Green is the new black
CBU professor develops environmentally friendly charcoal that could change the industry
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.