Few people walking around a modern city centre minding their own business will be aware that sophisticated surveillance technologies are monitoring their every move. These same individuals will have become belatedly aware of the abuses of social media companies, following the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal. But what they won’t know is how it’s not even necessary to be online for your data to be tracked and recorded by invisible agencies.
This October, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is expected to publish a report confirming that the world will need to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Unless nation states are able to eliminate the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere there is very little chance of achieving the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. Increasingly, however, climate scientists believe that stopping emissions is only part of the solution to global warming.
Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing carbon before it is released into the atmosphere and safely storing it in the ground. Connecting coal and other fossil-fuel burning facilities to carbon capture and storage systems could drastically reduce the rate of global warming. The only problem with this solution is that nobody is quite sure how to make the process commercially viable yet.
Sampo Tukiainen is a Finnish entrepreneur and inventor who has worked with carbon for more than 20 years. He believes that biochar, a form charcoal produced from biomass such as waste wood, could hold the key to resolving some of the world’s most pressing climate challenges. In 2016, Tukiainen saw an opportunity and founded Carbofex, Finland’s largest producer of biochar and other biocarbon products.
“The process of producing biochar was actually very well understood in the 1920s, but it was lost in old technical manuals,” explains Tukiainen. “Since then, there’s been a generation gap in this industry, so there haven’t been any new professionals. Any biochar projects were totally mothballed and forgotten about. Now, I consider myself probably the only dedicated professional in this area.”
The history of biochar can be traced back to the ancient Aztecs in South America 2,000 years ago. When archaeologists excavated Aztec sites, they noticed deep layers of black dirt, which scientists identified as containing a combination of charcoal and biomass sludge. While most Amazonian soil is poor for growing crops, the sites of ancient Aztec ruins have been identified as a paradise for the beneficial microbes that plants require to grow.
Today, biochar is primarily used by farmers as an organic fertilizer. When applied to the earth, biochar absorbs harmful chemicals and helps the soil retain its moisture and nutrients. But in Finland, Tukiainen and his team are constantly finding new uses for the material.
“One of the most exciting applications for biochar we’ve discovered recently and that’s for use in insulation. Conventional vacuum insulation materials are very expensive, but there’s growing demand for solutions from the energy sector,” he explains. “Liquid gases, for example, require cryogenic vacuum insulation to be used for haulage and for storage tanks. Biochar can be used as a cheaper, more compact, and more environmentally friendly alternative to existing materials.”
Carbofex operates its biochar refinery from Hiedanranta, an urban redevelopment project on the outskirts of the city of Tampere. Previously the site of an enormous sulphite cellulose factory, the district is being used by municipal authorities as a sandbox to test smart and sustainable technologies. It’s hoped that when the development is completed it could serve as a model circular economy for future developments everywhere.
To produce the biochar, Carbofex fuels its biorefinery with waste woodchip and other forms of biomass. While burning wood isn’t normally associated with sustainable technologies, the facility uses a process called pyrolysis, which combusts the material within a vacuum and ensures the emissions from the wood are trapped in the resulting biochar.
Each hour, the biorefinery plant burns through up to 500 kilograms of waste wood chip and produces 150 kilograms of biochar. For every kilogram of biochar that is produced, the plant actually stores 3 and a half kilograms of carbon that would have otherwise been released into the atmosphere.
“It is the most energy efficient and most capital efficient method of carbon capture that we have. This plant is now capturing around 3,000 tonnes of CO2 a year,” says Tukiainen. “It’s measurable, it’s quantifiable, it’s certifiable, so you know we can guarantee the carbon content in our biochar. We can then verify that the carbon is used in a way that it is conserved in a way in the soil for example and agriculture applications.”
In addition to producing a sustainable fertilizer and preventing carbon emissions, the Carbofex biochar facility produces another useful by-product: heat. Any refinery that burns fuel naturally produces heat as a by-product. In Hiedanranta, they’re exploring ways of harnessing that energy to provide heating to the entire district.
“We’ll be generating about one megawatt of energy as our average capacity, but our maximum is going be two megawatts once we are operating at the facility’s full potential,” says Tukiainen. “In the summer, when heating is as needed, we can store that energy as pyrolysis oil and save it for the winter then burn it when we get the highest value for it.”
The Carbofex facility in Hiedanranta serves as a crucial proof of concept for a technology that has the potential to change the way we think about climate change. It is the first of its kind in Finland, and the largest operating biochar facility in Europe. But Tukiainen isn’t content with having just one biorefinery, he wants to work with others to replicate his facility everywhere. As he says:
“What we have is something that should be adopted very rapidly, and we’re about to see that happen. We’re in an exciting stage of our business where we’re rolling it out and we’re talking to a lot of entities right now. Delivering these kinds of plans is not always, so sometimes you need long-term perspective. Luckily, we’re all set and ready to go.