Gaspard was looking for something to do with all the trees killed by the mountain pine beetle when he found research on biochar and set out to make the product on a scale that could be used by industry and farmers.
Biochar is a highly absorbent charcoal originally used as a soil amendment. It's produced by heating wood or other plant material (biomass) with little or no oxygen. But unlike charcoal, which is often used for cooking, biochar is made with the intent to be applied to soil as a means to increase fertility and agricultural yields, and sequester carbon to slow or reverse global warming.
"You can greatly increase crop yield, and you can clean up hazardous waste," Gaspard says. "We have to clean up our mess and we have to feed people. This product does both."
The company uses custom-designed, patent-pending, slow-pyrolysis kilns to make its biochar. Beetlekill and fire-damaged trees or other woody materials are shredded and loaded into the kilns as feedstock. After the process is finished, a wheel loader with a custom gripper picks up the kiln and moves it to the crushing-screening-bagging workstation. After the gripper empties it, it is moved back to the filling station for more shredded wood before returning to the firing line.
Biochar can be used in a variety of ways. The oil and natural gas industries are using it as an economical method of complying with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) air- and water-quality regulations to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and air toxins from wells. During drilling operations, biochar is applied to oil and gas production areas to decontaminate the well cuttings. By doing so, hydrocarbons and VOCs are captured in the biochar and broken down to nontoxic levels before they are released into the atmosphere.
"Whether you believe in global warming or not, there's more carbon in the air," Gaspard says. "We are one of the only proven technologies that can scale up and reduce the carbon in the air."
Biochar-enriched soil also grows larger and healthier plants with greater yields, particularly in degraded or weathered soils. It has several effects in soil, including increased water infiltration and holding capacity; improved soil pH buffering and stability; increased absorption of ammonium, nitrate, phosphate, and calcium ions; reduced fertilizer runoff, especially nitrogen and phosphorus; reduced fertilizer requirements; and decreased emissions of nitrous oxide by 50 percent to 80 percent.
Challenges: Because recycling wood into biochar is a relatively new industry, it's been a challenge to ward off would-be competitors who Gaspard says are making "snake oil." There are companies that market products claiming to be biochar that are not truly biochar and sell it to unsuspecting customers, which only hurts the industry, Gaspard says.
"This industry is the wild, wild west," he says. "We're a reputable company making a high-quality product. We're the only company that has federal government approval to be doing what we're doing and releasing the product into our environment."
Opportunities: Because its products greatly increase agricultural yields, Biochar Now sees tremendous opportunity working with the cannabis and hemp industries. "We had one customer increase his yield several hundred percent using our product," Gaspard says.
Needs: More employees. Gaspard says Biochar Now will be hiring after a Colorado state bond closes.
While the company is in good shape in terms of funding, it could really use a boost in terms of product and name recognition, Gaspard says. "We're going to start a real marketing campaign here soon," he says. "We need more visibility. We need people to know we're here and what our product can do."