At first glance, Burt’s Greenhouses in Odessa looks much like any other greenhouse operation, with multiple structures and, in the winter months, stakes poking up through the snow from the multitude of outdoor gardens. Proof that Burt’s Greenhouses is more than it appears to be resides in a separate structure on the property, demonstrative of the innovative nature of proprietor Brian Burt’s business.
Since 2006, Burt has been heating his greenhouses with biomass instead of using heat derived from fossil fuels. He burns “waste wood”− wood collected from furniture manufacturers, old skids from construction sites and similar sources – which would otherwise likely end up in landfills. Brian and engineer Alex English wanted to take this even further, and began working on a system that would produce biochar. This has been the focus of a collaborative project with two Queen’s University researchers that began last year, with the help of funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario’s (FedDev Ontario) Applied Research and Commercialization (ARC) Initiative to Queen’s University, and one of eleven ARC projects led by the university in 2012-2013.
Biochar is a fine-grained, highly-porous charcoal that displays many unique beneficial properties when added to soil. These properties can vary depending on feedstock and process conditions. The greenhouse heating structure on site in Odessa houses a large open area where the feedstock is sifted onto a chain grate and slowly fed into the stoker in another room. The heat in the boiler is slowly raised and, instead of burning the fuel to ash, what comes out of the other end is biochar. The potential agronomic benefits to using biochar include improving water utilization, breaking up heavy soils, decreasing fertilizer run-off, providing refuge for beneficial fungi and bacteria and inducing resistance in plants to certain diseases and insects. Other benefits include the ability to sequester carbon due to its resistance to breaking down in the soil and the use of biochar in the remediation of brownfields by reducing the bio-availability of contaminants.
Although Burt’s Greenhouses began the process of biochar production prior to the inception of the FedDev Ontario-funded project, this is the first opportunity that the company has had to sample what is going on inside the boiler. Sampling became possible by using a water-cooled gas sampling and temperature probe designed by Dr. Darko Matovic, a professor in the Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering at Queen’s. The approach, based on best practices in combustion diagnostics, gives new insights into complex processes that happen deep inside the biochar-making zone, and is able to map the changes in chemistry and temperature following the biomass conversion into biochar. The group has also been doing field trials to evaluate the effectiveness of different biochars to improve soil quality and increase plant yield, and are testing the biochar and soils for contaminants, both prior to and after use in the field. Initial tests have demonstrated the capacity of biochar to reduce or eliminate the potential adverse effects of these contaminants.
“I don’t think that any of this (the testing and analysis) would have been possible without the funding from FedDev Ontario, because analysis costs a lot of money,” said Dr. Allison Rutter, Director of the Analytical Services Unit (ASU) at Queen’s University, who is the other principal researcher at Queen’s working on the FedDev-funded project. The results that the project team is achieving are impressive. The approach produces higher temperature biochar, which has very good adsorption qualities and good porosity, critical characteristics for its beneficial effects. In addition, the process uses a boiler that has many safeguards and an abundance of reaction space, according to Dr. Matovic, “where all of the nasty stuff is being burnt out in a secondary combustion zone, so the emissions outside are well controlled and way below all of the emission limits.” Besides the obvious benefit environmentally, “It is a dual-purpose unit where nothing is wasted. It produces heat to heat the greenhouses, while it produces biochar. In its normal regime, it runs just like an ordinary biomass powered boiler. This is an excellent example of using an existing piece of equipment for multiple purposes.” Indeed, that is what Brian Burt hopes to be able to do in the future. With the construction of a large water tank as a heat storage device, he could better balance the load and make switching to the biochar production regime easier.
This project has laid the groundwork for a continued collaborative relationship between Burt’s Greenhouses and the research community at Queen’s and The Royal Military College (RMC). The group which includes Dr. Barbara Zeeb at RMC, Dr. Rutter and Dr. Matovic, has just been awarded a Collaborative Research and Development Grant to work with Burt’s and other industrial partners. This NSERC grant will allow the project team to further advance the use of biochar to immobilize residual soil contaminants and remediate brownfields. The research team has also expanded to include Yu Wang, a graduate student from McGill University, who is working with Dr. Matovic on instrumentation and measurements to optimize biochar production.
“The partnership with Burt’s Greenhouses is an excellent example of how government support can serve as a catalyst to fuse researcher expertise and university resources with the unique experience of industry,” says Dr. Steven Liss, Vice-Principal (Research) at Queen’s. “This partnership is leading to novel research and innovation, which has the potential to impact our environment in a very positive way.”
“They [Brian Burt and Alex English] are very innovative people – the amount of ingenuity in building this system, which is their own creation, is amazing,” says Dr. Matovic, “and we will definitely continue to work with them.”
To learn more about the Applied Research and Commercialization Initiative, please visitwww.FedDevOntario.gc.ca.
To learn more about collaborating with researchers at Queen’s University, visit www.queensu.ca/industry.