Green is the new black

CBU pro­fes­sor de­vel­ops en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly char­coal that could change the in­dus­try

Cape Breton Post - - Front Page - BY CAPE BRE­TON POST STAFF

This story is part of the Cape Bre­ton Post’s an­nual progress edi­tion, Open For Busi­ness, which can be found in­side to­day’s edi­tion.

It’s com­pletely black but nearly to­tally green. Gritty and sooty, yet great to use for wash­ing up. Know what it is? Give up?

It’s biochar, an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly char­coal de­vel­oped at Cape Bre­ton Univer­sity by pro­fes­sor Stephanie MacQuar­rie and busi­ness part­ner Bar­rie Fi­olek of B.W Bioen­ergy.

The pair re­cently co-founded a com­pany called Bre­ton Or­ganic Char­coals to sell their prod­uct, which they say can re­place and out­per­form the ac­ti­vated char­coal cur­rently used in hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent ap­pli­ca­tions, rang­ing from wa­ter fil­tra­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal re­me­di­a­tion to farm­ing and cos­met­ics.

Com­pared to ac­ti­vated char­coal, which is typ­i­cally made from co­conut, bam­boo or coal,

then “ac­ti­vated” by be­ing heated to ex­treme tem­per­a­tures as high as 2,000 C, or even treated with chem­i­cals, the biochar de­vel­oped at CBU is as green as it is black.

MacQuar­rie, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in or­ganic chem­istry at CBU, says they gen­er­ate their

prod­uct from forestry waste and burn it at around 400 C, mean­ing they ex­pend far less en­ergy cre­at­ing it. It’s also the only biochar cur­rently be­ing pro­duced in Canada, so far less fos­sil fu­els are burned ship­ping it from over­seas.

But what re­ally sets their biochar apart is as much a shift in phi­los­o­phy backed up by years of in­ten­sive re­search into the char­ac­ter­is­tics and be­hav­iours of ac­ti­vated char­coal and biochar.

Un­like ac­ti­vated char­coal, or even reg­u­lar char­coal, which are burned un­til all that re­mains is car­bon and the large uni­form pores that help it ab­sorb wa­ter and other chem­i­cals, biochar re­tains some of the or­gan­ics and re­mains bi­o­log­i­cally ac­tive.

Even though the pores are less reg­u­lar and the sur­face area isn’t as large — a tea­spoon of ac­ti­vated char­coal has a sur­face area the size of a foot­ball field, while a tea­spoon of Bre­ton Or­ganic Char­coals biochar’s is a cou­ple hun­dred square feet — “it has this ex­tra type of ab­sorp­tion that’s pos­si­ble through chem­i­cal con­nec­tions,” said MacQuar­rie.

“What I be­lieve is that for years we’ve just been see­ing how much sur­face area can we get and us­ing these ac­ti­vated char­coals that have these mas­sive sur­face ar­eas for all these ap­pli­ca­tions, and now what we’ve shown is that you don’t need those large sur­face ar­eas. It’s like us­ing a sledge­ham­mer when we could have been us­ing a fin­ish­ing ham­mer,” she ex­plains.

“So we spent the last five years show­ing that biochar can per­form as well, if not bet­ter, in most of the ap­pli­ca­tions that ac­ti­vated char­coal is used for, but it’s greener and it’s pro­duced in Canada and it’s pro­duced from a forestry residue — so you’re ac­tu­ally tak­ing a waste that’s rot­ting and gen­er­at­ing car­bon diox­ide and con­vert­ing it into a thick car­bon that can be used in ap­pli­ca­tions that you typ­i­cally im­port char­coal from China for.”

Al­though re­search has proven the Bre­ton Or­ganic Char­coals biochar per­forms as well as ac­ti­vated char­coal for wa­ter fil­tra­tion — dur­ing a 12-week study the Univer­sité Sainte-Anne re­placed the ac­ti­vated char­coal it im­ports from In­done­sia for its lob­ster hold­ing tanks with the Cape Bre­ton-made biochar and “there was no dif­fer­ence in the lob­sters’ health at all — to­tally re­place­able,” said MacQuar­rie — and re­mov­ing heavy me­tals — “our biochar loves lead” — the prod­uct is uniquely po­si­tioned to be a ma­jor in­gre­di­ent in cos­met­ics.

It seems ac­ti­vated char­coal is one of the hot new trends in the beauty busi­ness and the fine black pow­der is find­ing its way into ev­ery­thing from face­masks to tooth­paste.

One Nova Sco­tia soap com­pany that pro­duces 85,000 pounds of soap a year al­ready has a spe­cial formula in pro­duc­tion us­ing the Cape Bre­ton­made biochar and 15 other lo­cal soap­mak­ers are ex­per­i­ment­ing with samples.

Per­haps most ex­cit­ing, though, is the pend­ing ban on mi­crobeads. The ubiq­ui­tous lit­tle plas­tic beads com­monly found in shower gels, fa­cial cleansers and makeup prod­ucts are a huge threat to marine life be­cause they get flushed down the drain and get eaten by birds and fish. With its gran­u­lar tex­ture and eco-friendly na­ture, MacQuar­rie says biochar would make an ideal sub­sti­tute.

“Cos­met­ics is sort of the lowhang­ing fruit be­cause the area of adding ac­ti­vated char­coal to cos­met­ics is a re­ally hot area right now — ev­ery­body wants to make an ac­ti­vated char­coal cos­metic,” said MacQuar­rie. “We’re mak­ing some­thing that is or­ganic and it’s made from or­ganic forestry waste — no added chem­i­cals, low-en­ergy process — and it does ex­actly the same thing. It will ab­sorb oil, or pos­si­bly ab­sorb tox­ins from your skin, but it also acts as an ex­fo­liant, and that’s re­ally its No. 1 ben­e­fit.”

Stephanie MacQuar­rie, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in or­ganic chem­istry at Cape Bre­ton Univer­sity, holds some Bre­ton Or­ganic Char­coals biochar in her lab.

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