215: Biochar Production on a Commercial Scale

Adding biochar as a soil amendment creates an ideal habitat for beneficial microorganisms. Sitos Group CEO and Co-founder Mayo Ryan and PR, Marketing, and Communications Manager Jessica Bronner explain how biochar amendments improve disease resistance, plant health, pest resistance, water retention, and drought mitigation. The team explains three different ways to make biochar and why they have chosen to use the slow pyrolysis method to ultimately produce biochar for different soil types.


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Craig Macmillan  0:00 

Our guest today are Mayo Ryan. He is CEO and co founder of the Sitos Group and also his colleague, Jessica Bronner, who is the PR marketing communications manager for the Sitos roup as well. Thank you both for being here.


Mayo Ryan  0:12 

You're welcome, Craig. Hey, happy to be here.


Jessica Bronner  0:14 

It's a pleasure.


Craig Macmillan  0:16 

So what is the Sitos Group? What do you folks do? How did it start? I know the answers to these questions, but like why are we here? Today we're going to talk about biochar. But where are you focusing? What do you do?


Mayo Ryan  0:29 

Well, you know, when we when we figure it out, I think we'll let you know but anyway, where we are today is Sitos Group is a California based biochar manufacture and carbon removal company and we got started two years ago. It was a really great collaboration between myself and our co founder Steve McIntyre. Steve is the owner, founder and owner of Monterey Pacific, which is a very large vineyard management company, based in solid California about an hour south of Salinas and Monterey  Pacific farms about 18,000 acres of wine grapes in the Monterey County and San Luis Obispo areas. Steve's a winemaker and has his own winery. And he started using biochar with his in house soil scientist Dr. Doug Beck. almost 10 years ago, Doug has spent a lifetime in Far East Asia perfecting and understand the use of biochar and brought it to Monterey Pacific. They've perfected that use. And so, Stephen Monterey Pacific along with Doug had the use of biochar and winegrapes down I started my journey into biochar in late 2017. Designing and building an almond processing company in Northern California, in that process wanted to do something different to the almond shell market is is really valueless. It's a valueless byproduct almond hole is used in cattle feed in that year, the price dropped by 75%. So we were looking for an alternative income source in the form of almond shell and the next year and 2018, Kathleen Draper and Albert Bates wrote this seminal book called Burn and oddly enough, coincidentally, Steve and I read the book The same year, and it's what got us into biochar was the big sort of lightbulb moment. And then in 2018, I think October it was the inner governmental Panel on Climate Change wrote its report about negative emissions technologies. And in my head, I put those two together and have really drank the biochar Kool Aid and never going back. This is a lifelong venture now. We got together a few years ago, a fellow graduate of the California ag leadership program, we're both graduates of that program got us together, Steve's headwinds where he knew everything there was to know about using biochar in agricultural setting. And I had the, you know, production technology side of it pretty well wrapped up his headwinds were my tail winds and vice versa, we got together and as I said earlier, it's a marriage made in heaven. We've had a really wonderful partnership over the last almost couple of years, we have a pilot plant up and running at Regen Monterey, which is Monterey County's Waste Management District, with this incredible staff there. And our partner in that project is Keith Day, who runs the compost operation, the Keith day company that runs the compost operation at region Monterey, and we've had a pilot plant up and running since early this summer. And yeah, things are going really well.


Craig Macmillan  3:04 

So question for you, Jessica. How did you get involved with the Sitos Group?


Jessica Bronner  3:08 

That is a lovely question. So Steve reached out one day and was like, Hey, I have a job opportunity for you. And he connected with mayo, and the rest was history. And I always joke that I never thought I'd be excited about dirt, except now I'm excited about chocolate ish, kind of st compound. But yeah, that's how I got into it. And I'm never looking back. I can tell you that for sure.


Craig Macmillan  3:32 

And so I've got another question for you. Jessica because I think you might have a really great answer to this. We have other episodes on this topic, but just very briefly, what exactly is biochar and what are some of the uses for it?


Jessica Bronner  3:44 

So biochar, what Mayo calls is a wonder drug. And I could not agree more. I really porous material, and it's actually a type of charcoal with a low ash content. So it's a higher carbon content. What sets it apart from charcoal is its porosity. So it's has a lot of pores inside of it. We call it the coral reef for the soil. So all of those pores and little rooms are kind of housing for the micro organisms, or the soil biota that we incorporate into it.


Craig Macmillan  4:16 

Mayo, you had mentioned how you kind of got connected to it. What are some of the uses for biochar in agriculture?


Mayo Ryan  4:22 

We're farmers at heart and I mean, you all of us are lifelong agriculturalists. So we really start the conversation about biochar from an agricultural perspective. It is a wonderful soil amendment and because of its porosity, as Jessica said, and the idea that it is this coral reef for the soil, all of the complex fungi and bacteria and the myriad other micro organisms that help us with our digestion and our immunity and our disease resistant, live in, in biochar, it's like long term housing for all of those organisms. And I mean, in a single handful of soil there are more micro organisms, microbial bodies and our human beings on the planet and and biochar is their long term housing. You know, it's a condo for them. And so they take up residence, and it just fuels all this great activity that all those organisms have when they interact with the plant this complex communication between microbial activity and the plant itself. And so it leads to increased fertility, plant health, disease resistance, pest resistance, a really good amount of moisture retention, so drought mitigation, you know, and you just go down a list like a, like Jessica said, I think it's a wonder drug because it has these almost unbelievable amount of CO benefits. It does so many good things. That's just on the on the agricultural side, what we think about at Sitos are these co equal benefits of soil health and carbon sequestration. It's a really effective shovel ready and efficient tool. First, full carbon seed, atmospheric carbon removal,


Craig Macmillan  5:50 

You talked about carbon. So obviously, this is made from materials that are high in carbon, Jessica, what kinds of materials go into this process that we're going to talk about in a second, what kinds of materials go into making biochar?


Jessica Bronner  6:02 

Well, ultimately, you can pyrolyze is the secret word that we're going to get into in a little bit, but you can pyrolyze any organic matter Sitos Group specifically, we are currently working with municipal wood waste. We tried working with some compost leftovers previously, and they were a little high in water content for us to make biochar in the moment. So now we're just using some wood residue from other wood materials that are lower in the water content, but you can pyralyze organic, any type of organic waste, if that's biosolids, if that's corn husks, if that's vineyard waste, or almond waste, we're looking to get into almond waste almond hole and shell later on down the road hopefully sooner than later. But anything organic ultimately, if it's going back into the agricultural application,


Craig Macmillan  6:51 

So Mayo, there's a particular process we've called pyrolysis that's necessary to make this happen so that you don't end up with ash or charcoal is it's a different kind of a combustion Mayo, Can you talk a little bit more about pyrolysis and then we'll talk about how you actually do it.


Mayo Ryan  7:04 

Our goal is to ultimately make various qualities of biochar for specific soil types. And so we want a machine that's adjustable, which is why we pick slow pyrolysis there are other means of making biochar one's called gasification. And that's what we have largely in California. These are these are really energy production facilities where energy is about 80% of the product and biochar is a byproduct. Fast pyrolysis is another way to do it. Slow pyrolysis is a little bit different. There aren't many manufacturers that equipment around the world, but I think we found a great one and that machines very adjustable. So we can through different throughput times different temperature rates, we can make biochar 's that have higher pH level than others or a higher cation Exchange capacity and ultimately hope to customize biochar for soil types but you know, it's a new process. This is our machine at Regen Monterey the pilot plant is the first of its kind in the country. We've spent a good long while investigating manufactures years actually at this and, and are really pleased with this. With this process. The machine was invented or designed by two professors and biochar, Johanna Sleeman at Cornell and Stephen Joseph at the University of New South Wales, to pretty eminent people in our world. And so far, we're really pleased with the design and hope to perfect it over the years. And, you know, get the most out of it that we can it's economic, it's fairly easy to operate. As Jessica said, it's feedstock agnostic, we can use a lot of different feedstocks, and it's transportable, we can put one in a 40 foot trailer and, and you know, it's not like we can hook it up to the back of a car and drive it around. But it is somewhat transportable.


We've had other guests on the podcast and I've had tailgates where we have had big piles of vines that we lit from the top and then hose down material at the end. I've talked to people about digging pits and burning stuff covered in the ground. We've seen some smaller kinds of units, kind of like a tank I've seen people doing and kind of an open trench. The secret to pyrolysis is it's the low edition of oxygen. Is that right?


That's exactly right. Yeah.


Craig Macmillan  9:08 

So you're talking about a machine. So what is this machines, magical machine? What is how does it work? How do you get stuff into it? How does it burn? How do you get stuff out of it? How much can you do at a time? Does it take 10 people to operate it? I've just gotten super curious about this, because this is the first time I've really heard about this kind of technology.


Mayo Ryan  9:27 

You make it sounds so mysterious, but it's really not all the processes you described, Craig are what stands out about them is that they're batch processes. We wanted something that was continuous. There's such an abundance of agricultural byproducts, waste and biosolids, and forest waste in California that we wanted something that we could start this machine or put two or three of them side by side and it was a continuous process. So the feedstock enters the machine in a in a trough at the bottom of the machine at a temperature say 150 degrees centigrade, the moisture leaves so we dry the feedstock going in and In it say 350 to 500 degrees centigrade, all of the non carbon materials. The volatiles, if you will in that feedstock, whether it's almond shell or biosolids, or wood waste go away from the feedstock. And what we create is this bubble of sin gas or production gases. And at those temperatures, those sin gases combust. That bubble of of flame, if you will, lives above the feedstock. And that heat is what pyralyzes that say 750 degrees centigrade, paralyzes the feedstock. And what paralyzation means is it literally means change by fire. And so that feedstock goes from whatever it was with whatever quantities of lignin, cellulose hemicellulose into almost a pure carbon, it's completely chemically transformed. And what you end up with is just because it earlier is this very porous material. One of the quality standards for biochar is the International biochar initiative, surface area standard, which is 500 meters per gram. It was hard to get my head around this, but that's the surface area of a football field in the size of a pencil eraser. And that just speaks to how porous and fragile it is. And if you were to take an electron microscope and look at one of the walls of those pores, it would look exactly like the original start. It's very fractal down to different degrees of magnification. And at that high carbon content level microbes break their teeth on it, you know, it's it's something that lasts in the soil for hundreds, if not 1000s of years, as farmers we are using the biochar, principally for soil health and Plant Health take that responsibility for using that biochar in an agricultural setting, you know, very seriously. And so we are, you know, we really think that that leads to a more durable and permanent carbon removal, but it's just as I said earlier, it's a wonderful, incredible wonder drug. It does so many great things.


Craig Macmillan  11:48 

To continue, mayo what happens to the stuff that's not the carbon you said it volatilizes off, but what's its eventual fate in the environment?


Mayo Ryan  11:50 

We essentially combust it and so the machine acts as its own thermal oxidizer, so everything that's not carbon gets lifted above the feedstock. The feedstock never actually catches fire all the sin gas and production cloud gases do above the feedstock and they're consumed right then and there. And so theoretically, you know, what comes out of the stack is very little heat, principally, we generate a ton of byproduct heat, but very little exhaust gases, little NOx little Sox, well under what you know, are the standards here. Everything that's as I said, Not carbon gets combusted within the chamber


Craig Macmillan  12:34 

And gets broken down into less problematic. Compact.


Mayo Ryan  12:37 

Exactly, yes,


Craig Macmillan  12:38 

Question for you just the coolant, the biochar coolant. I'm hearing a lot about biochar. Obviously, there's a lot of people mixing up the Kool Aid. I'm guessing that your job is probably to sell the Kool Aid.


Jessica Bronner  12:49 

My job is actually to educate people on what the Kool Aid is. Once they know it kind of sells itself going from there on. It's definitely breaking down the complex understanding of slow pyrolysis and biochar so if someone could understand it, who's new to the ag industry or carbon removal industry or any of that.


Craig Macmillan  13:13 

So again with you, Jessica, so this material is produced, you folks are selling it to other folks selling it to different people, outlets, companies, municipalities.


Jessica Bronner  13:23 

That is the future plan for now we have an offtake agreement set for this first pilot plant with Monterey Pacific. So actually, all the biochar we'll be producing in the years going forward will be going directly into the vineyards that MPI manages, which is terrific yay for Sitos, Group biochar. And then moving forward it will be available to sell to outside markets.


Craig Macmillan  13:46 

What do you think those markets might be?


Mayo Ryan  13:47 

I can go with that. You know, we're we're we're lucky in that biochar and wine grape vineyards is an established fact more or less. We can all stipulate the benefits of biochar in wine grapes largely due to Dr. Doug Beck and Steve's work over the last eight to 10 years. We're doubling down in the wine grape industry is is kind of a short term means of proving biochar is affecting agriculture. Next, we'll spend time educating almond and pistachio growers in the San Joaquin Valley about those same benefits. I used to work as pistachio grower relations guy for a large pistachio company. And you know, I'm convinced pistachios and biochar go hand in hand. But there are so many other uses. We can sequester carbon and concrete, you know line production for the concrete businesses one of the largest carbon emitters in the world. If we can get biochar and concrete we can significantly reduce by 20%. Perhaps the amount of lime going into concrete, we can create graphenes and graphite for use and batteries. The endless list of uses of biochar is really endless. We were starting in agriculture but there are a lot of opportunities for us as we build the business.


Jessica, are you you said you're doing the education and the outreach. You're teaching people what it is what kinds of methods tools, avenues are you using to communicate all this stuff?


Jessica Bronner  14:59 

So far we've been very successful on LinkedIn. That's a great avenue for people to find out what we're doing where Mayo is every week speaking to different at different arrangements and educating people that way. With that we do a lot of public outreach. So we spoke at the Monterey Rotary Club and then the Cannery Row Rotary Club. So we had some good educational moments, we'll be having a biochar tailgate with a vineyard team coming up next beginning of next year. And then our website has a lot of information about biochar. We'll write blogs, if people have questions, they can submit questions on our website. We really want to be open book to the public and to people who are interested because educating oneself is kind of the most powerful tool that you have i We really value that and we want to create avenues for people to learn from their own standards. And then a website that we like to go to for information for the public to know about, they obviously probably already do if they know about biochar is the US biochar initiative USBI. They have a terrific website with a lot of knowledge and materials on biochar and application and agriculture and different settings.


Craig Macmillan  16:12 

And just as a as a timestamp, this has been recorded in November of 2023. And so this Tailgate you mentioned, would be in 2024. For Mayo to you what what is the future look like? The big picture future do you think is going to be for this industry? This is a sounds like it's an industry are potentially a fledgling industry, maybe. But where do you see this going? You've talked about almond orchards and you've talked about municipal waste. What's the potential here on a big, big picture? You


Mayo Ryan  16:42 

know, agriculture is facing a huge set of problems, which makes it just more and more difficult to meet this global demand for a secure and healthy food supply. And those problems are, you know, soil degradation and desertification, drought or moisture loss. You know, carbon emissions from agriculture is huge. We've got to fix that loss of biodiversity. And so, we believe that biochar is a way to transition conventional traditional ag into a regenerative ag set of practices, which would include things like cover cropping and minimum or no till on but but essentially at the highest level conversion from a chemical based farming regime to biological based farming regime and, and we want to facilitate that our vision of sounds embarrassing a bit, Craig, but you know, Steven, Jessica, and Alan and our wonderful operators who Swain said, Well, I'll want to sequester a million tonnes of carbon be a mega ton supplier of carbon removal by the end of 2030. It sounds crazy. When I say it, I get a bit embarrassed. But our friends in the carbon world are telling them that's not enough, we need to have much more larger ambitions, you know, we all need to be sequestering a billion tons by 2030. And we're you know, we're just a very small part of that. But that's our goal. That's what we want to have happen. That's what we're going to pursue over the next seven years is to take these plants that we have the goal of the pilot planet region, Monterey is to perfect a three machine design that will templatized and deploy throughout the Salinas, Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, I think in my lifetime anyway, you know, I don't have to look much beyond those regions for opportunities to make biochar and sequester in soil. But that's the plan and to you know, to do our best to facilitate regenerative ag and, and those regenerative site supply chains and remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as we possibly can.


Craig Macmillan  18:24 

Jessica what do you have to add to that? What? What do you see? What's your vision?


Jessica Bronner  18:28 

My vision for biochar is really lead the regeneration of the earth to the soil. I mean, I recently read, or am reading the book by Paul Hawkins called regeneration and mayo knows it very well. And I encourage everyone else to go and read it if they have not. But it ultimately talks about how are we supposed to thrive on a planet that's degenerating? And what can we do to regenerate that so we can continue to sustain life? Well, not just since sustain life, but to thrive, have life thrive on this planet? So future going forward would for biochar to Excel that regeneration of the earth of agriculture of supply chains of humanity? That would be that's my big end. I'll be I'll go through this.


Craig Macmillan  19:14 

That's a good goal. Let's continue with you, Jessica. We're getting close to the end here. What is one thing that you would recommend to listeners or that you'd like them to take away regarding this topic?


Jessica Bronner  19:26 

I mentioned it earlier, but really is just to educate themselves on biochar and sustainability and regeneration, because there's only so much you can do from here. So he or she say, but when you actually double down and find out what it is that you're passionate about, or maybe you're not passionate about for your individual self, I think that's really powerful. Like I said before, I had never knew that I'd be excited about charcoal or about agriculture, but here I am, like, never, never going back and I really attribute that passion to education. personal education me diving in and figuring that out so that's that's my biggest encouragement for people just curious about it is to read about it dive in jump in headfirst come down a rabbit hole and drink the Kool Aid.


Craig Macmillan  20:14 

How about you Mayo?


Mayo Ryan  20:16 

Know what I'm gonna shamelessly crib what Jessica stains it's get involved. I mean, if you're on our website and you find that that tab and that button all over, we have a little mantra internal saying it Sitos. It's not either or it's also and we have a very limited competitive view, we don't think there are such things in, in the biochar or carbon removal world as competitors, we need lots of Sitos' we need lots of other companies in this business as many as can can get involved. And that's it. You know, Friday, we hit a record. It's the first time we were over two degrees of pre industrial temperature, a third of this year was over 1.5 degrees, which was the Paris Climate Accord. It's here it's happening. And so my suggestion and my hope is that is that people just get involved educate, as Jessica said, and, and join us in this effort to save ourselves.


Craig Macmillan  21:03 

Jessica, I am going to ocme back to you, where can people find out more about you and your colleagues and the Sitos group in general?


Jessica Bronner  21:11 

Our website and click the Get Involved button and you send an email directly to me and I will respond to you ASAP. You can also find us like I said on LinkedIn, we have our social media platforms on Facebook and Instagram. We're thinking about launching a YouTube channel. You can go check us out right now and find some terrific vineyard application videos of biochar have been applied to some of the McIntyre vineyards, soils. But I would say email if you want to get direct contact with us. It's our first names with our last initial at it is We got fancy and put a dot Earth on there. So yeah, send us an email reach out. We're happy to chat set up a call and have a conversation. Well,


Craig Macmillan  21:53 

our guest today has been Mayo Ryan. He is CEO and co founder of the Sitos group and Jessica Bronner, who is the peer Marketing Communications Manager for Sitos want to thank you both for being here.


Mayo Ryan  22:05 

Delighted, Craig, thank you for having us.


Jessica Bronner  22:07 

It was a pleasure for sure.


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