Biochar: Crossing the “Finnish” Line

Last week I hosted roughly 120 people for the latest biochar study tour in Finland. We had participants from 18 different countries, from students to CEOs, from the biochar litterati to those very new to the topic, from academia to those braving up to the task of commercialization. We had more than 2 dozen speakers that spoke about carbon markets, biochar building materials (always a hot topic), carbonizing sewage sludge, activating carbon, the potential of wood vinegar, production technologies and much, much more. It was as invigorating as the Finn’s penchant for “avanto” (ice swimming) – something that we didn’t manage to squeeze on to the agenda!

This was the 4th tour that I’ve organized and each one seems to get better and bigger than the previous one. Tours are meant to highlight biochar ‘bright spots’ and encourage people from around the world to replicate models that are economically and environmentally viable. They are also meant to bring together those looking to share, connect and learn with and from others in the biochar world. I have no doubt friendships were formed, alliances arranged, and new business ventures were born…or at least penciled out over a Finnish beer or three.

The format may be more casual than many conferences which is perhaps why I prefer the term ‘study tour’. Though we had some of the top European biochar ‘rock stars’ they mingled easily and eagerly with everyone present. It was a rare but important occasion for academics to consort with commercial biochar professionals which encouraged cross-pollination of theories and thoughts on future research and markets. We had ‘open mic’ on our 2 hour bus ride from Helsinki to Tampere where those that weren’t already listed as speakers during the event could tell their biochar story. This enabled people to connect more quickly with like-minded individuals during the tour.

Our technology host was Carbofex OY, a company which has been running a pilot scale pyrolysis unit in Tampere for quite some time. Sampo Turkiainen, the CEO, could not have provided a better example of how to encourage sustainable production while also keenly aware of the need to build markets if the biochar industry is to scale quickly. We toured not only the Carbofex factory but one of their nearby projects where biochar is being used in a leachate remediation project from a former pulp and papermill landfill.

I was fortunate to have a team of 4 talented, hard-working and fun Finns to help put this tour together most of whom I did not know well before we started this journey. They helped significantly when it came to choosing engaging and enlightened speakers from Finland. It is truly inspiring to see so much biochar activity, both commercial and academic, coming from a country that has a tiny population of 5.5 million. It really makes one consider how this country, and a few other small countries (e.g. Sweden, Austria, Switzerland) are able to gain traction and move things forward better than other countries. Perhaps we all need to consider avanto to help us rise to the challenge of fending off climate chaos?

To casually throw one’s body into freezing waters is to begin to understand the Finnish word sisu—which means courageously pushing yourself beyond your self-imposed mental and physical limits.

Lola Akinmade Åkerström

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