A Laramie businessman is turning waste wood into a product with a wide range of potential applications.
Rowdy Yeatts manufactures biochar, a form of charcoal made from biological materials such as wood or plant matter. He moved his company, High Plains Biochar, to Laramie earlier this year from Chardron, Nebraska.
“We’d been looking around for a better location that was a little closer to the markets we serve and had better sources of wood waste,” Yeatts said. “After evaluating a lot of different towns in western Nebraska, Wyoming and northern Colorado, we settled on Laramie.”
Biochar is formed through a process called pyrolysis, which is the burning of organic material at a high temperature in the absence of oxygen. If you’ve ever found a hard chunk of black stuff in the bottom of your campfire, that’s biochar.
Yeatts got into the business several years ago after his dog found a piece of biochar during a walk near a reservoir in Nebraska.
“I was fascinated with it and wanted to learn more about it,” he said.
At his headquarters south of town, he gathers waste wood from around Laramie and stores it in large piles. Furniture makers produce peelings, the Albany County Fairgrounds disposes of animal bedding and Tiger Tree amasses wood chips, all of which can be turned into biochar.
Earlier this summer, the city of Laramie dropped off wood chips it collected after cleaning up debris from the June 27 wind storm.
“We’re keeping it out of the landfill,” City Arborist Randy Overstreet said.
The first step in the biochar process involves feeding the waste wood into a machine that chops everything into pieces roughly the same size. The pieces are fed into a large, specialized boiler, which cooks the wood over several hours, leaving behind a product that’s about 85 percent carbon. At the end of the process, the char is funneled out of the boiler into large bags, which Yeatts ships to customers around the country.
Farmers around the world have long used biochar to improve soil, according to the International Biochar Initiative. The material increases the moisture-holding capacity of the soil while also creating habitat for microorganisms, according to scientists.
Yeatts said the product is popular among organic farmers, as it reduces the need for fertilizer.
“It’s really big in the cannabis industry right now,” he said. “Down in Colorado is where we see most of our demand.”
Biochar has also been used for water filtration, as its porous surface attracts and absorbs contaminants. Other researchers are experimenting with feeding it to cattle to reduce methane production.
From an environmental perspective, biochar has promise as a means of storing carbon dioxide, Yeatts said.
“A tree spends its life pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and building its structure, and then when it dies, it falls over and decomposes and releases that carbon back into the atmosphere,” he said. “We stop that process by turning it into a stable form of carbon and putting that carbon back into the ground.”
Yeatts is planning to supply biochar to the city of Laramie, which plans to use it as it plants trees during the upcoming Sept. 9 Community Service Day. Overstreet said about 10 percent of 120 trees scheduled to be planted on the north side of Wyoming 130 near Laramie Regional Airport will have biochar planted beneath the root balls.
“We’re going to use biochar … just as a test, a comparison to see how it does compared to other trees,” Overstreet said.
One challenge facing transplanted trees, which biochar could help mitigate, is the loss of much of their root system.
“It takes them so long to regrow their root system before they can even really start growing above ground,” he said. “We’re trying to speed that process up a little bit.”
Yeatts said his long-term goal is to acquire larger equipment that can process the wood even faster than his current set-up.
“Our goal is to expand this and become much larger,” he said.