Podcast’s Essential Bites:
[3:31] JA: "Biochar production is actually an indigenous practice that farmers [...] have been doing for 1,000s of years [...] [in] many different regions, [...] where [they] struggle with soil acidity and nutrient retention. You often see an indigenous practice of burying charcoal in the soil, because [...] it help[s] the soil to retain nutrients and ma[kes] the crops hardier, healthier and grow bigger. [...] I learned that it was also being investigated as a carbon sequestration tool. The theory being, if indigenous people in the Amazon did this 2,000 years ago, and you can go and see the charcoal in the ground today, [...] that means that the carbon stored in that biochar is still there, even millennia later."
[7:35] JA: "Today most biochar applications are in very expensive high value crops: trees, nuts, fruits and vegetables. And that represents maybe one or $2 billion market cap. Row crops in the US are a trillion dollar market cap. And so we were thinking, [...] for this to work, it has to get into row crops. And the reality is that traditional approaches are far too expensive. A corn farmer often has $10 or $20 per acre margins. There's no way they can afford biochar at $600 or $1,000 a tonne."
[10:18] JA: "I was seeing firsthand how robotics were being used to reduce labor costs in the ag industry already. [...] Could we really build [...] a system that could actually produce biochar in the field, just like a tiller or a combine harvester? [...] We started building prototypes of the system and realized the economics worked very well, if we could crack it and if we could get it to [...] the minimum viable scale for commercial agriculture, we could in fact produce high quality biochar cheaper than anybody else. And that was really how we started the company."
[12:40] JA: "To make biochar, fundamentally what we do is we heat biomass to very high temperatures, anywhere from 500 to 1000 or more degrees centigrade. [...] and it degrades into this very pure form of carbon. And it turns out, you can optimize this process by restricting the oxygen, by controlling the temperature, and how quickly you ramp to that temperature [...] to produce a very pure form of mineral carbon."
[13:27] JA: "The way that biochar sequesters carbon [is] as these plants grow, [...] they're sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere. And they're turning that atmospheric carbon into biological carbon, the biomass. Now normally on a farm, that material degrades, either it's left in the field, it decomposes, or it gets burned. But in one or two years, about 99% of that carbon goes back into the atmosphere. And so the concept with biochar is you take that material, you convert it into char, and you actually bury it in the soil. And what we find is by converting it into this mineral form of carbon, it's very hard for microbes in the soil to decompose that material [...]. And so we can actually extend the decomposition timeline of that material by hundreds or even 1,000s of years, depending on the conditions that you use to produce it."
[27:53] JA: "What we set out to create at Climate Robotics is the world's first in-field, continuous pyrolysis system. [...] What we've built is an implement that attaches to the back of a standard agricultural tractor. [...] After the combine passes over the field and leaves all this refuse on the ground, we come in with our system and scoop it up, [...] convey it to our paralyzer and our paralyzer processes that material down to size. [...] Then the chopped material is conveyed into our reactor, [where it] produces the biochar. [...] On the back end of the trailer [...], we actually deposit the biochar back into the soil. [...] It fundamentally looks like another piece of agricultural equipment that you would find on a farm, but instead of tilling or planting, it's producing biochar."