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New forest product making soils better

Trees that decompose return nutrients to soils and benefit future plants, but that takes decades.

What if something can be made in, say, days that would enhance the soil every bit as much as plant decomposition? Maybe better?

Cool Terra® is a new product made by Cool Planet, a venture start-up company that is building a facility at the Central Louisiana Regional Port in Alexandria. It is the first of what the company hopes to be several agricultural products that will also store carbon that might otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

Cool Terra® starts with biochar, made through a proprietary pyrolysis process using wood chips in Louisiana. At present a pilot unit is being used to make the biochar that is shipped to California for final processing.

The soil-enhancement material Cool Terra® already is a component of a lawn-care product, but it wasn’t exactly the company’s first intention when it was established in 2009. Cool Planet’s work primarily was to produce biofuel products.

“When ground was first broken at the Carbon Technology Production Center at the Central Louisiana Regional Port, Cool Planet anticipated utilizing the site for the development and production of both technologies,” said Cool Planet President and CEO Jim Loar.

Through research and development, however, Cool Planet discovered an engineered biocarbon that when mixed into the soil made a good dwelling place for microbes that the company says improves characteristics that makes the soil better.

Loar said the company shifted its focus from biofuel technology “to focus entirely on carbon-based agricultural and green industry technologies due to the exciting discoveries and innovations we made.”

One of those discoveries, Cool Terra®, improves soil structure for the microbes. It also optimizes moisture and the efficiency of the nutrients microbes need, which altogether improves the soil’s capacity to grow crops.

“It’s about soil health,” said Steve Davison, site manager for Cool Planet’s facility at the Central Louisiana Regional Port. “It helps soil maintain more moisture and a stronger microbial activity for plants.”

Brent Phillip, director of marketing for Cool Planet, said Cool Terra® acts like a coral reef does for the ocean, providing an organism structure and resources for life, in this case microbial life.

Wanting to determine the effectiveness of Cool Terra®, the company sought third-party testing, many of which were handled by universities.

“It is extremely important for us to develop a product that is science-based,” Phillip said. “We need to provide reliable, tested solutions to this global concern to soil degradation.”

More than a hundred trials were performed at more than 50 research units and used with more than 40 kinds of crops, said Phillip. Basically the practices used to grow the crops remained consistent, with the exception that some plots added Cool Terra®.

“In the 120 field trials, researchers and agronomists reported a 12.3 percent increase in yield, on average, and a return on investment of 3-to-1,” said Phillip.

As impressive as company officials say the product has performed thus far, there is something equally important to the folks at Cool Planet as the making of a substance that improves soil health: carbon.

Remember the natural decomposition of the tree mentioned above? As the tree breaks down, its carbon is released into the atmosphere. In the process of making Cool Terra®, carbon from the tree is stored in the product and even in calculating the carbon released in the process of making the product, more carbon is stored than is used. It’s called carbon sequestration and is a major factor Cool Planet considers in making its products.

As for the Louisiana facility, development of the site has seemed to be slower than first expected.

“Major capital projects like the Carbon Technology Production Center require long lead times and strong coordination between many parties,” said Loar. “For all of us at Cool Planet, it sure has felt like a long time coming, but due to phenomenal coordination amongst all involved, and great support from the Central Louisiana Regional Port, the plant is continuing to develop as we expected.”

Construction of its warehouse began in April and is slated for completion in August. The rest of the facility is expected to be completed and the plant up and running by the fourth quarter of 2020.

In the meantime, a pilot unit at the port facility is creating the biochar. Moisture content is tested and when the material is just right, it is shipped in huge bags to California to complete the process that turns the biochar into Cool Terra®. This will help Cool Planet meet the demand for its product as its sales increase.

Right now, wood chips from pulpwood are being used primarily, but the intent is to use chips made from residuals of harvesting trees.

“The often-overlooked yellow pine chips left over from timber product development is an ideal feedstock for creating Cool Terra®,” Loar said. “We are currently investigating a host of suppliers who can provide the ‘dirty chips’ from in-woods operations where clearing and chipping is happening largely from leftover wood and branches not pristine enough for refined purposes.”

Davison, a Central Louisiana native, said that is where the company will concentrate its efforts.

“Our goal is to use the highest percentage of residuals,” Davison said.

The facility anticipates using 2.7 metric tons of feedstock per hour. That equates to about 25,000 tons of chips the forest product industry will provide each year but will be more as business grows.

Loar said about 30 operators, technicians and scientists will be needed for the facility to function, but an additional 10 workers likely will be needed “to operate it during most hours of the day.”

“Additionally, the facility will allow Cool Planet to continue to innovate carbon-based products and technology that address soil health, global food security, and sustainability challenges,” said Loar.

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