minerals to absorb carbon from the air, for example, while one plans to burn biomass to generate energy, but capture the emissions, filter out the carbon and inject it into the ground.
All 11 companies will all be working toward the goal, according to Williams. The challenge will dole out $5 million of the prize money up front, when removal operations begin, with the big payout – the remaining $20 million – awarded after successful completion of the challenge at the close of a decade, according to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.
Capital, exposure and key connections come through association with the challenge, according to Williams, who was recently in London and then Canada as he works to take his company’s product global.
A panel of five judges, including Branson and Gore, will assess results of the efforts after five years. It’s possible that the prize will go to some or all of the contenders, according to Williams.
“Twenty-five million to that the company that can do it will be nothing, because they’ll be so profitable,” he said. “But right now, it means a lot to everyone in that room.”