Over the last two years, Barry Callebaut has supported a new innovation to transform cocoa by-products into biochar. In this article we discuss what this substance is and how the company is hoping to use it as part of their sustainability plan.
Barry Callebaut set themselves a target called Forever Chocolate. They will soon publish their fourth ‘Forever Chocolate Report’ showing their progress towards their 2025 targets. The report is eponymous to the project goals, and it wants to meet these objectives through a coordinated and integrated approach, combining areas such as agroforestry with restoration and… this substance called Biochar.
Biochar, also referred to by its supporters, as ‘agriculture’s black gold’ looks similar to charcoal, and is produced by a process called ‘Pyrolysis’.
There are two ways to do the conversion. We read a very good introduction to it on EnergyCentral’s website.
The procedure takes biomass, such as agricultural or forest biomass waste, and heats it to a very high temperature without oxygen to produce energy and biochar.
Being inquisitive, we wondered how much energy was required to do the conversion. An energy-expensive operation might negate some benefits. we found a scientific discussion on the matter here. Alas, it was beyond our scientific and mathematical capabilities to comprehend! The fact that discussions exist indicate it is a question others are also asking.
Nevertheless, Barry Callebaut, and others, claim that Biochar can help to mitigate climate change. It can be used to produce energy, and store carbon – they say “Permanently” although they continue to say “hundreds of years”. I’m almost certain 100’s of years is not the same thing as permanently, but still a useful attribute. They also point to the substance ability to improve soil quality and reduce waste.
Naturally, the companies use case is to use cocoa shells as the raw material to produce biochar. This makes sense, since the shells are currently wasted.
If the Biochar production is done at the point of shell collection and not transported long distances, the scientific evidence supports this as environmentally sound.
The plan is for this to contribute to their Forever Chocolate target of becoming carbon positive by 2025.
They also believe they can use the cocoa shells to create green energy in their factories. The story was a little thin on details, but they referred to the use of steam, so we assume they will be developing a mini power plant to create heat, make steam, and drive a turbine.
The interesting super-product seems to be useful as a fertilizer enhancer as well, when mixed into the soil it releases fertilizer slowly. But it’s not just fertilizer, but there appears to be many benefits of adding it to soil. Once again, we look to Energy Central which lists these benefits:
- Biochar can increase the available nutrients for plant growth, water retention and reduce the amount of fertilizer by preventing the leaching of nutrients out of the soil.
- Biochar reduces methane and nitrous oxide emissions from soil, thus further reducing GHG emissions.
- Biochar can be utilized in many applications as a replacement for other biomass energy systems.
- Biochar can be used as a soil amendment to increase plant growth yield.
Biochar applied to soil can capture carbon and store it for hundreds of years, creating a carbon sink that will last for hundreds of years. The company compared this process favourably with ‘tree’s which it said only had a ‘temporary’ affect.
We are hesitant to disagree, we’re sure the science is correct, but perhaps they can pick a better analogy than one which diminishes the contributions trees make to our environment.
Neelke Verhelst, Global Sustainability Operations Lead for Barry Callebaut said,
One of the great benefits of Barry Callebaut is the innovative culture and encouragement to think outside-of-the-box to find creative solutions.
The company partnered with Circular Carbon, who provided them with the technical expertise to translate the idea of producing biochar into reality.
On their website Circular Carbon’s CEO effuses about the benefits not only to the environment, but to the adopting companies Balance Sheet. We have not problem with that. If a company is motivated by profit to take an environmentally good choice, then it’s more likely to follow it through.
The infrastructure of using biochar for green energy to fuel thier facilities is already established in one of their European sites, with the plan to scale this further.
Not only by converting cocoa shells into green energy, the company is also looking into the production of biochar at farm level.
Neelke further explains,
In the cocoa origin countries where we source from, Biochar can be used on cocoa farms for use as a natural fertilizer enhancer.
Biochar has a remarkable ability to act like a sponge, so if you mix fertilizer with Biochar, it enables the fertilizer to be very slow releasing.
At farm level, instead of using cocoa shells, which will be used at processing level to create green energy, we are looking at creating Biochar from agricultural residues, like empty cocoa pod husks, pruning material, and other residues.
Barry Callebaut claims ‘a real circular economy’ by combining the use of biochar with compost.
The company is currently collaborating with the Ithaka Institute and trialling the use of biochar in the field to evaluate the impacts of improved soil quality. Their goal is to increase cocoa yield, reduce the need for agrochemicals, and ultimately increase farmer livelihoods.
Going back to the CEO of Circular Carbon again, he points to the Amazonian Indians who, he says, 2,500 years ago, used Biochar to create an agricultural system on poor soil that nevertheless fed millions.
Is it ironic that one of the most de-forested and ravaged areas of the world may once again reveal another secret of sustainability?