By Vivian Collings
A $10 million expansion of Haliburton Forest Biochar (HFB) is bringing 20 new jobs and a product that can be used to help fight climate change to the Highlands.
Haliburton Forest Biochar is a facility that aims to produce biochar products from sustainably, locally sourced forest matter.
Biochar is a carbon-rich, charcoal-like substance that is produced by burning forest material in a zero-oxygen environment. It is porous and can retain water and nutrients in soil, reduce carbon emissions from soil, and can produce oil and gas byproducts that can be used as fuel.
HFB has had a goal of expanding their facilities for the past six years, and plans are now coming to fruition.
Located on Kennaway Road off of Highway 118 in Haliburton, at what was formerly Direct Pellet Industries Inc, the expansion will happen over the next eight months with a goal to begin producing biochar at HFB in February 2023.
“Having made significant advancements with our technology, market development, and all of those other important building blocks, we’re making a large investment in the facility leading in to next year of a total of $10 million to expand the footprint of the buildings on the site and to install new manufacturing equipment. With that, there will be significant hiring of staff and overall growth of the business,” said Malcolm Cockwell, managing director of Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve and HFB.
A portion of the funding for the expansion is coming from Natural Resources Canada’s Investments in Forest Industry Transformation (IFIT) program, and the rest of the funding is an investment by HFB.
Applications of the funding
The expansion will feature a facility to house an innovative unit to create the biochar by way of a process called pyrolysis.
General manager of HFB Gavin Pearce said, “About four years ago we added another building to expand our operations, and then we’re building another facility to house our full-scale pyrolysis unit. Over the years, we’ve been working with our existing buildings, but we’ve learned so much about biochar that we are confident that we can scale it and increase the meaningful impact on both the local economy and also our customers with an environmentally-friendly product.”
The new unit has taken the HFB team and their partners years to design.
The unit resembles large ovens that are completely sealed with systems that capture and recycle the air within them.
“Pyrolysis takes place when biomass is heated to about 400 degrees Celsius in a zero-oxygen environment. When that happens, all of the [volatile organic compounds] are drawn out of the biomass and what you’re left with is carbon. So, we end up with a biochar product that is 80 to 90 per cent carbon, and that carbon is stable in that form, so it won’t break down. The gases that it releases are used as a heating source to fuel the process, so it’s a closed loop, so to speak,” Pearce said.
The biomass used to create biochar is low-value, hardwood residues like wood chips and sawdust.
The expanded facility will require 20 additional skilled employees to operate it.
Cockwell said this expansion will be beneficial for the local economy, businesses, and employees.
“For the community members, the most important thing is the employment and the local supply chain that Biochar feeds in to. These are skilled positions that are part of the growing bio-economy in Canada.”
The material used to produce biochar comes from the sawmill at Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve.
“These are forest products that are produced at our local sawmill here on Kennisis Lake Road which also employs local people, and those forest products have been harvested from the forest by local loggers and truckers,” Cockwell said.
Executive director of the Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce Bob Gaudette said the expansion of HFB is a great opportunity for the community.
“The creation of “career” employment opportunities support the community and local economy in a number of ways. One of which is the ability of younger local talent to stay within their home county and work on innovative technologies and projects … Opportunities like HFB expansion can help to stem the talent drain as well as draw others into our local workforce,” Gaudette said.
Replacement of fossil fuels
In an HFB expansion press release, it said the biochar produced by the facility can be used to displace fossil fuel products on a pound-for-pound basis.
“The facility will have the potential to generate a net reduction of 4,200 tonnes per year of C02 equivalent emissions and offset more than 7,500 tonnes per year of CO2 equivalent emissions,” said the press release.
Nature Communications article Sustainable biochar to mitigate global climate change said that processes like the production of biochar may be the only way to stabilize Earth’s surface temperature and stop rapid climate change.
“If humanity oversteps the threshold of maximum safe cumulative emissions, a limit that may already have been exceeded, no amount of emissions reduction will return the climate to within safe bounds. Mitigation strategies, [like the production of biochar,] that draw down excess CO2 from the atmosphere would then assume an importance greater than an equivalent reduction in emissions.”
Biochar stores carbon for a longer time than if the forest product had been left to decay naturally.
“In addition to fossil energy offsets and carbon storage, some emissions of methane and nitrous oxide are avoided by preventing biomass decay and by amending soils with biochar,” as reported in the Nature Communications article.
This biochar can be used in the manufacturing of a variety of consumer, healthcare, industrial, and automotive products.
“While most biochar production facilities at the moment are focused on soil applications like gardening or agriculture, we are focused on advanced manufacturing. Examples include replacing coal in the production of steel and oil by-products in the production of bioplastics,” Cockwell said.
The Canadian Ministry of Natural Resources has been prioritizing bioeconomics in the country to increase the use of an abundance of forest biomass to create valuable product and to promote clean technology innovation, green infrastructure, and green jobs.
“By investing in the expansion of this biochar production facility in Haliburton, Ontario, we are strengthening Canada’s bioproducts sector while becoming more economically competitive, environmentally sustainable, and innovative through targeted investments in advanced technologies,” said Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson in the HFB expansion press release.
The future of HFB
Cockwell said that for the time being, HFB is focused on solely the Kennaway Road site, but there is potential to expand to more sites in the future.
“The timeline is quite short to get up and running, and the reason for that is the interest from the federal government helping to fund this project. The push is from the federal government in terms of creating and moving forward green projects as fast as possible in order to meet our greenhouse gas emission target,” Pearce said.
The team is looking forward to getting the facility up and running after almost a decade of planning and preparation.
HFB currently has one job opportunity posted with many more to come.