This portable machine attaches to tractors and turns harmful crop waste into sellable bioproducts

Elon Musk-backed, Takachar, uses novel device in rural communities to tap into, an otherwise lost, billion-dollar global market.
Sade Agard
MIT-patented technology transforms waste biomass and provides additional income for farmers
MIT-patented technology transforms waste biomass and provides additional income for farmers

roman023/iStock 

  • The burning of post-harvest residues in the open contributes to severe air pollution and an economic loss of about $120 billion/year.
  • An MIT-patented device can latch onto the back of tractors to locally upgrade residues into higher-value products.
  • There is significant interest in utilizing the technology for better wildfire management in the States- particularly on the West Coast.

Many farmers burn crop residues to get rid of waste post-harvest. These residues may be loose, damp, bulky, and expensive to gather and carry to a central location to produce viable goods and products, such as animal feed. As a result, farmers sometimes resort to open-air burning, which is a lost economic opportunity.

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And that's not all. The practice creates huge seasonal clouds of smog, otherwise known as air pollution, which is counterproductive and releases a great deal of carbon into the atmosphere. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution kills seven million people globally annually.

Now, a company called Takachar is turning this 'waste' biomass into profitable items and tapping into a billion-dollar global market. And in doing so, it aims to broaden the livelihood of smallholder farmers. IE speaks with Dr. Kevin Kung, co-founder of Takachar, to understand how the technology works.

Open-air burning contributes to severe air pollution and an economic loss of about 120 billion dollars annually

This portable machine attaches to tractors and turns harmful crop waste into sellable bioproducts
Farmers burning dried rice field in India

Rice husks, rice straws, wood chips, hay straws, coconut shells, and different types of post-harvest waste continue to be burned by billions of people, particularly in rural communities. "Most [of these] are difficult to convert into fuels, chemicals, or fertilizers today," Dr. Kung explains.

Kung tells IE that the main reason for this is that existing technologies are often too large-scale, centralized, and operator-intensive to be deployed in decentralized or rural areas and at small scale. As such, most rural farmers and loggers will burn their post-harvest or logging residues in the open. "This contributes to severe air pollution and an economic loss of about $120 billion a year," reveals Kung.

A small-scale, low-cost, portable machine that can latch onto the back of tractors

"We develop small-scale, low-cost, portable systems that can latch onto the back of tractors or pick-up trucks," Dr. Kevin Kung tells IE. "[These] locally upgrade residues on-site, without needing external energy inputs, into customizable higher-value bioproducts." The technology places processing in the field, and Kung reveals this cuts transportation costs by two-thirds.

The device provides a route for farmers to utilize their waste and turn it into products with value—a strong incentive not to burn agricultural waste, and thereby addressing air pollution too. According to Kung, the method can potentially mitigate the release of gigatonnes per year of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Byproducts produced include biofuels, chemicals, or carbon-negative fertilizer blends, which the co-founder claims can "overwhelmingly benefit rural underserved communities". To date, Takachar has processed 9,000 metric tonnes of post-crop residue, in partnership with roughly 5,500 farmers.

The MIT-patented technology is a self-sustaining reactor that uses various thermochemical processes

This portable machine attaches to tractors and turns harmful crop waste into sellable bioproducts
The novel device can be packed into a farmer's tractor for on-site conversion

The approach, which MIT has patented, concentrates the materials and removes impurities like moisture and dirt to produce a "clean-burning" bio-fuel that produces less smoke. Several thermochemical processes, such as oxygen-lean torrefaction (a thermo-chemical process that reduces the moisture content of wood and transforms it into a brittle, char-type material at low levels of oxygen), are used to transform waste biomass into solid fuel.

We know that torrefaction, or low-temperature pyrolysis, systems typically rely on external heating sources. However, according to a statement by co-founder Dr. Ahmed Ghoniem, Takachar's goal was to create a practical, self-sustaining reactor that would produce fewer pollutants.

According to Ghoniem, the device needs to burn a small amount of biomass in order to generate heat. It then bakes the remaining biomass, which releases gases. Gases can combust as soon as the system receives air, which burns off the volatiles. As a result, more heat is produced, maintaining the thermochemical reaction.

In the same MIT article, Ghoniem adds, "the trick is how to introduce the right amount of air at the right location to sustain the process." The co-founder explains that the biomass will burn if additional air is added. However, less burning will result if there is insufficient heat to generate, say, charcoal. Ultimately, a lack of air will halt the reaction.

A carbon-rich fertilizer sold back to approximately 5,000 farmers

Ghoniem discloses that about 10 percent of the biomass is utilized as fuel to maintain the torrefaction reaction. The remaining 90 percent is converted into a denser form which is easier to use and handle.

In a recent press release, Takachar reveals one of its products is a fertilizer high in carbon. With the successful sale of it back to the same communities of roughly 5,000 farmers, yields have increased by about 27 percent. Additionally, this locally made fertilizer blend raised the farmers' net revenue by up to 50 percent.

Strong roots in emerging markets like Kenya, India, and Guatemala

The technology appears to be deployed primarily in emerging markets like Kenya. 'Takachar', a combination of the Swahili words 'takataka', which means 'waste,' and 'char,' for the charcoal product, actually grew out of one of Kung's class projects that led him to Kenya. This explains how the company got its name. According to the World Food Program (WFP), Takachar is helping families in Kenya access markets to sell their crops.

Other initiatives include encouraging Guatemalan children to consume locally grown food and assisting Ethiopian farmers in reducing food losses.

WFP is also working closely with the Takachar team to measure the impacts of the machine where crop burning and pollution are prevalent issues. To underscore the contribution that innovative solutions may make to enhancing air quality in India and around the world, this data will be shared with the Indian government.

A place in the States: Utilizing the technology for better wildfire management

This portable machine attaches to tractors and turns harmful crop waste into sellable bioproducts
The technology could be used for better wildfire management in the US western states

The company has yet to understand the reliability of the technology in various settings other than emerging communities. Still, Kung reveals that there is significant interest in utilizing the technology for better wildfire management in the US- especially on the West Coast. Gaining more of an understanding of how robust the device is in different contexts will aid in product development.

Takachar's work brings carbon removal to rural communities and meets several UN Sustainable goals

"We were always affected by bad air quality," says Vidyut Mohan to WFP, an entrepreneur from Delhi, India, and co-founder of Takachar. "Family, friends, loved ones are always falling sick because of it."

According to Mohan, the objective is to bring production and carbon removal to rural areas, allowing them to recycle waste, generate income, and lessen air pollution.

Takachar addresses UN Sustainable Development Goal 12, responsible consumption and production, by reducing the need for fossil fuel-based sources for the production of fuels, fertilizers, and specialty chemicals. It also supports Goal 1 (no poverty) and 8 (good jobs and economic growth) by increasing the net income of rural communities by 40% through the crop residue market.

Biomass is relatively context-dependent, so the type of crop grown differs from one village to another

"There is significant variability in the input raw materials," adds Dr. Keving Kung. In other words, the type of biomass available is fairly context-dependent, so even moving from one village in Kenya or India to the next, the type of crop grown differs.

The co-founder explains that even at the local level, that's the kind of robustness the technology needs to meet. Still, Kung argues that in this situation, there is no need to change the hardware or overall process - instead, it's more to do with tailoring the operation from place to place.

To ensure that the prototype and product development can be used and scaled for a larger impact beyond a single village, Dr. Kevin Kung acknowledges that the company is still actively testing and making improvements.

In the long run, Takachar wants to establish fleets of bioconversion reactors in as many rural areas as they can in order to build a self-sufficient society that can meet its own needs for goods and chemicals using labor and materials that are readily available in the area. As opposed to relying on international supply chains.

In the end, the business could also significantly reduce levels of rural air pollution and carbon emissions, and perhaps even wildfires resulting from burning biomass waste in the open.

A milestone winner in the Elon Musk-funded carbon removal competition

The business was recently chosen as a milestone winner in the Elon Musk and Musk Foundation-funded XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition. Takachar received a one million US dollar prize and will continue in the competition with hopes of taking home an incredible 80 million US dollars in 2025.