Where there are humans, there is waste. Whether we’re milling steel, processing wood or growing crops, we produce byproducts, some of which have no additional use — yet.
Disposing of any waste is a complicated process made more fraught by concerns about CO2 emissions associated with disposal.
Currently, more than four billion tonnes of biomass residues are burned globally in open air each year, contributing considerably to anthropogenic global warming emissions as well as pollution such as fine particulates. Meanwhile, we continuously seek opportunities to reduce waste.
Trash is Cash: Optimization and Benefit Quantification of Input-Output Biomass-to-Bioproduct Conversion Processes is part of PICS’ Opportunity Project Program (OPP) and focused on the byproducts from farming and forestry.
Its goal is to find new or additional uses for waste products, or biomass, while at the same time drastically reducing carbon emissions from traditional ways of dealing with waste biomass. The approach uses a new process called oxygen-lean torrefaction — something that doesn’t require an external energy source to start or to operate, and that can be housed in a thermochemical reactor.
Thus, instead of leaving forest residues to rot — or worse, prone to forest fire — slash might be converted to biofuel or chemicals or into activated carbon for fertilizer for farms.
“The conversion process is a lot tighter in terms of emission control,” says Kevin Kung, co-founder, president and CTO of Takachar Ltd, the solution seeker partner. “We are able to convert around 30 per cent to 60 per cent of that carbon originally captured by the plant into a richer form that’s then consolidated in a solid so it’s not a hundred per cent being emitted into the atmosphere.”
One key is not to bring biomass — which may be wet, heavy and difficult to transport — to the reactor but to move the small-scale, low-cost and portable reactor to, and among, sources of that biomass, from forestry operations to farms, many in rural areas.
A key element of the research project is using machine learning to precisely measure and control the complex behaviours of the reaction processes, identify the effects of myriad input and output parameters on these behaviours, and quantify the carbon benefits of such bioconversion projects in a variety of contexts. The goal is for the technology to automatically adapt to different types of biomass no matter the type or location.
To develop an accurate model of the process, the project is conducted at UBC but is also collecting data from pilots in India, California and Kenya, say Yankai Cao and Shahabaddine Sokhansanj, the principal and co-investigators of the PICS project.
Opportunity Project: Began March 30, 2022 / Project duration: three years