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Biochar seen as potential market for forest

System transforms less desirable timber into fertilizer, power

A type of biomass may be an untapped market for the vast stands of ponderosa pine in the San Juan National Forests that are in dire need of thinning.

Ponderosa timber does not have a very lucrative market, and forest sales are mostly for a limited firewood market.

The situation creates a vexing problem for government foresters charged with thinning out overstocked forests in order to minimize risk of wildfire and beetle infestation.

The alternative biochar market is seen as a potential solution.

Biochar is created by chipping and burning low-value wood in a specialized gasification plant to create electrical energy. A byproduct is a form of activated carbon (biochar) used as a soil amendment to hold nutrients and moisture.

“Biochar is a good value-added product for our ponderosa pine forests and would be a benefit to the agricultural community,” said David Casey, forest supervisor for the San Juan National Forest. “Bringing that market here would certainly help our forest restoration efforts.”

A biochar plant is being planned in Archuleta County and is targeting low-value pine under a long-term contract with the Rio Grande National Forest.

Developer J.R. Ford’s vision is to create a local biochar industry to improve forest health, create jobs and provide an alternative energy source.

“The biochar will be sold locally, and the (timber contract) will help thin the forests,” he said.

The “multimillion” project is in the planning stages, Ford said, and is moving forward.

“We would like see another plant in Durango, Dolores or Cortez,” Ford said. “It is a great way to take out less desirable wood and turn it into power.”

Getting local electrical coops to purchase the 3.5 megawatts of power he expects to generate at his plant has been a challenge though.

“I had a preliminary agreement with La Plata Electric, but Tri-State blocked us from going forward,” he said.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission manages 43 electrical co-ops, including Empire Electric and La Plata Electric. Tri-State had not return phone calls seeking comment on the matter as of press time.

Casey said an additional ponderosa market is needed to address the problem of overstocked pine forests in the region.

“We need to think of different ways to get rid of the excess fuel because it is not cost effective for the government to treat all that needs to be treated,” he said.

Casey believes the five active timber sales in the San Juan Forest are meeting current demand. More sales would be ideal, he said, but there are not enough buyers.

“We have 90,000 acres available of harvestable ponderosa pine within the Dolores District, but we are lacking a market. Biochar could prove an output for the material, lessen the burden on the U.S. government and create jobs.”

Another emerging market for carbon-rich biochar is for reducing the manufacturing cost of super-capacitors, used for regenerative braking systems of hybrid vehicles. Recent experiments at South Dakota University have had success substituting a chemical process with a pine biochar plasma etching process to produce more efficient and less expensive super-capacitors.

Bichar products are also used for environmental mitigation, including mine cleanup.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com

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