FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
In his University of Hawaii laboratory, Michael Antal watches as lab technician Lloyd Paredes, right, pulls off the "elephant trunk vent" to expose the pressure vessel where the "feedstock" materials are placed for the flash carbonization process. The machine shown is the laboratory flash carbonization reactor.
UH creates ‘high-tech’ charcoal
Flash carbonization turns green waste into fuel and fertilizer
Technology developed by University of Hawaii researcher Michael J. Antal Jr. to produce charcoal from green waste is generating revenue for UH and holds promise for wide commercial use.
Not only does the charcoal carry potential use as a fuel, it also has applications in improving soil fertility.
Antal calls the charcoal's effects on plant growth "magical."
Not bad for a concept that was once ridiculed by an engineer.
"Many people feel we could transfer this knowledge of technology globally," said UH soil scientist Goro Uehara, who sees great potential in Antal's charcoal to improve plant production.
Antal's flash carbonization process uses heat and pressure to turn corn cobs, macadamia nut shells, invasive weeds, grasses and other kinds of green waste into a high-quality, clean alternative to wood or coal.
His technology has raised nearly $200,000 in licensing revenue for UH, said Richard Cox, director, Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development. "We hope for quite a bit more," he added.
Antal said there has not been much interest in charcoal in the United States, but it is extremely important around the world not only for cooking, but for making steel from iron.
He has been working with Uehara in the UH Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences to use charcoal to create fertile soil for plants.
The two scientists cite multiple benefits of charcoal to improve plant growth, reduce deforestation and wood-burning for fuel and to sequester carbon in the soil to help fight global warming. "Soil is probably the major source of carbon sink in the world," Uehara said.
Cox said, "A lot of people don't think of charcoal as high technology, but at least this process is very high tech." The university has a U.S. patent on the technology, and U.S. and foreign patent applications are pending approval, he said.
Antal said license fees and funding since 1999 have totaled more than $700,000, most of which has gone into patent expenses.
He has been producing charcoal from green waste since 2004 in a demonstration plant he built on the Manoa campus with $50,000 from the university. The process is close to meeting emission standards for commercial operations, he said. "Once we do that, we have a package our licensees can use immediately."
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Goro Uehara shows the carbon powder used as a soil additive to create terra preta (dark soil).
Licenses have been issued to Carbon Diversion Corp., a local startup company based on Antal's patent; Kingsford Products Co., a charcoal manufacturer; and Pacific Carbon and Graphite Corp.
Antal joined UH in 1982 when offered a chairmanship in renewable energy in the Hawaii Natural Energy Laboratory with a $1 million endowment. His title is coral industries distinguished professor of renewable energy resources.
He had been involved with thermonuclear physics, hydrogen and ethanol production from biomass and other alternate energy research programs at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Princeton University.
When an East-West Center colleague from Thailand asked him to talk at a biomass conference in Bangkok about ways to improve charcoal production, he said, "I thought in my head, 'That is a boring subject.'"
But it became a "pet project" after his colleague explained how Thailand's native forests were being destroyed to meet the demand for charcoal, which was produced inefficiently.
Antal said he began working on technology to improve crop yields with charcoal after UH horticulturist-geneticist Jim Brewbaker asked for some charcoal to help some seedlings that were not rooting easily.
He said he called Kingsford and talked to an engineer about his work, and "he ridiculed it," adding, "You can imagine my pleasure at having Kingsford license this technology. Engineers there are no longer ridiculing me."
Uehara said Amazonian Indians were adding charcoal to soils centuries ago to create fertile terra preta, or dark soil, which altered their productivity permanently. "It is so valuable now, people are mining it."
UH soil scientists are "way ahead" of researchers elsewhere in characterizing the charcoal, said Tai McClellan, UH graduate student.
She did initial experiments on plants with Antal's charcoal as an undergraduate with soil fertility specialist Jonathan Deenik. The first results were disappointing, she said, "but we didn't want to quit. We decided to look at the charcoal itself."
They found that the more "cooked," or carbonized, it was, the better it was for growth, she said. Now Antal is producing "designer charcoal" with high- and low-volatile matter for research, Uehara said.
Antal also is doing research on charcoal-powered carbon fuel cells, which he said are much more efficient than hydrogen fuel cells.
"The military is investing a lot of money in developing carbon fuel cells," he said, adding that he is a consultant to Stanford Research Institute, which is doing a lot of work in that area.