Researcher looking to turn biomass generator waste into fertilizer

Thompson Rivers University
September 13, 2018
Written by Thompson Rivers University
Dr. Kingsley Donkor has been awarded $350,000 for his research program that is designed to turn waste into fertilizer.
Dr. Kingsley Donkor has been awarded $350,000 for his research program that is designed to turn waste into fertilizer. Photo supplied
Sept. 13, 2018 - Thompson Rivers University (TRU) chemistry professor Dr. Kingsley Donkor has been awarded $350,000 for his research program that is designed to turn waste into fertilizer.

This is the first Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Collaborative Research and Development Grant (CRD) ever awarded to a TRU researcher, and is the result of a successful collaboration originally funded through an NSERC Engage Grant.

“NSERC’s Research Partnerships program supports collaborations that allow new scientific evidence to be applied to industrial needs. The technology generated from this project will provide environmental and economic benefits to Canada by reducing fertilizer costs for agricultural producers and significantly decreasing the amount of ash residuals that end up in our landfills,” said Marc Fortin, vice-president, research partnerships, NSERC.

“Because of its size, structure, and evolution, TRU is uniquely situated to cultivate relationships that encourage community and industry involvement, and facilitated the kind of ground-breaking work that is taking place in Dr. Donkor’s lab,” said Dr. Will Garrett-Petts, associate vice-president, research and graduate studies.

Donkor, a professor in chemistry, is investigating whether the waste from biomass generators can be converted into an effective fertilizer, with the goal of diverting material from the landfill, while also creating a product that has benefit to industry and to society as a whole.

An NSERC CRD requires industrial partners, in this case Louisiana-Pacific, which provides the fly ash from its biomass plant, and Kingsclere Ranch, which has offered up to 400-acres. Both partners are based in Golden, B.C.

“The idea was to see if we can use this waste, called fly ash, to do something for us, something of benefit,” said Donkor, and preliminary research conducted in his lab was encouraging.

“We were so excited in the lab when we saw these results.”

Thanks to this boost to his research program Donkor and his team of researchers, including Dr. John Church, BC Regional Innovation Chair in Cattle Industry Sustainability, and postdoctoral researcher Dr. Garrett Whitworth, are bringing the research out of the lab and applying it on an industrial scale.

Fly ash contains many of the nutrients that crops need to grow, including calcium, sodium, potassium, magnesium, potash, and phosphate. The problem, however, is that fly ash has an extremely high pH and can’t be applied directly to the soil without killing all of the plants.

“We amended the pH, meaning we were able to decrease it by applying elemental sulphur. Now we’re transferring this knowledge into the field on a large scale, where we’re going to apply lots of elemental sulphur on the fly ash, and then spread this fertilizer over a 400-acre parcel of land,” said Donkor.

Using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, Church and Whitworth will monitor crop health and vegetative stress over the vast tract of land. Donkor expects concrete results from the study as early as December 2019.

“This concept can be transferred all over the world. It’s quite novel. People, especially people in developing countries, generate a lot of this fly ash, and what we’re trying to do is make it useful, and make it a fertilizer.”

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