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Innovative Company Looks to Biochar
By Jack Petree
Tricon Timber was founded in St. Regis, Mont., in 1989, a year when the forest products industry was in the midst of some of the most challenging times of its history. While long established companies were overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable challenges, the new firm survived, and even thrived, by stressing innovation.
New products meant new markets and, while times were certainly trying, Tricon became Mineral County, Montana’s major employer with two facilities, a post and pole mill in Superior and a stud mill in St. Regis. About 200 employees work the St. Regis facility, and depending on the mill’s operation, another 600 men and women are subcontracted as loggers, truckers, and others needed to move fiber from stump to mill.
Charlie Sells, a former Forest Service employee now working for Tricon said, “Tricon is a wood processing facility that has been in place for over 20 years and has recently built a new sawmill capable of manufacturing products using international metric measurements. They have also added a whole log chipping operation. The company is the largest forest stewardship contractor on federal land in Montana, harvesting and processing large quantities of biomass trees in the completion of the stewardship contracts.”
Looking to the future, Charlie says, “Tricon believes that the National Forests will continue to need to be managed to produce healthy forests, and that means logs will be available for Tricon’s production facilities. Tricon is taking a long view when looking at wood products markets and intends to be here in Montana for a long time.”
Assuring longevity, Charlie says, is an on-going effort for the firm and, “…diversifying into additional new wood product manufacturing is a way to ensure future success.”
Banking on Biochar
Discovering and serving niche markets has been important to Tricon’s growth. For example, the company currently sells material from beetle-killed pine (cut to metric dimensions) to China. Company leadership also believes discovering and pursuing entirely new uses for biomass is an essential part of building long-term sustainability for the company.
To that end, Tricon has spent a good deal of time and money in recent years researching and developing an approach for manufacturing a product called “biochar” from the wood “waste” the company produces on a daily basis. As Charlie puts it, “Tricon is heavily involved in harvesting and marketing forest biomass trees. We currently sell biomass products to post and pole mills, pulp mills, fiberboard plants, pellet plants, biopower plants, and bark to landscape companies. Biochar is another potential product that we can make from our biomass feedstock. Our sawmill in St. Regis is currently producing 900 tons of biomass products per day. We are expanding that manufacturing capacity to increase our ability to process more biomass each day. Biochar would allow us to fully realize the potential of that resource.”
The Process behind Biochar
Biochar is produced using a process called pyrolysis. As explained in a study focusing on the production of biochar by the Mineral County Challenge, a working group charged with enhancing the economy of Montana’s Mineral County (Tricon’s home), “Pyrolysis is a form of incineration that chemically decomposes organic materials (biomass) by heat in the absence of oxygen.”
Pyrolysis typically occurs under pressure and at operating temperatures above 430 °C (800 °F). Organic materials of almost any kind (from animal manure to wood waste) are transformed into small quantities of liquid, a combustible synthesis gas (syngas), and a solid residue that contains carbon and ash (biochar). Syngas can be used as a natural gas replacement for heating or to generate electricity. Biochar can be used as a carbon soil amendment, as a pelletized fuel, or it can be activated and used as a carbon filtration media. Biochar is recalcitrant against decomposition and can permanently increase the carbon retaining capacity of soils to which it is amended.
The problem, Charlie says is finding the equipment. “In our effort to build a commercial facility to produce biochar, we have been unable to find equipment that produces biochar in a commercial quantity. Tricon believes it will need to produce about 60,000 tons of biochar per year.”
Worth the Investment
Tricon, the Mineral County Challenge group, and others believe the investment of time, energy, and money necessary to find a solution to the production problem will be worth the effort.
As the findings of the Challenge group’s research report suggests, “Developing a pyrolysis capability in western Montana holds great promise for addressing important forest management, rural economic development, and global warming issues. Montana’s forests are currently in an unhealthy state as a result of changing climate conditions and past forest management practices. Healthy forests are resilient, provide vital ecological services, and represent significant economic opportunities, whereas unhealthy forests are vulnerable to the risk of large scale, intense fires with subsequent environmental and economic damage. Western Montana’s environmental and economic health rests in large part on its ability to prudently address the issue of forest health. The pyrolysis process of turning woody biomass into biochar and syngas offers a solid solution to many of these issues.”
Biochar is principally used as a soil amendment to improve moisture and nutrient holding capacity in poor growing sites. To move forward on the effort to bring a viable product to market, Tricon (working in concert with the Mineral County Challenge group and Montana’s Senators) pursued funding needed to find economical ways to produce biochar at a scale suitable to a mill like Tricon.
As a result, Charlie says, ‘We have partnered up with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and the University of Montana, using a grant of 5 million dollars, to further the research and development of some prototype biochar machines to see if they could be made into commercial machines. The grant was provided by the Dept. of Agriculture and the Dept. of Energy.”
Developing a Market
A second issue to be addressed, according to Charlie, is that the market for biochar is not well defined. “There is a lot of interest from the mining industry in potentially using biochar to aid in the restoration of mining sites, which tend to be relatively harsh sites once the mining areas are reclaimed. Currently there is research in progress that is testing the effectiveness of various application rates of biochar to mining sites to see what success in revegetation occurs.” Research is also on-going regarding the value biochar might have for agriculture.
Tricon Timber’s biochar initiative carries risk with it. New kinds of equipment must be developed, as must viable markets, but Charlie says success will significantly enhance both the environment and the forest products industry as a whole.
“Three things are especially important about this initiative,” Charlie says. “Finding uses for biomass will help wood product manufacturers remain profitable. To be sustainable in the future, the timber industry needs to be adaptive to new opportunities for uses of wood.
Finally, states like Montana need a viable wood products industry in order to manage the federal, private, and state forests so that all Americans will have a healthy forest environment to enjoy for scenic beauty, diverse wildlife habitat, clean water, and a source for the wood product resources we need to supply our country.”
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