'Earthshot' prize winner with Vancouver connection hopes to mitigate wildfire risk, change perceptions

Kevin Kung says the idea first surfaced when he was in Kenya nearly a decade ago.

The mechanical engineer, who grew up in Vancouver and, at the time, was studying at MIT, said he noticed that virgin wood in rural areas was being turned into cooking fuel.

And Kung knew there had to be a better way.

“When I was graduating, I realized that a lot of that technology, even though they are very state-of-the-art, it ends up sitting on the shelf,” Kung said.

Fast forward to 2020, and Kung and his co-founder were running a village-based pilot project in India, through a startup they had named Takachar.

“‘Taka’ in Swahili, which is spoken in Kenya, means ‘trash,’" Kung said. “So that name stuck.”

Over the years, they had built and rebuilt a portable chemical reactor, of sorts, refining the size, shape and design one piece at a time.

Stalks and stems, left over vegetation, and forest residues, which are collectively called biomass, go in one end.

And with heat (but no external energy), they together undergo a process that turns out a carbon rich product that can be further engineered as biofuel or fertilizer.

“Biomass is often very loose, wet and bulky,” Kung explained. “Which makes it very difficult and expensive to transport.”

The whole idea, Kung said, is for the equipment to be latched onto tractors or pickups, where it can be transported into hard-to-reach areas, including forests.

“Wildfires often are exacerbated because there’s a build up in loose vegetation in forests,” Kung said.

“Even after (forest) management operations, they’re too expensive to truck out,” he added.

On Sunday, Takachar became one of the inaugural winners of the Earthshot Prize, created by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

The foundation describes the prize as “the the most prestigious global environment prize in history, designed to incentivise change and help repair our planet over the next ten years.”

Takachar took home the top spot in the “Clean Our Air” category, which means Kung and his team will receive $1.7 million in grant money.

“That will definitely go toward scaling up our initial pilot, which right now involves 5,000 farmers (in India),” Kung said, adding that the company is already testing in California.

He also wants to build a research and development centre in Vancouver, and said the startup is actively looking for local partners in forestry and agriculture to demo the technology.

Beyond scaling up, Kung said he’s witnessed a paradigm shift among those who’ve seen the process first hand.

“They start seeing this almost as a commodity that they can trade,” Kung said.

“No longer (seeing) them as trash, but as something that has more potential to it.”