Author: Sion Brackenbury

Kier and TerrAffix embark on new partnership to decarbonise roadside vegetation clearance

In a UK first, the RSK Group company TerrAffix, is embarking on a feasibility study with Kier to look at how vegetation removed from highways projects can be reused on site to make significant cuts to carbon.

Biochar is created through the process of pyrolysis when organic materials are turned into solid carbon under high temperatures in the presence of little or no oxygen.

Biochar in hands

The study will assess if the vegetation removed from large highway schemes can be processed on site using a mobile pyrolysis plant, with the aim of using the resulting biochar in the landscaping programme, which takes place once construction has been completed. The study will outline how best to use the biochar to gain maximum benefit from the overall scheme.

The benefits of this approach include reducing carbon emissions and costs. Often, vegetation on site is removed using large vehicles such as lorries, which increase a project’s carbon emissions. The vegetation is then processed, creating a slow carbon dioxide release to the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

RSK and Kier embarked on this new partnership after sharing ideas and aspirations at the Highways UK event. Kier then engaged RSK to undertake a study to provide further information on the process and its application.

“The benefits of an on-site solution are immense. These start with the need to remove vegetation from site, achieving lorry loads of carbon savings, but creating biochar also prevents the slow carbon release to the atmosphere that would ordinarily take place through traditional vegetation processing, such as composting or mulching. An additional benefit is the circular economy solution achieved through the reuse of material at a site. This offers soil enhancement opportunities and the promotion of biodiversity.

“TerrAffix believes that for every tonne of woody biomass carbonised, we will produce 250 kg of biochar and 650 kg CO2 equivalent will be sequestered from the atmosphere. On top of this, the heat generated can be used on-site and there will be a more than 90% reduction in traffic journeys that remove vegetation from sites.”

TerrAffix Managing Director Mark Smith
TerrAffix Managing Director Mark Smith

“We’ve commissioned TerrAffix to complete a feasibility study, as we are committed to doing all that we can to complete our work as sustainably as possible.

“In major highways projects we dispose of high levels of vegetation, so to be able to reuse this could be a fantastic example of applying a circular economy model to help reduce carbon and waste, while using a carbon capture and storage technique which means the carbon absorbed by the vegetation will be locked away, instead of releasing it back into the atmosphere.”

Kier Highways Head of Environment & Sustainability Matt Tompsett

Following on from the study, the next steps of the project are to identify a site to trial pyrolysis on. This will allow TerrAffix and Kier to collect further data and understand the added benefits associated with the project.

Kier Highways Head of Environment & Sustainability Matt Tompsett

Stabilising Soils in Sustainable Urban Drainage Schemes (SuDS)

Sustainable urban Drainage Systems (SuDS) are an important water runoff management system in all new housing developments. TerrAffix Soil Solutions were brought in to stabilise the bare soils around the balancing ponds within the SuDS at a housing development in Sussex.

The exceptionally wet and stormy weather has caused problems across the UK, in particular on areas of bare or exposed soil. Our approach was to stablise the soil using natural materials, that will biodegrade into the site. We used fast growing seed species with a net forming root structure. The soils were anchored using biodegradable blankets which provide shelter for the germinating seeds and will break down adding organic matter to the soils over time.

The main objective is to minimise and trap soil from being displaced by rain impact and then transported within the surface water flow, off sites and into streams and rivers.

Our approach to soil stabilisation works with the soils and plant ecosystem, rather than using harder engineered solutions. SuDS systems copy natural systems, mimicking their behavior so that water is absorbed into the ground, evaporated or used up by plants. SuDS improve water quality downstream and help increase biodiversity.

In our increasingly variable climate, there is an urgent need to manage our areas to intercept water by improving the function of ecosystems and habitats within developments to buffer rain fall whilst providing amazing spaces for people to live. Effective design of SuDS systems can offer a multitude of benefits to the wider environment, socially culturally and economically.

 

Hydroseeding Southerndowns’ golf course

Hydroseeding at Southerndown golf course
Hydroseeding at Southerndown golf course

TerrAffix Soil Solutions were invited by Richard Allen, CEO of Ecobunker (www. Ecobunker.co.uk) to trial some innovative products for the establishment of vegetation on steep, free-draining banks over sandy soil using our hydroseeding kit.

The golf course owners wanted to green up the slopes around the bunker edges and the reprofiled banks surrounding the carpark entrance.

The golf course’s proximity to the coast makes it a stunning venue for a game but it also means that the grounds are subjected to salty, windy and drying conditions. Such severe conditions make vegetation establishment difficult.

It was essential here to use a revegetation system which supports and protects the sown seed through the initial stages of growth while preventing soil loss or erosion.

TerrAffix-Hydrabase was applied using our bespoke hydroseeding equipment; we used a mix of native grasses recommended by Ecobunker to quickly establish a sward. We used a variety of additives in response to the particular ground conditions on the site, including a completely natural fertilizer, tackifier to prevent erosion and mycorrhizal fungi which support long term soil and plant health.

The vegetation quickly established itself within a few weeks of application.

Revegetating a Challenging Railway Embankment using Hydroseeding

TerrAffix trial vegetated embankment

TerrAffix Soil Solutions was invited by Murphy Rail to trial our re-vegetation system on a rail embankment that was proving particularly challenging.

The site was a steep slope of thick, cold clay sub-soil and it was susceptible to heavy run-off over the winter. Previous attempts at establishing vegetation had failed as this sort of soil can be a difficult material for new plants.

These changes can sometimes happen quite quickly, making it difficult for plants to cope.

Clay can shrink and expand in response to heat and water and it can go from being very wet and cold to very dry.

To get plants to grow it is essential to provide the basis for life: moisture, sufficient organic matter to act as a soil-forming material, nutrients and a stable surface during germination.

TerrAffix trial in background where material was added using hydroseeding machinery.
TerrAffix trial in background

Hydroseeding equipment delivers unique mulch

Using our hydroseeding equipment we were able to approach the site in a safe and efficient way.

Following the site survey we decided to use a two-stage revegetation system for the most effective results. We began with an application of TerrAffix-HydraSoil with a microbiological inoculant and a nutrient carrier. This mixture also helps to retain water within the developing root zone during the summer months.

We applied our own fully biodegradable tackifier formula which is composed of a mixture of natural, plant-based materials and sugars. No polyacrylamide was used, which is an everyday tackifier used in hydroseeding.

We then applied a coat of TerrAffix-HydraMulch with seed and natural plant nutrients. This application creates a stable surface on steep slopes, securing the seed in place through germination.

Vegetated soil on the railway embankment post treatment with TerrAffix-HydraSoil and TerrAffix-HydraMulch
Vegetated soil on the railway embankment post treatment with TerrAffix-HydraSoil and TerrAffix-HydraMulch

We selected seeds from a mixture of fast-establishing species to get some initial cover as well as some deep rooting species. Deep rooted plants tend to be more resilient to drought and act as natural near-surface ground anchors.

The application was made in November which happened to coincide with above-average rainfall. Nevertheless the vegetation established successfully and created a robust, resilient sward.

A key material we use is biochar which is produced at our centre. Biochar not only confers a considerable advantage to plant growth but also sequesters atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Our products come with a carbon lock guarantee which can be accounted for within any corporate social responsibility targets.

Studying Ecological Approaches to Vegetating Old Mine Sites

Mine-tailings-with-stream-passing-through

Mine tailings with stream passing through

Green Solutions to Erosion and Mine Waste

The abandoned Nant y Mwyn lead mine lies in the valley of the Pen Cerrig Mwyn mountain and stretches to the banks of the Afon Tywi. In 1932 the mining company went bankrupt, leaving behind vast, steep-sided mounds of fine-grained and heavily polluted material.

The mine waste is too contaminated for anything to grow, and much of the site is bare.

With no vegetation to cover the soil and no roots to stabilise the surface the waste heaps are prone to severe erosion. As the tailings erode the material is deposited in rivers and pasture and causes significant contamination of the surrounding area.

TerrAffix have been working on a solution that is both cheap and effective and will vegetate mine sites such as Nant y Mwyn. The trials are being studied by Heather De-Quincey of Swansea University, who has a background in geochemistry.

Nant y Mwyn mine tailings and spoil heaps with the stream below

Nant y Mwyn mine tailings and spoil heaps with the stream below

Extensive Pollution Impacts from Orphaned Mines

The waste from Nant y Mwyn impacts upon 65 km of waterways and causes environmental standard failures for zinc, copper, lead and cadmium.

Most mine reclamation strategies involve using machinery to re-profile the landscape before capping the waste with geotextiles and clay.

However, for orphaned mines with no owner liability, the cost of this process is prohibitively expensive for the government bodies with whom the responsibility falls.

Research into Solutions

TerrAffix have been sponsoring Heather’s PhD, developing and testing a low-cost green-engineering solution to reduce the erosion and the spread of pollution without the need for hard engineering.

This involves hydroseeding a biochar-enhanced, organic growing medium created from sustainable natural materials and seeding with a diverse acid and metal-tolerant selection of grasses that mimic the native community.

Nant-y-Mwyn-mine-tailings-and-spoil-heaps-with-the-stream-below

Nant y Mwyn mine tailings and spoil heaps with the stream below

The vegetation, which is rapid, immediately reduces erosion, and long term these plants will facilitate nutrient cycling and soil formation, both essential processes which initiate ecosystem complexity.

Green Long Term Solutions

The on-going work is helping us develop cheaper and more effective reclamation strategies for mines which have previously been too expensive to remediate, ultimately providing a low-cost and accessible solution to land contamination and erosion reduction.

Heather De-Quincey

Vegetating Polluted Landscapes

Frongoch Plot 2 sprayed with TerrAffix-Hydrasoil (before and 22 days after)

At an old lead and zinc mine in the heart of Ceredigion a fantastic transformation is happening. After years of polluting mine works the site resembled something from another planet or a blasted moonscape. That was until we started trialling our TerrAffix-HydraSoil.

The soil was massively degraded with high levels of pollutants. Nothing much has been able to grow on this site. A few sparse grasses clung to life but that was all.

Our specialist system has been trialled at the site against a number of competitors’ systems. We are pleased to report a significant environmental transformation where the TerrAffix-HydraSoil was applied.

TerrAffix-HydraSoil is specially suited for this terrain.

Not only does it enable plants to grow but it also prevents the pollutants from bioaccumulating in the plants.

The unique combination of natural and reclaimed ingredients act to lock in heavy metal pollutants so they aren’t taken up by the plants.

The product also has the significant benefit of sequestering CO2, enabling companies to achieve even more environmental targets.

The system offers enormous environmental benefits and has been shown to be easy and safe to apply, even on difficult and hard to reach terrains.

Each site is unique with its own individual challenges. Frongoch’s specific soil structure and composition were analysed by staff. They then made the appropriate tweaks to the system to effectively deal with the levels of heavy metals at that site.

Plot 1 showing the stark contrast between unsprayed and sprayed ground

NRW stated: “This is very exciting, we can see this system offers real potential benefits on heavily polluted land which needs remediating.”

TerrAffix-HydraSoil offers hope for all owners of significantly polluted sites.

United Nations Environment endorses Biochar

TerrAffix HydraSoil close up

TerrAffix HydraSoil close up

A three-year research project into the use of biochar for sustainable soils backed by UN Environment has culminated in excellent results and a thorough endorsement of biochar.

The project trained 500 farmers across six countries to make and use biochar. Johan Robinson, Portfolio Manager for UN Environment Biodiversity and Land Degradation, says:

“The project has demonstrated that nature-friendly solutions have multiple benefits for communities. From improving the productivity of soil to achieve higher yields, to helping manage waste and increasing carbon sequestration capacity – the advantages are clear. It’s now time to think about how to upscale the findings of the project to reach even more farmers globally”.

The multiple benefits of biochar

The exciting results of this project, which included enhanced plant growth (15-20% in one farm’s case) and a significant reduction in the need for fertiliser, highlight the economical and environmental benefits of using biochar made from locally available biomass residues.

TerrAffix Soil Solutions Ltd® is leading the way in the production and use of biochar as a soil remediation solution.

It is already recognised for its value to improve poor or polluted soils and as an element of green roofs. However, its carbon sequestration abilities have been less well understood or recognised up until now.

This UN project adds weight to our belief that biochar can have a fundamental positive impact upon our world.

Greenroof enhanced with Biochar

Greenroof enhanced with Biochar

Biochar in a booming bioeconomy

Polluted landscapes can be recovered, re-establishing soils and vegetation. This means that pollutants are immobilised or soaked up before they reach water courses. Biochar sequesters atmospheric carbon dioxide as it fixed carbon into soil and is used to re-establish the soil ecosystem.

If our technologies, which use biochar as part of the solution, are taken up for use on highly polluted sites and roadside swales around Europe, we could see the start of a really green revolution – a bioeconomic revolution using renewable biological resources.

Biochar’s carbon sequestration abilities will help us to achieve a sustainable global future and reduce the impact of climate change.