Portable biochar system wins Mitacs award

Kevin Kung is on a mission to improve air quality worldwide by giving farmers an environmentally friendly alternative to open-air burning, and foresters a better way to manage flammable forest residue.

Kevin Kung

His ground-breaking work to develop a small-scale, portable system to locally convert crop and forest residues (biomass) into higher value bioproducts, has earned Kung an award and $5,000 from Mitacs, an organization that supports Canadian innovation organization.

In recognition of his efforts to advance the technology through his company, Takachar, Kung — a post-doctoral researcher in the Biomass and Bioenergy Research Group at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who serves as Takachar CTO — is being presented the Mitacs Environmental Entrepreneur Award on May 18 at a ceremony in Waterloo, Ontario.

“Biomass is a global challenge,” said Kung, noting that more than four billion tonnes of biomass residues are burned globally in open air each year, accounting for as many as 10% of worldwide air pollution deaths. “Our goal is end the practice of burning by turning costly residues into economic commodities.”

In Canada, catastrophic wildfires caused by the accumulation of excess flammable residue on the forest floor are on the rise, and open air burning of crop residue remains the only option available to most farmers in rural communities. The challenge is that crop and forest residues are very difficult and expensive to collect and transport to conversion facilities because they are very loose, wet and bulky.

“Current technologies for turning biomass into usable products are large-scale and centralized, which means they only work well if the source is nearby,” explained Kung.

“Our Aha! moment came when we realized we could circumvent the logistics issue by bringing the technology to the field or forest instead.”

Takachar’s novel system is designed to latch onto the back of tractors or pickup trucks, making it easy to deploy in remote areas. Crop and forest residues are fed into the converter on the spot, and a biofuel, fertilizer or specialty chemical is produced at the back end.

The startup is currently working with several First Nations communities in B.C. and other partners to test multiple prototypes of its technology in collaboration with UBC. The output comprises higher-value, carbon-based bioproducts such as fertilizer blends, chemicals, and biofuels.

“If we can implement this system locally, in rural communities that are often shut out of the benefits of the emerging bioeconomy, we can make a significant impact on their livelihood,” said Kung.

Kung is one of five winners of the Mitacs Entrepreneur Award who are being recognized for their efforts to turn their research into an innovative business that impacts the lives of Canadians.

“Mitacs’ support has been instrumental in the growth of our company, specifically when it comes to working with leading-edge universities like UBC and being able to sponsor researchers to advance our technology,” said Kung. “It also helped us to investigate the market potential for our technology beyond Canada.”