The Carbondale-based start-up Biochar Solutions has been named as one of 11 clean technology companies from around the world competing for a $25 million prize from Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge.
Biochar Solutions was founded in March by Morgan Williams, who patented a biochar formula for land applications.
“We’re so excited to be working with Virgin and to bring biochar to the global mainstream,” Williams said Friday.
The Virgin Earth Challenge is an ongoing competition, launched in 2007. It is the brainchild of Virgin’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson and former Vice President Al Gore. They’re searching for a company that has developed a commercially viable model that also permanently removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to combat global warming.
Williams began the application process in 2008, before his company was formed but after he’d begun working on his biochar formula and business model. A Virgin representative visited Biochar Solutions’ Carbondale office earlier this year, before its selection as a finalist.
Six of the 11 finalists are from the United States. They were selected out of a field of 2,600 companies that applied for the prize.
“The portfolio includes companies from all over the world representing lots of different technologies, so it’s really cool to be included,” Williams said.
Williams had previously been the bio-energy expert for the Carbondale nonprofit Flux Farm. He developed the for-profit model as he perfected biochar-based formulas for forestry projects and paying customers like landscapers. Biochar is a charcoal-like substance made from heated biomass.
Among his first successes was the reclamation of the Hope Mine, on Castle Creek, which launched in October 2010.
Williams used his biochar treatment there, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the nonprofit For the Forest, to revegetate the eroding and mine tailing-strewn site.
For the Forest’s biochar order for this project — roughly 18,000 pounds — was reputedly the largest in the U.S. in 2010.
He launched Biochar Solutions while working on that project.
The company has just four full-time employees. Williams said the company’s unique biochar formula has quickly drawn interest from landscapers, composting companies and soil makers — so much so that he’s sold out of biochar for several months out.
“Other people are out there generating biochar, but not specifically for soil production,” Williams explained.
Williams said an influx of cash from Branson’s prize would help them expand enough to meet demand and make more biochar.
“We love being sold out, but the market is there for us to ramp up production,” he said.
Perhaps more importantly, he has estimated that biochar technology could remove 1 billion tons of carbon per year from the atmosphere if used to its potential.