From Forest to Future
Pyrolyzing forest residues to prevent fire destruction, create green energy, sequester carbon and restore soils.
In 2011, Arizona faced the largest wildfire in history, a devastating fire that destroyed over 540,000 acres of land. The forests, thick with growth, fueled the flames, causing them to spread rapidly and intensely. Because these forests are in the high desert, it will take more than a century for them to fully recover.
Southwest Biochar is located in the High desert mountains of Arizona. The climate is a very dry climate with a high danger of catastrophic wildfires every summer. In the company’s own words, “Our biochar project was created as a way to sustainably reduce forest biomass.”
Currently, there is one outlet for biomass from forest thinning projects which is to pile and burn them. These fires often turn into a much bigger fire than anticipated. For biomass created from sawmill operations there is also only one outlet with a hauling distance that costs more than the value of the biomass.
Luckily, recognizing the urgent need to protect these vulnerable ecosystems, the government launched the “Thinning Forest” project to minimize the impact of future wildfires. Among the companies called upon for this challenge was AZ-log, located in Eager, Arizona. Thinning projects in the National Forests bring numerous benefits, including vital water runoff for desert communities, wildlife and community protection, and faster growth for remaining trees, leading to healthier forests. This means that when fires do occur, they help rejuvenate the forest rather than destroy it.
The material from these thinning projects goes into making utility poles. However, this process generates a significant amount of waste, adding to the challenge of forest waste management.
In 2021, AZ-log reached out to ARTi in search of a sustainable solution: a single-train pyrolysis reactor equipped with a dryer and grinder to efficiently manage the lumber mill waste, a pyrolyzing system to carbonize the biomass, and a post-treatment system to cool down and package the biochar, marking the start of “Southwest Biochar,” Arizona’s first biochar production company and one of the largest with pyrolysis technology in the US.
Southwest Biochar Products started out with a Single Reactor from ARTi in order to test the feasibility of using shavings from a local post and pole company. These shavings were stored in large piles until enough could be ground and hauled to the biomass plant which creates a big fire danger. Southwest Biochar has been utilizing the shavings to make a high quality biochar and uses the excess heat to heat a wood kiln owned by the pole company. The single reactor has allowed the company to develop interest and markets for biochar in the South West. CEO Tyson Nicoll says “We are currently in the process of scaling up to a 5 reactor system which is the largest system ARTi makes. This will utilize all of the shavings from the pole company and allow us to use waste from other sawmills and forest thinning projects.”
What started as a limited operation on weekdays quickly evolved into a continuous operation 24/5. While the reactor uses some of the heat produced to dry the biomass, in 2022, the chimney was integrated with a drying kiln, harnessing excess heat to dry utility poles and firewood. This closed the loop on resource utilization.
In 2023, they produced around 500 cubic yards of biochar, sequestering over 140 tons of CO2. This is equivalent to what more than 5,830 mature trees would sequester in one year.
The commitment to sustainability and efficiency led Southwest Biochar to take a bolder step: expanding to a five-train reactor by late 2023, currently in the manufacturing process. This decision marks a significant milestone in their journey towards continuous production and even greater impact.
By 2024, Southwest Biochar is ready for a future of sustainable production and significant environmental contributions. Their innovative approach not only helps clean up forests and prevent wildfires but also transforms waste into premium biochar, which not only restores soil but also acts as a permanent carbon sink, helping mitigate climate change and protect our precious natural environment for generations to come.