Graduating from the Innovator Fellowship
Biochar Means Business
Innovator fellowships offer unique experiential learning opportunities (even remotely), with regular openings available throughout the year: click to view
A doctoral candidate in her final year of biological systems engineering at UC Davis, Adina Boyce researches biochar – a type of charcoal specifically used for soil amendment or environmental remediation. Her graduate studies explore upstream development and downstream application of biochar preparations, drawing on extensive engineering expertise and a personal love of international agriculture. The Innovation Institute for Food and Health (IIFH) partnered with FoodShot Global to provide Boyce with real-world venture capital experience to develop her research concept over the last 12 months.
IIFH supports the work of our partners in tackling soil health challenges globally, with a view to advancing food systems for improved health outcomes and sustainable production. FoodShot Global is a collaborative platform of innovators, investors, industry leaders, and advocates working to accelerate the transformation to a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system. Boyce’s learnings from an onsite residency in New York enabled her to advance a unique entrepreneurial biochar business plan.
FoodShot Global is continuing its commitment to soil health with a new FoodShot: Innovating Soil 3.0, Deep Dive. Innovative businesses are invited to apply for up to $10M in equity funding; and nominations of researchers, early-stage entrepreneurs, and policy advocates are welcome for the $500,000+ GroundBreaker Prize. Applications and nominations are due July 15, 2020: click to view
According to the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, biochar has been shown to increase pH and soil fertility in areas with more weathered, acidic soils, like in the tropics.
While research in this area has been growing, there is still little known about some of the more important constituent transport, agronomic and sustainability effects attributed to char additions to soils, especially under more arid conditions such as exist in California – PhD Supervisor, UC Davis Professor Bryan Jenkins
As such, Boyce sees utility for biochar specifically in soil enrichment or environmental remediation. She works on biochar production and characterization for use in improving soil properties, nutrient and water holding capacity, and overall agricultural and environmental sustainability.
I am enthusiastic about learning how to establish a profitable, cutting-edge company within the agribusiness industry that serves others well while also serving the planet – UC Davis Doctoral Candidate Boyce
Biochar is a specialized form of charcoal primarily used as a soil amendment, or as a sorbent in wastewater treatment. Aside from water retention, biochar can also help improve the retention of nutrients in soil, an obvious benefit to farmers. Additionally, soil is a filtering agent for almost all of our water, which residents in agricultural spaces are particularly aware of. “Many others fail to make the connections between soil health and human health, but it’s certainly an important issue,” asserts Boyce.
Biochar has a ‘priming’ effect that increases the pH of soils, especially useful in the application of raw biochar to acidic soils. This priming ability can be optimized under certain biochar preparation treatments, tailoring it for application to a variety of different soil needs. Biochar currently enjoys only limited use in potting mixes, fertilizer mixers including emulsions, and use by specialty crop growers to prevent drought in young trees. Expanding its application through metal-impregnation or other pretreatment modifications could increase its utility in agriculture production and wastewater management.
Boyce’s major in biological systems engineering explores how the earth and agriculture work together as a system. Part of that means learning how to use efficiency and sustainability measures to up-cycle waste in a circular economy. For example, when considering outputs from the almond and dairy industries of California, smart efficiency measures that divert waste organic matter to biochar conversion can be both good for the environment and cost-efficient for farmers.
The idea would be that every waste output is up-cycled in the value chain so that there is as little waste as possible – UC Davis Doctoral Candidate Boyce
There’s still room for optimization, which is what Boyce’s research focuses on. The best means of biochar production are dependent upon the unique characteristics of the application in question. Various kinds of biochar are produced for different purposes; granular biochar is typically placed directly into soils, whereas others are ground into a fine powder for use with drip irrigation systems. Translating this research innovation into a business venture provided the motivation for Boyce’s original biochar proposal that received the Sustainable AgTech Innovation Center award in 2014. “In the future, I expect distinct communities and geographic areas will work more cooperatively to ensure the efficient usage of waste and determine the best methods of up-cycling,” envisions Boyce.
Organizations like the UC Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources continue to assess the viability of biochar using data analytics. “A lot of new innovations regarding soil health involve data acquisition, and providing that information back to farmers so that they are more informed,” assesses Boyce. “Artificial intelligence will help create databases where we can model outcomes, and I think this will help farmers match biochars with appropriate soil types.” Considerable biomass in the state of California, for example, could be upgraded to biochar for serving new niches in farming. Using data insights to provide such prescriptive services to farmers would be incredibly useful in the future.
Boyce’s studies currently incorporate physics and chemistry data but will expand in the future to include trials that explore a truer representation of how biochars perform in the field. In a laboratory setting, conditions can be controlled more easily; whereas, in a field setting, more variables like wind and temperature can influence the ecosystem. “I’m primarily focused on finding out how biochar can provide the most value and determine its market worth using actual data to develop realistic projections,” says Boyce.
I have a lot of respect for those pursuing avenues of entrepreneurship and building business themselves, and IIFH has taught me that I can also make strides to develop such new skills in addition to my research – UC Davis Doctoral Candidate Boyce
Interested in grad fellowship opportunities? Regular openings are available throughout the year! For more information, go to foodaghealth.solutions/innovator-fellowship
tags: food and agriculture innovation, food innovation fellowship, graduate student fellowship, iifh foodshot fellowship, innovator fellow, Adina Boyce