A Vancouver man is on a mission to improve air quality worldwide.
Vancouver innovator Kevin Kung is hoping to give farmers an environmentally friendly alternative to open-air burning and foresters, allowing for a better way to manage flammable forest residue. With his company, Takachar, he has developed a small-scale, portable system to locally convert crop and forest residues (biomass) into higher-value bioproducts.
That work has earned Kung a prestigious award and $5,000 from Mitacs, Canada’s leading innovation organization aimed at boosting economic growth and innovation by helping companies solve business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.
Kung, a post-doctoral researcher in the Biomass and Bioenergy Research Group at the University of British Columbia, received the Mitacs Environmental Entrepreneur Award on May 18 in Waterloo, Ont. He is one of five winners who were recognized for their efforts to turn their research into an innovative business that impacts the lives of Canadians.
“Biomass is a global challenge,” said Kung, noting that more than four billion tonnes of biomass residues are burned globally in open air each year, accounting for as many as 10 per cent of worldwide air pollution deaths. “Our goal is to end the practice of burning by turning costly residues into economic commodities.”
In Canada, catastrophic wildfires caused by the accumulation of excess flammable residue on the forest floor are on the rise, and open air burning of crop residue remains the only option available to most farmers in rural communities. The challenge is that crop and forest residues are very difficult and expensive to collect and transport to conversion facilities because they are very loose, wet and bulky.
Kung said Takachar’s ‘aha’ moment came when they realized they could circumvent logistic issues by bringing the technology to the field for the forest.
“Current technologies for turning biomass into usable products are large-scale and centralized, which means they only work well if the source is nearby,” explained Kung.
Takachar’s novel system is designed to latch onto the back of tractors or pickup trucks, making it easy to deploy in remote areas. Crop and forest residues are fed into the converter on the spot, and a biofuel, fertilizer or specialty chemical is produced at the backend.
The startup is currently working with several First Nations communities in B.C. and other partners to test multiple prototypes of its technology in collaboration with UBC. The output comprises of higher-value, carbon-based bioproducts such as fertilizer blends, chemicals, and biofuels.
“If we can implement this system locally, in rural communities that are often shut out of the benefits of the emerging bio-economy, we can make a significant impact on their livelihood,” said Kung.
He said Mitac’s support has been “instrumental” in the growth of Takachar, specifically when it comes to working with leading-edge universities like UBC and being able to sponsor researchers to advance our technology.
“It also helped us to investigate the market potential for our technology beyond Canada.”
Mitacs CEO John Hepburn noted a successful innovation economy “cannot exist without entrepreneurs.”
“Startups drive innovation in Canada, they dream big and push boundaries, bringing research from ideation to commercialization,” said Hepburn. “Mitacs is extremely proud to play a role in supporting small businesses and emerging entrepreneurs through our continued investment in talent, research, and development.”