NFF recognizes biochar, biochemical business ideas

By National Forest Foundation | February 12, 2015

The National Forest Foundation recently announced the winners of the 2014 Barrett Foundation Business Concept Challenge. This unique business concept competition awards the best entrepreneurial approaches that solve one or more of the challenges facing America's 193-million-acre National Forest System.

Sponsor Craig R. Barrett, former chairman and CEO of Intel Corp. and current chairman of the NFF's board of directors, described the purpose of this competition as, "stimulating new ideas and cultivating the next generation of entrepreneurial natural resource and business leaders."

Barrett's experience at the helm of Intel influenced his decision to devote substantial resources to encourage the development of market-based solutions that solve forest restoration challenges. "In four decades as a business leader, I've seen a lot of innovative ideas, but not enough of them have been directed at the challenges facing our National Forests. As a board member of the NFF, I saw an opportunity to channel this intellectual energy towards solving our nation's critical natural resources challenges." The competition provides a $75,000 cash award to the winning submission and a $25,000 cash award to the first runner-up.

"Craig's leadership and innovative thinking have long been admired by the business community," said Bill Possiel, NFF president. "The NFF is excited to be offering this opportunity to entrepreneurs around the country and to incubate innovative market-based solutions that solve the challenges facing our National Forests."

2014 Challenge Winners
Both 2014 winning proposals address one of the most vexing issues in forest management – creating a viable market for small-diameter woody biomass resulting from forest restoration. These small trees and branches are often left in the forest to decompose or are burned. Limited options currently exist for deriving value from this restoration residue. Both winning business concepts break through the market barriers preventing utilization of this resource and present viable opportunities for converting these products into valuable commodities.

The first place winner, Charborn, seeks to unlock the potential of biochar as a soil amendment for the agricultural industries. Biochar is a high-carbon soil amendment similar to shredded bits of charcoal. Biochar allows farmers to boost yields while using less water and fertilizer. Agricultural-grade biochar is produced through an industrial process known as pyrolysis and utilizes wood biomass waste from sources like sawmills and forest thinning projects.

The first runner-up, Biomass to Biomethanol through Forest Remediation, seeks to utilize low-value woody biomass from forest thinning and lumber mill operations to create methanol and liquid carbon dioxide for sale into the market. Methanol is a commodity product utilized in a number of industrial applications and liquid carbon dioxide is used by various food products and other industries.

"Both teams demonstrate a unique approach to removing a major barrier preventing more restoration work on our National Forests," said Leslie Weldon, deputy chief of the National Forest System. "By creating a market for these byproducts of forest restoration, the winning teams help create new opportunities for the Forest Service to achieve healthier forests and stimulate local economies. These are exactly the types of ideas we need to be nurturing across the country," she continued.

USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Bonnie, agreed: "Building markets for small diameter trees can substantially boost our ability to restore National Forests so that they are more resilient to wildfire and a variety of threats.  The Barrett Award recipients demonstrate that with creative and innovative ideas, there are business opportunities that benefit both the environment and rural economies."