Best stock to invest in – Biochar and Activated Carbon Markets

Best stock to invest in

Biochar and Activated
Carbon Markets

by Hugh McLaughlin, PhD., PE

Biochar is an emerging market; growing rapidly, still in its
infancy, but with gigaton market potential when we, as in
humanity, start addressing the climate crisis. Activated carbons
are a mature market of about one million tons annual production,
which is growing slowly. They are basically like fraternal twins;
they have a lot in common, they share the same world, and they are

First, let’s explain the basic difference between THREE
materials: activated carbon, charcoal and biochar. Activated
carbon, also known as activated charcoal and several other
‘active/activated source-material’ names, all come down to the
implication of the modifier ìactivatedî. When used in conjunction
with adsorbents, ‘activated’ refers to a small set of processing
techniques that increase the internal microporosity of the
original carbon-rich source material. All ‘activation’ processes
remove individual carbon atoms and create individual nooks and
crannies in the carbon-rich material, which are the adsorption
sites. The key to activated carbon is that it is optimized for
specific adsorption application (water, vapor, certain adsorbates,
etc.) and the adsorption capacity is packed into as dense a
material as possible to minimize the volume of adsorbent
necessary. In the end, activated carbon is an adsorbent ñ intended
to remove something, typically organic compounds, from either
vapor or liquid streams.

Biochar vs charcoal

In contrast, Charcoal is a fuel that is used for cooking and
other heat generating applications and created by heating biomass,
typically wood, under conditions of limited oxygen. In general,
charcoal burns hotter and with less smoke than the starting
biomass, and also can convert mineral ores to the corresponding
metals, inspiring a series of ages: bronze, iron, etc.

Biochar is made in the same manner as charcoal, but it is
intended for utilization as an adsorbent and/or a soil amendment.
Basically, the key is the end use of the material. It is charcoal
if it is intended to be used as a fuel; hence it is manufactured
with optimal fuel properties. In contrast, if the intended use is
adsorption or as a soil amendment, then it is manufactured to a
different set of properties and labeled biochar. As a result,
biochar shares properties with activated carbon and charcoal, but
has a few unique features that distinguish it from both.

While biochar shares adsorption properties with activated carbon,
it also exhibits a significant amount of ion exchange capacity, a
property that is minimal or absent in traditional activated
carbons. The ion exchange property, which is usually measured and
reported as ‘cation exchange capacity’, is due to residual
carboxylic acid functionalities on the biochar graphitic backbone.
Since activation removes any residual side chain aliphatic groups,
activated carbons have reduced ionic interactions.

The other big differences between biochar and activated carbons
are bulk density and mechanical hardness. Activated carbon is
intended for applications where packing as much adsorption
capacity into a fixed volume is paramount, like gas masks and
fixed-bed adsorbers. In addition, activated carbon can be
regenerated and reused in many applications, so mechanical
hardness (also known as the lack of friability) allows the carbon
to be moved without falling apart or breaking down in particle

If one combines the lower adsorption per unit weight of biochar
with the lower bulk density, the resulting adsorption capacity on
a volume basis is 1/6th to 1/12th that of high quality activated
carbons. For this reason, biochar is typically used in
applications where the material is spread out on the ground, so
low density is not a disadvantage. In fact, in soil applications,
where an important property is the ability to capture excess
precipitation and retain it, the low density of biochar translates
into additional voids that can fill when it rains.

Unique properties

Biochar is a material that is preferred when several of its
unique properties can be exploited in the same application. The
unique properties of biochar include low density (providing
additional voidage and aeration in the soil), significant
adsorption and cation exchange capacity, and the ability to
promote living microbiology in the soil, enhancing the ìSoil Food
Webî. Combining these properties leads to a predictable selection
criteria for when to consider activated carbons versus biochar.

As noted earlier, activated carbon is intended and optimized for
adsorption applications, and is available in many physical forms
and grades that are specialized to the end use. The market has
been growing steadily for the past 50 years, driven by specific
purification processes in some industries and many applications
involving removal of organic compounds from air and water streams
prior to discharge into the environment. Indeed, most of the
activated carbon demand has been created by a series of
environmental regulations that have been enacted over the years,
including the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Production and markets around the world

The current world production of activated carbon products is
approximately one million tons per year, with most production in
Tropical and Asian countries. The majority of activated carbon
production is exported to developed countries in North America and
Europe, where it is used in environmental and processing
applications. The activated carbon marketplace is dominated by a
relatively small number of international companies that have both
production and marketing capabilities.

Over the past few years, the developed countries have been
enacting new regulations requiring the removal of trace mercury
from industrial emissions, principally impacting the coal-based
electric power industries in North America and Europe. This has
created an additional market for specialized powdered activated
carbons that serve to capture mercury from the flue gases of power
plants. The potential market demand for these MATS = Mercury
and Air Toxics Standards
activated carbon is several
hundred thousand tons per year if the entire industry used the
technology, but the combination of aging coal plants and cheap
natural gas has resulted in significantly lower actual market
requirements for mercury-capture activated carbons.

Mercury capture is one of very few market applications where
biochar products might complete with traditional activated carbon
products, with the other being those remediation applications
where soil decontamination due to legacy pesticides or ordnance
residues are preventing significant plant growth. In the mercury
marketplace, biochar is at a disadvantage due to the presence of
established suppliers from the activated carbon producers. In
contrast, in remediation, biochar has the advantage that it can
provide the initial detoxification requirements, followed by
providing the added benefits of improving the soil as a growing
medium for all forms of vegetation.

The biochar marketplace is nascent and suffering from ìthe
chicken or the egg syndrome. To date, there have not been
sufficient reliable suppliers of biochar products to allow the
demonstration of the at-scale value propositions in specific
biochar markets. Thus, the issue of how cost-effective is biochar
in reducing water and fertilizer requirements in specific markets
such as corn cultivation is basically unresolved, although
credible studies are accumulating in the literature and within
individual industrial demonstrations. Furthermore, in the absence
of specific market opportunities that demonstrate the value of
biochar, financing biochar production capacity is stymied. The
development gridlock is slowly being resolved and rapid growth in
biochar capacity and adoption is anticipated over the next decade.

External drivers

There are some external drivers that are also promoting biochar
adoption, including atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and concerns
driven by consequences of climate change. Since biochar is
produced from biomass that was created from carbon derived from
carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as the plant grew, the carbon
in biochar is viewed as ‘carbon-negative’. As such, it represents
carbon removed from the air and converted into a form that will
remain in the soil (and out of the atmosphere) for centuries or

Unfortunately, to date, the direct financial incentives for
sequestering carbon dioxide have been insufficient to
significantly stimulate biochar production. With the adoption of
the Paris Climate Accord, biochar has become recognized as one of
the most viable and accessible methods for reducing a nationís
carbon footprint and meeting future emission reduction
obligations. This trend will play itself out in many versions in
individual nationís public policies for managing the requirements
of utilizing fossil fuels and achieving reduced overall climate
impact goals.

Frankly, it is impossible to predict how the climate driver will
or will not stimulate the future biochar production and
utilization patterns. Additional, and equally powerful, drivers
for the adoption of biochar are the documented improvements in
water requirements in agriculture due to improved moisture
retention and management by biochar-enhanced soils. With the
improved water retention, the concurrent phenomenon of loss of
soluble soil nutrients by leaching, when excess precipitation
extracts nutrients out of the soil, is suppressed. It is the
combined improvements in water and fertilizer efficiency by an
existing growing method, coupled with the potential benefits of
enhanced soil health due to improved soil microbiology, that
create a powerful economic argument for the widespread adoption of

However, only time will tell how it will all play out.

 Hugh McLaughlin is a member of Lee Enterprises
Consulting. Lee Enterprises Consulting is the worldís premier
bioeconomy consulting group, who have consultants and experts
worldwide, including in the technologies discussed in this
report.† The opinions expressed in the report are those the
author, and do not, necessarily, express the views of Lee
Enterprises Consulting.

Hugh has a B.S. in Chemistry from Harvey Mudd College, an
M.S. in Chemical Engineering from the USC, and a Ph.D. in
Chemical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He
is a registered professional engineer in Massachusetts. Hugh is
a recognized technical/technology expert in biochar and
activated carbon, having designed and commercialized patented
technologies for their production. He is a leading authority on
biochar properties and characterization.

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