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Developing rural livelihood and reducing carbon emissions through decentralized biomass upgrading

Using low-cost, small-scale, portable equipment, we enable rural communities triple their income from crop residues while reducing pollution

Photo of Kevin Kung

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*Please Upload User Experience Map (as attachment) and any additional insights gathered from Beneficiary Feedback in this field

During the beneficiary research phase, we honed in on a specific group of biomass converters in the local community that turns local coconut shells into carbon black (for use as precursor for water filters). Seeing their existing operation and their inefficient/polluting process, we figured that it would be easiest for us to pilot our work with them first as they already have established a well-developed biomass supply chain. We can triple their income while reducing local pollution by >95%.

Why does the target community define this problem as urgent and/or a priority? How is the idea leveraging and empowering community assets to help create an environment for success? (1000 characters)

There are 3 groups in the community: biomass converters, workers at the conversion plants, and local residents. For the existent local biomass converters, as we found, the problem manifests itself mostly in economic terms of high input biomass feedstock costs and razor-thin profit margins, to the extent that the producers are close to shutting down their businesses. For those workers at the biomass conversion plants, the problem manifests itself in a different acute pain point of chronic exposure to smoky and foul-smelling conditions, which they try to minimize by wrapping their shirts around their faces while working. There are also local residents who are affected by the air pollution. However, the voice of the latter two groups is relatively weak as they do not have much power. Our technology addresses the local biomass producers by tripling their net profit. At the same time, it also reduces the local particulate pollution, thereby benefitting the latter 2 groups simultaneously.

How does the idea fit within the larger ecosystem that surrounds it? Urgent needs are usually a symptom of a larger issue that rests within multiple interrelated symptoms - share what you know about the context surrounding the problem you are aiming to solve. (500 characters)

In the larger system, the inefficient biomass conversion process results in significant particulate emissions, and local air pollution that also contributes to urban smog. While there is significant interest (and some government subsidy) in addressing the pollution issue, by and large it remains an externality with no price tag as the effect is diffuse. Existing large-scale technologies lack interest in scaling down to serve communities like this because of perceived inability to make money.

How does the idea affect or change the fundamental nature of the larger ecosystem that surrounds it (as described above) in a new and/or far-reaching way? (500 characters)

By decentralizing biomass equipment, we allow for the profitable and efficient conversion of biomass in a small scale for the first time, allowing our solution to be adopted and replicated on purely economic terms without needing any external subsidy or policy. Thus our solution can develop the rural economy and create further income opportunities while reducing air pollution and mitigating carbon emissions at the same time, turning the perception that biomass, rather than waste, is an asset.

What will be different within the target community as a result of implementing the idea? What is the scope and scale of that difference? How long will it take to see that difference and how will it be sustained beyond BridgeBuilder support? (500 characters)

We estimate each system can help existing biomass converters save their input costs by $40,000/year. When scaled to ~3 systems per converter, this is equivalent to tripling their income. Instead of hauling raw coconut shells to their locale, these converters can now deploy the systems to local farmers to locally upgrade biomass, thereby creating around 3 additional local jobs/system. The impact can scale locally within 1 year; additional profits will sustain the expansion beyond BridgeBuilder.

How has the idea evolved or responded to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase and any further insights provided if you participated in the Expert Feedback Phase? (1000 characters)

We delved more deeply into our target community, and spent a few weeks working with 5 local carbon black producers (existent biomass converters who already are turning coconut shells into carbon black, a precursor for water filter material) as well as their workers. We then identified the specific needs and pain points of existing biomass converters as the suitable first users to test and later sell our units. We then implemented a pilot using a preliminary version of our design (see video) to demonstrate feasibility, producing some samples at a small scale. After seeing the samples, the converters also gave us further product requirements to satisfy (e.g. fixed carbon, ash content, etc. of the final product) which we are working on and are confident that we can meet. When we started the research, our idea was non-specific regarding the end user. Now we have a well-defined end user with whom we can test our value proposition.

What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (You can attach a timeline or GANTT chart in place of a written plan, if desired.) (1000 characters)

As seen in the attached Gantt chart, we will work intensively with a small group (3) existing local biomass converters to iteratively improve on our design after getting their feedback. We will also test, on a small scale, their input and output requirements both in the lab and in the field. To reduce upfront financing risks for our customers, we will adapt a rent-to-own model, where the biomass converters will pay 20% of their cost savings to us. After 12 months, we expect clear demonstration of value proposition in order to scale our system to the local group of 20 local biomass converters through word of mouth, helping them save ~$2.5 million/year. We will also set up a local batch manufacturing process to produce the systems, and begin a partnership with existing agricultural equipment distributors to get our system to such biomass converters throughout India and later beyond.

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (Feel free to share an organizational chart or visual description of your team). (500 characters)

Kevin Kung has worked on the core technology, both at MIT and with communities in India and Kenya, for the past 6 years, which formed his MIT PhD (2013-7). Prior, he has 7 years of experience with engineering design in resource-constrained settings such as Uganda, Nigeria, and Peru. Vidyut Mohan, as his Master’s work, conducted detailed user mapping for a similar biomass upgrading process in India, and later worked on user experience with a rural solar company. He works on the pilot operation.

What aspects of the idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (500 characters)

BridgeBuilder will finance the design, fabrication, testing, and validation of our first full protoype with at least 3 end users in the local community in order to demonstrate the value proposition and technical feasibility. The successful outcome will result in a design that can be mass-manufactured locally to scale to 60 units amongst ~20 end users. Local salaries, operations, and marketing will be covered via another source.

In preparation for our Expert Feedback Phase: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in your project? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea and needs.

Are our observations amongst the 3 existing biomass converters generalizable to the larger group locally, and to other groups in other regions?

Are we able to trace the downstream value chain of the current biomass-to-carbon black/water filter with greater detail, all the way from rural communities in India to the water filter companies in the U.S.?

How can our system be iterated/designed for minimum local maintenance and user intervention?

Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Most biomass (forest/agricultural residues) is located in small pockets in remote areas. Transporting/collecting loose, wet, bulky biomass is expensive, and significantly limits the amount of biomass that can be economically harnessed as renewable energy. As such, smallholder farmers in many remote areas of the world currently have no choice but to dispose or burn such biomass residues in the open air today, which contributes to up to 18% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions (Jacobson, 2015) as well as local urban smog surrounding major cities.

Most biomass processing technologies (torrefaction, gasification, composting, etc.) today are too large-scale (100+ tons/day), centralized, and capital-intensive (>$1 million Euros), and therefore incompatible with the decentralized, small-scale nature of biomass residues. By exploring a novel chemical variant called oxygen-lean torrefaction at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), we demonstrated that we can greatly simplify the biomass processing equipment and eliminate many costly subcomponents. MIT has filed two patents on this process, and our company will be licensing exclusively from it.

This new approach allows us to imagine small-scale, low-cost (EUR 5,000), portable equipment that can be latched onto tractors or shipping containers and be brought to rural areas to locally upgrade biomass before transportation/processing while requiring no external energy input. This reduces the handling cost by ~50% and opens up an additional $1 trillion/year of biomass can be harnessed at competitive cost to other renewables. Not only does this create additional rural livelihood and jobs on the village level, thereby reducing rural-urban migration, but this also can grow the rural economy in a carbon-negative way. At full scale, we can sequester ~100 million tons/year of CO2 equivalent, which is equal to a mid-sized country such as Indonesia/Brazil.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our total addressable market will be most smallholder farmers who currently dispose/burn their crop residues due to lack of economic use of it. Starting in South India in the State of Karnataka, we initially will target coconut farmers and help them triple their net income from processing the coconut shells into carbon black, a valuable intermediate that can either be used locally as solid fuel for cooking/heating ($300/ton) in existent demand with comparable quality, or processed and exported as activated carbon ($1000/ton) for use in water filter in places such as Europe/North America.

These farmers typically have razor-thin margins of around 10% from sales of their products. By enabling these farmers to make additional income by selling their crop residues to a local team that operates our technology, we create about 15 jobs for local underemployed youths, add ~$60,000/yr of additional income to this community of about 500 farms, and sequester ~1,500 tons/year of CO2 equivalent.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Most existing biomass equipment (e.g. Topell, Andritz, Torrefuels) are large-scale (100+ tons/day), cost more than $500,000 upfront, and take years to construct. Such equipment is incompatible in remote communities. Our equipment, designed in rural areas with them, costs $20 initially to start, can be deployed in a matter of weeks, and is much more agile. In recent years, social ventures such as GreenChar and Sanivation have begun exploring decentralized biomass processing. In the past few years we have advised these companies, and know that their technologies are highly inefficient, often with a 10-25% mass conversion rate. Due to this inefficiency, they often have problem producing sufficient product from waste to break even. Our equipment, in comparison, has a mass yield 2-3 times higher, which also doubles/trebles the revenue from the agri-residues. These social ventures have already expressed interest in testing our equipment, as they know it will help their bottom line.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Prototype: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.
  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Takachar (http://www.cyclotronroad.org/takachar/) is set up as a Delaware for-profit company that is commercializing the low-cost, small-scale, portable biomass equipment developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in close partnership with the Tata Trusts in India through an exclusive IP licensing arrangement.

Expertise in sector

  • 5-7 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered company.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

In 2012, I was tracing the charcoal supply in Kenya to its root, and got to know a group of (illegal) charcoal producers in a rural forest. Working with them, I realized that they also did not like felling trees to make charcoal, but they had no other choice as this was the only way they could make money in the rural area. The epiphany came that, if there is a robust way to upgrade local farm residues into valuable products, this can provide rural villages with lucrative and greener livelihood.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

In many rural areas, the open burning of crop residues is not only a local pollutant that causes respiratory illnesses, but also contributes to severe smog in nearby urban areas and is responsible for up to 18% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions (Jacobson, 2015). This therefore is a source of significant planetary degradation. In many of the same communities, their very remoteness makes transportation extremely difficult and costly. This not only makes imported commodities as high as 2-3 times the world price (due to logistical mark-up), but these communities also have trouble economically valorizing their own resources, such as crop residues, which they can only burn/dispose of. By using technology that turns local resources in remote areas into valuable local commodities, we create prosperity at the same time solving the pollution problem by eliminating crop residue burning.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

We are working closely with a local organization, Pirool Energy, in the pilot implementation. We have worked with Pirool in the past in implementing a pine-needle-to-solid-fuel project (using a different technology) in Uttarkhand with Avani Bioenergy, as well as an ongoing biomass-based fertilizer project in Maharashtra. Both projects have begun with significant community input and many key practices were designed by the local villagers, including the biomass collection model and fee structure. We already have demonstrated enthusiasm from the local communities regarding our proposed technology.

Furthermore, for ongoing R&D support, we also work closely in India with IIT-Bombay and ICT-Mumbai, two highly regarded universities with active research in biomass, and with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S. We have begun talking to prospective equipment manufacturing partners in making and distributing our equipment to those communities at an affordable cost.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Our particular community, while poor, already has a streak of entrepreneurship, where many farmers are involved in side businesses and technology-driven value added steps such as fruit drying, and rope production. Through our 4 years' interaction, they convinced us they are happy to entertain any new process as long as it improves their financial bottom line. There is also an eager group of youths to employ, who would otherwise have to relocate to urban slums to find work.

Geographic Focus

Our solution has applicability in remote regions worldwide, but we initially focus in rural India.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

It will take us 12 months to work alongside our community to set up an initial pilot and show initial technical/economic viability. It will take us another 12 months to replicate this pilot to five sites to demonstrate robustness of our process. Between 2020-2021, we will focus on scaling our impact by identifying/training rural implementation partners/microentrepreneurs and by manufacturing/distributing our hardware technology so that they can implement the project in their communities.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No

If Yes, how has project idea changed, grown, or evolved since last year? (2,000 characters)

Not applicable

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Photo of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO)
Team

Hi! Great proposal! I was wondering, how do you balance being an organization based in Delaware while working in rural area, in terms of ensuring that the work stays local, sustainable, and grassroots?

Photo of Kevin Kung
Team

Great question! Given the original technology was developed in the U.S. (MIT), there may understandably be perceived tension between staying local and designing something at an arm's length a world-class institute. However we don't believe that the tension is at all necessary.

First, the Delaware entity is only there to license the technology in the U.S. Currently almost 100% of the work is done in India through local subsidiary and partners.

All the MIT researchers originally involved in this work have been spending a lot of time (at least a few months every year) with rural farmers in India/Kenya. So instead of being generated from the lab, the original concept was actually borne out of the field. As we iterate the equipment, the functional requirements are also defined by the community rather than by a professor. While some initial lab-based tests at MIT have been necessary to ensure the operational safety of the equipment, once that test is passed, all subsequent testing is based in the field. Now even the iterations are being planned with local manufacture in India to accelerate the incorporation of user feedback experience, and to ensure that components compatible with local manufacturing and maintenance capabilities are being identified and used.

Photo of Vidyut Mohan
Team

Hi!
That's a great question. We have a team based in India who try to immerse themselves in the local context as much as possible and liaison with the technology team in the US to develop a context fitting product.

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