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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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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 $150,000/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.

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 coconut fruit drying, and coconut coir 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 South 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

This inspired (1)

GreenStand

10 comments

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Photo of Ezra Jay
Team

Hi Kevin, Cool project.

Are you still in touch with your group of people who make charcoal? I would love to connect with you and see if we could connect them to planting funds. It has been a personal goal of mine to create an alternative means of employment for them.
Jay@greenstand.org

Photo of Kevin Kung
Team

Yes -- will reach out to you separately via email. Thanks for getting in touch!

Photo of Ezra Jay
Team

How wonderful. Can GreenStand actually pay people more to plant trees than to cut them down? The charcoal industry is the ultimate experiment testing point for this project. Super excited. Thanks

Photo of Ezra Jay
Team

How wonderful. Can GreenStand actually pay people more to plant trees than to cut them down? The charcoal industry is the ultimate experiment testing point for this project. Super excited. Thanks

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