Pyrolizer put through test runs
It’s been a long journey — literally — for the pyrolizer that’s turning logging slash and sawdust into the first batches of locally produced biochar —shiny, black granules that can help soil retain moisture and nutrients and cut composting time in half.
About two years ago, Tom and Gina McCoy, who launched the local nonprofit C6 Forest to Farm, first contacted Hugh McLaughlin, the Massachusetts-based chemical engineer who designed and built the pyrolizer. In August, McLaughlin flew to California and towed the pyrolizer 1,000 miles from a research project there to an Okanogan County–owned site above the Twisp-Winthrop East Side Road where C6 has a permit for a one-year biochar pilot project.
Now, after more than a year of planning and permitting, the pyrolizer is finally starting to produce biochar. Pyrolysis heats biomass beyond typical combustion temperatures in a nearly oxygen-free environment that, when properly calibrated, should burn off all the volatile compounds.
C6’s pilot project will test the ability to process wood chips, slash and sawdust in what could be a key intervention in reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change, C6 board chair Gina McCoy said.
“Things are going 1,000 miles an hour — it’s great fun,” C6 Executive Director Tom McCoy said as they put the pyrolizer through more test runs last week. They’ve processed sawdust from a local mill and wood chips from trees removed in Firewise treatments in Mazama. C6’s ultimate goal is to reduce the risk of extreme wildfire by supporting wide-scale forest health treatments and removing small-diameter trees that aren’t commercially viable as timber.
The finished biochar is the consistency of raw sugar, easy to integrate into the soil but not so light that it will blow away. It’s small enough for an earthworm to swallow — the biochar gets enhanced in the worm’s gut, McLaughlin said.
An article about C6’s vision and the potential for biochar to be part of a solution to climate change, published in September in InvestigateWest, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Seattle, has attracted worldwide interest.
“We’re popular as far away as Albania,” where the Balkan Times republished the story, Tom McCoy said. Since then, he has been in Zoom meetings with people in France and the United Kingdom eager to learn more about biochar’s potential.
Although there is worldwide interest, the local and regional need for this process is immense, Gina McCoy said. The wildfires that burned more than 50,000 acres of forest in and around the Methow Valley this summer were “an absolute catastrophe for the climate,” she said. When that much vegetation burns — in addition to the loss of trees that would have taken carbon out of the atmosphere — it really puts things in perspective, she said.
“The areas that were severely burned will emit carbon for years — they are now a source of carbon, instead of a sink” that absorbs it, Gina McCoy said. These forest ecosystems are what keep this planet habitable, she said.
According to McLaughlin, biochar has been recognized by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as one of the most efficient ways of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
People think of biochar as a garden supplement for growing tomatoes, Tom McCoy said. “They’re not grasping that it’s one of the world’s premier carbon-sequestration strategies,” he said.
Fine-tuning the process
The idea for a local biochar plant had an unlikely beginning. Gina was nursing two sprained ankles in the winter of 2018-19 and couldn’t ski. While many people would probably stream movies, Gina, troubled by the impact of wildfires that had destroyed so much of the area’s forests — and a study that put the Methow at the top of the list for more fires, particularly as the area grows hotter and drier — got a textbook on biomass combustion instead.
There’s so much excess biomass in the Methow that it has to be converted into a positive resource, and she said it quickly became apparent to her that biochar — which she’d never heard of — was the best option for the Methow Valley. While it was a daunting project to take on, “something different had to happen. There had to be a change,” she said.
The McCoys both have backgrounds in landscape ecology and watershed restoration. Before resigning from their positions, Gina McCoy was an environmental engineer and watershed hydrologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Tom was the manager of the Methow Wildlife Area.
They started C6 in February 2020. It was incorporated as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit three months later. It’s funded by donations and from the state Legislature, which appropriated $160,000 to support the pilot project.
It took years of research and planning, plus permits from Okanogan County and the state Department of Ecology, before they could bring the pyrolizer to the Methow and actually start testing it.
McLaughlin wore a T-shirt reading “Ask me about biochar” as he showed C6 staff and board members how to calibrate the pyrolizer at the end of August. Everyone is volunteering their time except for Tom McCoy.
The wood chips or sawdust are fed into a drum that turns the material over on itself as it’s heated. The temperature is about 680 degrees F, about the temperature of the self-cleaning setting on an oven, McLaughlin said.
The testing helped determine the rate for adding the feedstock and the ideal combustion temperature to burn off all the volatile compounds. After they complete the test runs, they expect to pyrolyze woody material four to five days a week through December and resume operations in March.
McLaughlin stumbled onto biochar in his lab six years ago. He designed and built the pilot plant from used stainless-steel tanks and demonstrated that he could turn biomass into biochar at lower temperatures. He is in the process of obtaining patents.
“I’m a scientist who likes to think you can make the world a better place by inventing better things. I need to cling to idealism,” he said.
The C6 pilot project will determine the optimal processing time and temperature for different types of trees – mainly ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. They’ll also study the effects of adding different amounts of biochar to soil to measure its effectiveness at retaining water and nutrients and increasing productivity.
The project has attracted widespread support, from the Okanogan County commissioners and county engineer, and from state legislators, who successfully lobbied for the funding in the state budget.
C6 is about to launch an educational campaign for the community. The first batch of biochar will go to Classroom in Bloom, the garden on the Methow Valley School District campus.
“This is becoming sort of a community effort. More and more people are starting to be engaged,” Gina McCoy said.