Charcoal: ages-old practice meets the new age

Saskatchewan company makes charcoal boluses to treat livestock ailments such as scours, coccidiosis and diarrhea

CRAIK, Sask. — What’s old is new again.

Charcoal, one of earth’s oldest substances, is being used to improve animal health, enhance soil quality, reduce methane emissions and control odour. It also has a role in personal care and bio-plastics.

Since 2008, Titan Clean Energy Projects, a Craik, Sask.,-based company, has been at the forefront of reinventing this time-worn technique using modern technology to make byproducts from wood charcoal.

Charcoal production has been used by humans to absorb toxins for thousands of years.

“The technology pyrolysis has roots from the beginning of time and it’s still used today, but now we’re bringing it back for these uses such as animal nutrition and to have more natural products in animal farming,” said the company’s chief executive officer, Jamie Bakos.

“Coal is just biomass that’s been left for a hundred million years or more with pressure. We do what nature has done to generate coal with fresh plant material in 27 minutes, which represents the transformation time for our thermal process. One is using pressure while the other is using heat without oxygen.”

More than 2,500 years ago, early Egyptians used charcoal as an antidote to poison and a preservative in the embalming process.

Ancient Hindus purified their water with it and today it is still the most common way to filter water.

Amazonians turned it into biochar 1,500 years ago and enriched their famous terra preta soils, which are some of the most fertile still in use.

And in the 1800s, Europeans discovered activated charcoal was a natural toxin binder. They used it to treat intestinal disorders in humans and animals and to reduce the smell of manure.

Charcoal treatment methods in agriculture gradually left the market when antibiotics gained wide use and appeal in the 1950s.

“There was a big push where you could use antibiotics and chemical methods as opposed to purely more natural methods. It’s been kind of forgotten. A lot of farmers used to use charcoal boluses,” Bakos said.

“I get this all the time from the old-time farmers like, ‘oh, I remember I had those charcoal boluses and I can’t get them anymore.’ We now have a following of farmers in their 60s and 70s that remember the charcoal bolus and they’re looking for the solution because it worked.”

As concerns have arisen over the use of antibiotics, growth hormones and steroid additives in animal feed, livestock producers are again looking at the use of carbon supplementation.

Titan is selling Carbon 2M charcoal boluses to treat ailments such as scours, coccidiosis and diarrhea.

“It doesn’t work like antibiotics at all. It’s completely different. Antibiotics are important. It’s just that this will help bind toxins and is a preventive maintenance kind of thing,” Bakos said.

The list of testimonials is growing as producers again mix activated charcoal in animal feed to improve herd health.

According to Titan’s website, cattle producers have used it to cure scours and coccidiosis as well as diarrhea in younger and older animals, including bulls.

“I’m not sure what exactly the charcoal did to help with such a remarkable recovery, but due to the carbon’s high surface area, it may have bound the intestinal toxin or anti-nutritive antagonist that have such a negative impact on the bull’s digestive system. I felt it was remarkable that he went from the brink of euthanization to a breeding bull in only four months,” wrote Jamie Jensen, a Regina-area producer.

Bakos said there are a number of scientific studies available describing the benefits of activated charcoal in animal farming.

The company is also collaborating with the University of Waterloo and University of Guelph to study the effects of charcoal feed additives on dairy milk production and feed quantity.

One study using 56 dairy cows saw a 10 percent improvement in milk production across the entire herd using Carbon 2M mixed into high quality feed.

Another study saw cows in the charcoal and non-charcoal control barns producing the same amount of milk but the charcoal-additive- cows ingested 10 percent less feed.

“The somatic cell count was much, much lower. So it shows that they’re not fighting off infections or disease or anything like that. Their just overall gut health improved,” said Bakos.

Recent studies also show that cattle with carbon in their diets produce less methane and chickens produce less ammonia.

Since 2008, Titan has been diverting waste wood that would normally go into landfills and turning it into charcoal at its 50-acre Craik location.

Bakos said a recent study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency identified more than one billion tons of waste wood and agricultural non-food residues that could be processed using pyrolysis technology.

“Our technology was recently identified by the intergovernmental panel on climate change as one of the solutions that can make a meaningful impact that is ready to be scaled and can be adoptive now to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but add very high-tech value to industry and agriculture now.”

At the Craik facility, waste wood is shredded into mulch-like small pieces to be carbonized.

Using an auto thermal process, the chips are heated at high temperature in an oxygen-free vacuum of the company’s proprietary pyrolysis unit to produce Carbon 2M.

Besides biochar, the pyrolysis process separates out crude oil, a renewable natural gas and wood vinegar.

Titan has developed and commercialized four carbon and activated charcoal products:

  • Carbon 2M: the animal feed additive
  • Mayan Gold: a soil additive
  • Black Kitty’s Odour Eliminator: odour-absorbing pellets
  • Firefly: a health and wellness product

Bakos said the company remains focused on finding new products derived from charcoal and agricultural fibre.

“Titan has recently won a plastics competition called the ISC (Innovative Solutions Canada) Plastics Challenge and is developing the world’s first carbon negative compostable bio-plastics for food containers and agricultural plastics. The product includes charcoal and agricultural fibre, and is compostable and a safe and effective alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastics,” he said.

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