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Practitioner's Profile: Using Chicken Litter for Biochar

Josh Frye raises a lot of chickens in his poultry operation – as many as 800,000 birds a year. A lot of chickens means a lot of chicken poop to dispose of, along with a lot of propane to keep the chicks warm in the winter - on the order of 30,000 gallons a year. So when a buddy of his, Matt Harper, suggested they take a road trip to Illinois to see a gasifier that would turn poop into heat, Josh was very interested.Josh and Gasifier

The machine at Southern Illinois University made a good impression on Josh. The fixed bed gasifier there processed five tons of poultry litter an hour with “no smell, no smoke and no internal moving parts.”

Josh set out to procure his own gasifier. He worked with Southern Illinois-based Coaltec Energy to identify a technology that best met his needs, and settled on the fixed bed gasifier produced by Westside Energies of Canada. Coaltec is the US sales representative for Westside Energies, and the companies helped him apply for grants to purchase and install the approximately $1,000,000 unit.

Things fell into place as grants and low-interest loans came through from several West Virginia state agencies such as the West Virginia Department of Agriculture who gave $15,000.  After the grant writing was completed, the price of metal suddenly spiked, increasing the cost of the gasifier. Westside and Coaltec kicked in a contribution to keep the project within budget.

A more welcome surprise came for Josh when he was introduced to the concept of biochar by Tom Basden, an extension specialist in nutrient management at West Virginia University. “Tom told me I would end up growing chickens mainly for the poop,” Josh said. “I thought he was off his rocker, but now I think he might be right on the money.”

Josh is now producing a high quality biochar and has sold his first ton at a net price of $480 ($600 a ton for the char and $120 a ton transport costs) to a farmer in New Jersey who is testing its qualities for his crop of corn and soybeans.  A farm in South Carolina is testing the char on pharmaceutical grapes (used in the nutritional supplement industry). Josh worked with IBI board members Johannes Lehmann and Stephen Joseph to optimize the gasifier to produce quality biochar rich in phosphorous and potassium. His test burns so far have made biochar that ranges from 1.7 to 3.2 percent P and 5.4 to 9.6 percent K.

Biochar promises to add an impressive income stream to his operation, but it’s not just about money for Josh. He had been concerned that his waste to energy gasifier was going to destroy the fertilizer value of the poop he had been cleaning out and selling to local farmers for about $5 a ton.  “Now I feel like I am making a real contribution to the Ag world,” Josh said. “Taking a raw material and converting it into a stable carbon-rich product is a great thing. Talk about falling in the poop and coming out smelling like a rose!”

Frye Poultry’s annual production of 125 to 600 tons of poultry litter can generate an estimated 25 to 120 tons of biochar. From his initial testing of the char, Josh found that depending on the operating conditions, his gasifier produces biochar with an organic carbon content ranging from 10 to 34 percent. The carbon content is largely dependent on the moisture content of the poultry litter. With lower moisture contents, the carbon percentage in the biochar increases.

The 30’ by 50’ fixed bed gasifier was installed at Frye Poultry in March, 2007. It operates with negative pressure so it can burn at lower temperatures and produce biochar concurrently with energy. The unit has a maximum feed rate of about 1000 pounds an hour, which can produce five million BTU of energy. Burning up to 12 tons of litter per day, it can produce 3 to 4 tons of char a day.

Coaltec staff is able to monitor performance of the unit, which Josh now operates single-handedly at his West Virginia farm, from their offices in British Columbia, Canada. It took Josh roughly five burns over three months to feel competent in the operation of the unit. Coaltec representatives visited onsite to help with these initial burns. One of the biggest hurdles for Josh - a dedicated Macintosh user - was learning the IBM-based computer programs to operate the gasifier.

In the winter of 2007-08, Josh ran six test burns testing wet or dry litter with or without adding wood shavings or chips. He has run the gasifier in a continuous steady state mode for up to ten days. He has determined that one burn per cycle of broilers is ideal, with a continuous operation period of about three weeks to warm the poultry houses up to 90F for hatchlings, tapering off to 70F.

The initial funding covered much of the installation and first year of operation.  However, Josh has realized that to continue a viable operation, he needs to have a structure to store and dry the chicken litter. Wet litter significantly slowed the process and was less efficient. Josh has received additional grant funding through MicroUnity to build a storage area. This storage unit should be completed in time for the 2008 fall/winter heating season.

Last year’s test burns produced about 30 tons of biochar and saved Josh about four thousand gallons of propane. Eventually he expects to reduce his propane consumption by 80 to 90 percent. He is also looking into using the gasifier heat in the summer to operate a chiller to cool the poultry houses. 

Josh Frye is happy with the unit and appreciative of all the help he has received from Coaltec and others. And he has gotten used to surprises because they keep on coming. Josh gave some biochar to his neighbors to play with, and one neighbor “cussed him,” he said, because the grass growing on the biochar was so thick it tore up his hay mower. “Looked like he gave that pasture a punk rock haircut,” Josh said, “He needs to get more horsepower and sharpen that mower blade.”

Contact information:
Josh Frye: 304-874-4099; fryepoultry@frontiernet.net