UBC post-doctoral student wins $1.9 million from Prince William, Elon Musk competitions

Kevin Kung with the Takachar MiniTerr. PHOTO BY MIT TATA CENTER VIA UBC

Kevin Kung has helped develop small-scale technology that turns what’s left in a field after harvest into fertilizer

But his technology isn’t quite in the same leagues — yet — being a down-to-earth mechanism for turning what’s left in a field after harvest into fertilizer. Called torrefaction , the process takes biomass waste (dead crops or forest residue, for example) and makes it into fertilizer, feed or fuel. This isn’t new, but Kung and his partner have taken the concept and reduced it to a portable machine that can help farmers convert the remains of plants into a valuable product that they can either return to their fields or sell to supplement their income.

Last month, Takachar took in a combined $1.9 million in prize money from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s inaugural Earthshot Prize , as well as from the XPrize and Musk Foundation’s Carbon Removal competition, for which it entered as “Takachar (Safi Organics) from the University of British Columbia, Northeastern University and IISC Bangalore (Canada, India, Kenya & United States).”

Takachar’s MiniTorr, which trailers behind a tractor, eliminates the need for the farmer or forest-keeper to haul growth residue to another location and then bring the fertilizer back. That alone saves fossil fuel use. But it also helps cut smoke and fire from post-harvest field burns. In Canada, the mobile system can help loggers access the technology in dense or hilly forests.

Kung was born in Taiwan and raised in Vancouver. The chief technology officer of Takachar is currently in Phase 3 of UBC’s entrepreneurs’ venture program and is a postdoctoral fellow in chemical and biological engineering at the school.

“When I was small,” he told the local news site Vancouver is Awesome, “I grew up next to rice paddy fields and I remember when the farmers would burn off the stubble left behind after harvesting, which led to local air quality issues. There will always be a nostalgic element to the smoke and smell in the air, but looking back, those memories have very different connotations now.”

The company’s website explains the benefits for the environment: “Takachar’s technology reduces smoke emissions by up to 98 per cent, which will help improve the air quality that currently reduces the affected population’s life expectancy by up to five years.” It projects that it could increase the net income of rural communities by 40 per cent by creating a market for crop residues.

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