SequesChar, a startup venture company that proposes to transform the spent grains used by brewers into biochar for carbon capture, soil amendment, and renewable energy, has won the second-place, $21,000 prize at the finals of the recent UMass Amherst Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship Innovation Challenge. SequesChar is composed of six students from the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department.
The Innovation Challenge is a cross-campus entrepreneurship competition that launches promising ventures to their next level of startup. This series of competitions is designed to help and reward UMass students and young alumni who want to pursue novel business ideas and develop them into marketable products.
MIE majors Ethan Gorman, Megan Anderson, Lincoln Wiggan, Jack Sunko, Conor McGovern, and Joe Manchester make up the SequesChar team.
“We all may be familiar with beer, but maybe we don’t realize the environmental impact,” Gorman said during his Tech Challenge pitch earlier this college year. “Producing just one six-pack of beer is equivalent to charging your phone 158 times or burning 1.4 pounds of coal.”
According to Gorman, the brewing process generates a massive amount of waste because 85 percent of the physical byproduct of brewing is spent grain. Annually it amounts to 36 million tons. While much of the grain is given away to farmers as animal feed, the waste from urban brewers is often sent to landfills.
“In either case, carbon dioxide is rapidly re-emitted into the atmosphere,” Gorman said.
The SequesChar device uses a thermochemical treatment known as pyrolysis to shift 50 percent of the carbon in the biomass by transforming it into biochar. Biochar can then be safely stored underground for later use, where it “is a great soil amendment, helping to retain nutrients and water,” Gorman said.
The combustible pyrolysis vapors that are generated during the process can also be captured and used to supplement a brewery’s natural gas usage or to dry the fresh grains for brewing.
“Biochar has massive scaling potential through the adoption of new feedstocks such as organic agricultural residues, organic trash, and cardboard,” said Gorman. “We’ve got to keep organic waste out of our landfills.”
After the Innovation Challenge prize won by SequesChar, Gorman indicated a subtle change of direction for the team. “We're shifting our focus away from urban breweries to all breweries,” he explained. “We did the I-Corps program this spring and did 15 customer interviews and found that, more often than being sent to landfills, the grain would be picked up by a compost service or sent to farmland also.”
Gorman added that “Since farmland is farther from urban brewers, the transportation costs are higher, which would be good for us, but we also found space to be an issue in these areas.” (April 2022)