Woody biomass could fuel North's steel and mining industry

By Ian Ross

Kirkland Lake still looms large in the sights of CHAR Technologies.

The innovative southern Ontario company is putting its plans into motion to make renewable energy from woody biomass.

CHAR has been making news in recent months by attracting millions in government investment for a commercial-scale converter plant on the Niagara peninsula.

But Kirkland Lake remains prominent in their expansion-minded ambitions with its greater opportunity to access wood fibre from the area.

With its proprietary high temperature pyrolysis process, CHAR has developed a solution to help industry decarbonize with an environmentally friendly substitute to replace fossil fuels. The company makes a renewable natural gas (RNG) product for both industry and the home heating market as well as a biocarbon (a biocoal-type product) for the steel sector.

In Kirkland Lake, CHAR has an option on a vacant piece of property in the Archer Industrial Park and is in the process of securing and searching for wood waste from area forestry companies.

Last year, CHAR signed a memorandum of understanding with Rosko Forestry Operation, a sawmill next to their site, that would involve conveying over wood residual for a proposed two-kiln operation.

In Thorold, CHAR has been wildly successful in recent months in landing government funds to make the move from a 2,500-square-foot building in London, which housed a demonstration-scale converter plant, over to Thorold, where they will have 17,000 square feet at their disposal to shift gears into commercial production.

Just before Christmas, Ottawa and Queen’s Park delivered a combined $11.3 million toward making the renewable energy facility a reality on the site of a former pulp and paper mill in Thorold.

“One of the cool advantages is we’re moving into the old wood room,” said CHAR CEO Andrew White, “where they had big debarkers where forestry material came in.”

No production start date has been announced but the company goal is produce 500,000 gigajoules of RNG a year — enough to heat 5,500 homes — along with 10,000 tonnes annually of biocarbon. The latter could be used by steel mills in Hamilton and Nanticoke, less than an hour’s drive away.

No offtake agreements with ArcelorMittal Dofasco or Stelco have been announced by the company, but CHAR has worked with Dofasco on development of its CleanFyre carbon product through blast furnace trials.

Want to read more stories about business in the North? Subscribe to our newsletter.

While the Thorold location is ideal to reach customers in a major market, it may hamper future production capacity, said White.

“We’re going to be limited in further expansion in Thorold based on there’s not a ton of forestry available. That’s why we’re looking at opportunities in places like Kirkland Lake.”

White believes Kirkland Lake could supplement Thorold’s production should offtake deals be signed.

“Whether we’re talking steel or nickel, these processes need solid carbon as part of the chemistry that’s going on.”

Many North American steel producers are transitioning from coal-fired blast furnace steelmaking to more cleaner electric arc furnace (EAF) technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Sign up for the Sudbury Mining Solutions weekly newsletter here.

"They need much less carbon but they still need some solid carbon in the form of biocoal from forest residuals or solid carbon in the form of fossil coal, (the latter of) which will create GHG emissions,” White said.

“If you look at it this way, it’s like the last mile of decarbonization where the EAF does a lot and then this is the last piece that gets them to fully carbon-neutral steelmaking.”

A potential Northern Ontario customer could be Algoma Steel.

The Sault Ste. Marie steelmaker is in the process of making the $700-million switch to EAF technology. And the company has made it known it is considering forest biomass as a source of carbon as part of its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

White declined to say if they are in discussions with Algoma Steel.

“I would say we’re very active in the steel industry,” he said, laughing.

For Kirkland Lake, CHAR would initially start with a two-kiln operation, with the possibility of expanding to as many as six in a module-style fashion.

“We’ll get two kilns running and generating revenue before we get too far ahead of ourselves in terms of expansion,” said White.

As to the time of a production start, White said CHAR needs to finalize input and output agreements with various suppliers and customers before the Kirkland Lake project can proceed.

At a site tucked behind the FedEx distribution centre, White said they performed geotechnical work there last year and are awaiting government funding to do detailed design for the facility.

If offtake agreements with customers are signed, construction in Kirkland Lake could start as early as spring. The kiln modules, once ordered, would take about 60 weeks to build and deliver.

For the first phase, the company would need to source 75,000 tonnes of any combination of residuals for annual production of 500,000 gigajoules of RNG and 10,000 tonnes of biocarbon.

Though Rosko will provide a significant amount of biomass, White said they’ll likely have to go further afield to establish an area supply chain with harvesters to secure bark, sawdust and chips, tops, branches and other unmerchantable pieces of wood fibre.

At the same time, White said they have to be mindful of the economics of trucking in a low-value raw material like forest biomass from too far out.

A potentially major customer for CHAR is over the provincial border with energy distributor, Énergir, Quebec’s largest natural gas company, which issued a request in November to increase the amount of RNG in its system.

Énergir recently agreed to a partnership deal with Nature Energy to co-develop 10 biomethanization plants in Quebec’s farming regions to produce up to 200 million cubic metres of RNG per year, one-third of the province’s 2030 RNG target.

White said an RNG offtake agreement with Énergir remains a work in progress. The two companies have signed a letter of intent and are working on a term sheet, an important document needed to obtain project financing for Kirkland Lake.

Overall, White said the wider appetite for RNG is “shifting in a good way in terms of the amount of demand. Once the gas in a pipeline, we can sell it anywhere.”

There are benefits to be had through long-term offtake agreements with major utilities and short-term deals where the price might fluctuate much higher.

Then there’s the virtual pipeline through trucking that could benefit the mining industry. Some remote operations in Ontario and Quebec already run off compressed natural gas delivered by trailer from a distributor.

“We would certainly be able to put the gas in a trailer,” said White. “It’s just whether they can be delivered to a place like the Ring of Fire, or is there an opportunity to build something on site and produce? It’s definitely worth investigating.”

He believes RNG can be complementary to fossil gas by helping mining companies reduce their GHG impact, if even by 10 per cent…

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing because we’re both dealing in the molecule of methane.”

CHAR Technologies has other development projects in the pipeline including a proposed syngas plant in Saint-Félicien, Québec and a compost-to-green hydrogen and biocarbon development in San Luis Obispo, California.