Charred wood can help save the planet, maybe starting with a closed Maine mill

  • A biochar-making facility in Germany similar to the one that would be installed at the former Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket, Maine. Standard Biocarbon—Courtesy

  • Making biochar from burn wood, top, to processed biochar. Standard Biocarbon—Courtesy

Granite Geek
Published: 2/21/2021 4:52:47 PM

It’s hard to imagine anything less like the high-finance world of institutional bond portfolios than burying burnt wood in the ground but as Frederick Horton tells it, they’re more similar than you’d think.

Horton, a Maine native who has spent a career in finance, is CEO of Standard Biocarbon, a start-up that just signed a deal to use part of a closed paper mill in northern Maine. The company’s goal is to become the biggest producer of something called biochar, a form of charred wood which can be a key tool in reducing the damage we’re doing to the climate because it locks up carbon almost indefinitely.

Horton colleagues at Standard Biocarbon, including his brother Tom, think it could also be a key tool for rebuilding New England’s forest economy.

“I wondered: is there a business where you can make money by extracting carbon from the atmosphere and putting it back in the ground? And can it grow through capital driven by the profit motive, not by environmental requirements, not by regulation – a little bit like the oil guys did?” said Horton. “This fits the bill.”

Biochar is wood or other biomass that has been (as the name suggests) charred, in this case by being subjected to high-temperature burning without oxygen. This process, called pyrolysis, causes chemical changes that I don’t really understand – chem class was a blot on my high school transcript – producing a black sooty substance that has various uses.

People have known for centuries that biochar is a terrific soil amendment. It holds moisture and nutrients in interesting ways depending on how it was made, and can even reduce certain microbes. It’s also known as an additive to animal feed, where it increases the amount of nutrients animals get from each bite and improves the fertilizer value of their manure.

But biochar’s star has risen recently because it is really, really good at holding onto carbon molecules; almost as good as coal.

If you turn wood or other plant material into biochar, it will retain about half of the carbon that would have been released as the material decomposed or burned normally. And it will hold on it even when used as an additive.

This means biochar can replace some substances that cause environmental harm, such as chemical fertilizers, while locking away carbon that has been pulled from the air by plants. I’ve seen estimates that sustainable biochar production could cut global net emissions of carbon by as much as 10%, a staggering amount.

So far, however, manufacture and use of biochar is tiny. Horton says attempts to scale up production run into the problem of getting a steady supply of high-quality biomass without spending a fortune or doing environmental damage by, for example, cutting down forests that otherwise would stay. Much of the creation of Standard Biocarbon involved finding a source of raw material.

“I originally said we’ll use waste wood: after a big ice storm, trees fall down, we’ll get them to pay us to take it away to avoid tipping fees. I went down that rabbit hole but it doesn’t work. There’s not nearly enough of it to make a difference; the chips are too inconsistent and you run out of them,” Horton said. “I went down the waste disposal model – sewage sludge – but that doesn’t work. Corn stalks, too. None of those models work, they’ll never make money, they’ll never scale.”

The eventual solution was obvious to anybody who knows the Great North Woods and its history of taking the less valuable portions of forests left over from lumber operations – branches, tops, trees too small to become planks – and turning them into paper. With New England paper plants shutting right and left, there’s plenty of wood available and people who know how to procure it.

“There’s 17 million acres of working forest: silviculture, with long-term harvest plans. There’s already an existing supply chain for low-grade biomass,” he said.

The firm plans to install a continuous-feed pyrolitic kiln system made in Germany on the site of the former Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket, which was once the largest paper mill in the world but is now shut. Being far away from major markets – the town is next to Baxter State Park – isn’t the disadvantage that it sounds like.

“You have to think like a commodity producer and the smartest ones are the paper guys. You’ve got to think like a paper guy. There’s two ways to increase production: Make a bigger factory or get closer to the wood.”

You can’t get much closer to the wood than East Millinocket, a gateway to Maine’s vast privately held northern forests that is on I-95 and a rail line leading to a deep-water port.

At its peak in the mid-1980’s, Horton said, the Great Northern Paper mill processed 400,000 tons of green wood a year into paper. That could be turned into roughly 100,000 tons of biochar, which could make it the biggest producer in North America.

“That’s the potential. And we can make money at it,” said Horton, ticking off a variety of income sources including using gases produced during pyrolysis to create heat for other tenants in the industrial complex.

The plan is to produced 3,000 tons of biochar by the end of the year, he said. This would require a couple of full-time positions, but jobs will grow if the business does.

Horton said the project should cost about $8 million for the first phase.

“We’ll be the biggest producer in New England right away; I believe the biggest east of the Mississippi right away,” he said. “We can add lines modularly – order more kilns, bolt them on, and off we go. … In a couple years we should be by far the largest producer of biochar in the world.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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