Pa.-based company in the running for $25 million environmental prize

    Jeffrey Wallin

    Jeffrey Wallin

    A Pennsylvania company is in the running for one of the biggest environmental prizes ever — with $25 million going to the winner.

    The “Virgin Earth Challenge” was issued by British mega-entrepreneur Richard Branson and Al Gore, who are looking for novel ideas in “greenhouse gas removal” — activities that can take more greenhouse gases out of the air than they emit.

    The product that has caught the attention of the judges in this high-stakes competition is light as a feather. It’s called biochar, but it’s not for your grill.

    “It’s essentially charcoal that is intentionally made to be used in the soil,” explained Bob Cirino, who is better known as Biochar Bob. “It naturally increases the soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients, and it also lasts for centuries, so it’s a form of carbon sequestration.”

    Cirino works as an educator and ambassador for the Biochar Company based in Berwyn, Chester County.

    The company makes the product mostly out of wood trash, which is burned in a closed system of high-temperature ovens.

    “A plant will take carbon out of the atmosphere, and use photosynthesis to turn it its tissues, its branches. And what we do is take that branch and we put it into a unit that will make biochar. Instead of having that carbon burn into smoke, it stays as charcoal,” said Cirino.

    Biochar is one of 11 companies selected as finalists among tens of thousands in the Virgin Earth Challenge. The Biochar Company recently merged with a biochar company in Colorado that had entered the contest.

    Company CEO Jeffrey Wallin says the judges are looking for carbon sequestration models that could have a worldwide impact. “We have a shot, at the same time it’s a big hairy audacious goal, so, it’s fun, it’s exciting to wake up every morning and just have that in front of you.”

    The decision will likely not be made for quite some time, to give companies time to spread and grow their concepts.

    In the meantime, biochar enthusiasts using the substance in their gardens say they have to water a third less.

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