Francisco Noguera

Pop!Tech 2009: Enriching Soils, Producing Energy and Sequestering Carbon through re:char

“Clean coal” is a term that will probably ring a bell for those that were in the US around this time last year. Clean energy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions were both key issues discussed during the presidential campaign and clean coal was advocated as a solution by both Barack Obama and John McCain.

“Coal cannot be clean. Getting it off the ground is a dirty process already”, explained Jason Aramburu during our conversation last Wednesday night in Camden. “However, the principles of the clean coal process can be applied to biomass. When I discovered that I decided to found re:char. We can produce energy through a process that is not only carbon neutral but carbon negative, and also produce char that sequesters carbon, enriches degraded soils and improves agricultural yields for farmers around the world.”

The core of re:char’s technology, Jason explained, is a process called pyrolisis, which takes place by heating to biomass like wood or agricultural waste in the absence of oxygen. Pyrolisis separates biomass and turns it into two main bi-products: a liquid fuel called bio-oil and bio char. Bio-oil is the used to run an energy generator and the remaining biochar can be applied back to the ground, enriching the soils and accelerating the process of carbon capture. Other models involving biomass do one of the two, Jason told me, either turning biomass into charcoal which can then be used, to operate cooking stoves or into energy through gasification processes. Jason’s model is different in that energy needs for lighting and cooking can be met through bio-oil, leaving char available to be put back into the ground, producing both environmental benefits (making the process carbon negative) and social benefits in the form of increased agricultural yields.

Jason presentred at Pop!Tech yesterday evening, as part of this year’s class of Social innovation Fellows. He argued that his technology can be used to both bring energy to the almost 2 billion people currently off the grid and also make a huge dent in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. “With enough energy produced through our technology, we have the potential of going back to 1992 carbon concentration levels in ten years. Our process reduces GHG emissions and also captures existing carbon from the atmosphere.”

Re:char is already operating pilots in the US and in Cameroon, and has plans to roll out its technology both in the developing world and industrialized economies. When I asked him what had been most valuable from his experience at Pop!Tech, Jason said he’d been reminded of the importance to “look back at the base of our own pyramid; there’s enormous opportunity for technologies like re:char’s here in the States”.

I was struck by Jason’s presentation, his keen knowledge of energy issues and his understanding of the inextricable links between poverty and the challenges poised by climate change. I suspect we’ll be hearing much more about him in the coming months and look forward to reporting on his process.