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EcoFarm: Facilitating an international collaboration to install biochar technology in Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. However, the country also holds the distinction of being one of the world’s most susceptible countries to the negative effects of climate change through droughts, floods, cyclones, and rising sea levels. In addition to the damage to cities and infrastructure, climatic effects will most likely alter agricultural systems. Ecology Farming Corporation (EcoFarm) began in 2007 with the mission to increase agricultural sustainability and adaptability to increasing changes in weather patterns in the country. The organization has many farming sites around Vietnam and focuses on promotion of local products, environmental protection, enhanced manufacturing techniques, and improved local living standards.

EcoFarm is adamant about what they refer to as Climate-Smart Agriculture—using agricultural practices for increased resiliency and thereby food security, mitigating climate change impacts, and improving product yield. As Mr. Nguyen Hong Quang, the founder of EcoFarm, and his colleague Dr. Nguyen Huu Ninh were investigating innovative agricultural technologies for use on the farm sites, they identified biochar as an ideal fit for one of their farm sites in Vietnam. With their diverse range of skills and expertise, Mr. Quang and Dr. Nguyen proved to be an excellent team. Mr. Quang is a successful and self-made businessman and Dr. Ninh is a professor and Nobel Laureate for his contribution to the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change report. Together in 2013, they wrote a proposal to the VBCF (Vietnam Business Challenge Fund) and won a grant to create farmer cooperatives—which included the purchase of biochar production technology.

Building the Team: The EcoFarm Corn Project

The funded work established an EcoFarm corn project at Duc Hoa district in Long An province. The project‘s main components include the training of local farmers to switch from solely rice to both rice and corn production and the establishment of corn growing cooperatives. Corn is the main feed for pigs and other livestock in Vietnam and most of the corn is imported. As Vietnam works to rely less on imports, corn is a valuable crop to start growing in country. The project supplies cooperatives with seeds and soil amendments (fertilizer and biochar) at lower prices, and supports farmers by leasing machinery (such as planters and harvesters) to the cooperatives free-of-charge. After harvesting, EcoFarm buys all the corn and collects the rice husks and corn stover as feedstocks for a pyrolysis system.

As Mr. Quang and Dr. Ninh started setting up the project in 2013, they traveled to the US state of Hawaii to look into Climate-Smart agricultural practices and technologies that could be used in Vietnam. This trip included a visit to a biochar expert, Josiah Hunt of Hawaii Biochar Products (now Pacific Biochar LLC). Upon landing in Hawaii, the EcoFarm team was greeted by the Hawaii House of Representatives, and then met with staff at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. After these meetings, they traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii to meet Mr Hunt. At the time, Mr Hunt was using a BiGchar 1500 unit (designed and fabricated in Australia by Black is Green) on the Island of Kauai to produce biochar and heat. Mr. Hunt hosted them at his farm and showed them how to make biochar in a cone shaped open pit, as had been done in the early days of production, showed them his biological activation process for biochar materials, and a few of his products. After this visit, Mr Hunt was appointed to the position of Technical Advisor to the project. He worked with the team to identify the types of technologies best suited to the project and assisted in acquiring quotes from potential technology providers in an open bidding process.

The Technology Piece: Black is Green (BiGchar)

Of the technology companies that provided quotes for the project, Black is Green (now PYROCAL) producer of the BiGchar 2200 biochar production technology, was chosen. The BiGchar 2200 unit features continuous feedstock throughput, acceptance of a wide range of feedstock materials, desirable characteristics in the biochar produced, opportunity for heat capture, and greatest capacity for the price.

In 2008, Black is Green began operations in Australia with the objective to make better use of the copious amounts of plant and animal residues that accumulate in rural and urban landscapes. Dr. James Joyce, an engineer with a PhD in biomass gasification, looked to create a range of technologies to extract or add value to otherwise unusable biomass residues. Recently, Black is Green partnered with a fertilizer company and metal fabrication / agribusiness company to form PYROCAL. Dr Joyce brings technical expertise and field experience, and the new company partners bring commercial, capital, and fabrication expertise.

Building the Unit: Bringing all Project Components Together

In November 2014, the team from PYROCAL, Mr Hunt, and the EcoFarm project met at the corn and rice processing facility in Long An province to install the technology. The unit had arrived in a 40-foot container and the core of the technology was more or less fully assembled by the second day. At the end of the third day, with the shed to house the unit still under construction, the team fired up the unit and started producing biochar.

The EcoFarm facility is a great fit for biochar production. The corn cobs and rice hulls that accumulate when processing the field material into storable grain will now be used to create heat needed for drying the grains before storage. The biochar produced will be added to the farm’s organic fertilizer blends and applied back to the fields.
EcoFarm is looking to become a pioneer of the Vietnamese biochar industry. They believe that this type of Climate-Smart Agriculture, using farming residues to produce biochar as a soil amendment for their fields, will further move the country towards greater resiliency and sustainability for agricultural systems.

Click here for a short film on the project.  For more information on this work, contact Josiah Hunt at josiah@pacificbiochar.com.

Read more on EcoFarm (in Vietnamese); PYROCAL; and Pacific Biochar LLC.