Sunmark Environmental uses hazelnut shells and shale in a biochar blend to create a filter that can remove heavy metals

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO  - Sunmark Environmental designs 320 gallon tote based filter systems to hold media blends, allowing stormwater optimum contact with the biochar.

Throughout a good portion of the year, Northwest Oregon rain pours off zinc coated roofs and oil stained streets, flowing into storm drains.

It’s inevitable that brake lining dust and antifreeze gather in stormwater, eventually polluting rivers and streams.

But a local business, Sunmark Environmental, reports it’s invented a nontoxic, sustainable process of filtering the heavy metals from runoff.

Commercialization funding from Oregon BEST is helping Sunmark collaborate with researchers from Oregon State University to optimize a biochar filter system that utilizes waste product from lumber mills as the base ingredient in a specialized filter.

“I think that if we can utilize existing byproducts to solve some of our problems, it’s much better than creating new products from chemistry,” said Ryan Holman, technical sales and stormwater specialist of Sunmark, an ecological restoration company at 18032 N.E. Airport Way.

At many lumber mills, waste wood used to generate electricity is not completely burned. The result is a mix of ash and biochar, which is usually hauled away to landfills.

Sunmark’s filtration system — Earthlite Stormwater Filter Media — utilizes the biochar to remove nearly 100 percent of zinc and copper found in stormwater runoff.

Biochar is collected from Northwest lumber mills and then washed with screens similar to gold mining.

It is then mixed with hazelnuts and shale to allow some breathing room, creating better water flow.

“It’s a byproduct of Oregon so it’s very inexpensive,” Holman said.

When storm water is filtered through the dirt-like mixture, heavy metals are removed from the water.

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO  - Plants can help extend the life of the media while also working to remove heavy metals.

Because biochar has a positive charge and heavy metals have a negative charge, rather than simply absorbing, the mixture actually binds with the heavy metals.

“My boss likes to call it a simple magnet,” Holman said.

“The engineers say great, but they want to know how much they’ll need, how long it will last, what are the flow rates, and what percentage of heavy metals will it remove,” said Robin Cook, founder and partner of Sunmark. “Getting this third party data is huge.”

OSU is conducting tests to optimize the mixture.

Since the initial project started back in 2010, Sunmark has seen a lifespan of 1 cubic yard of the blend last anywhere from six months to four years.

Holman said Sunmark also is taking more pollutants out of stormwater than competitors.

“Most other available filter media remove only about 60 percent, at best,” Cook said.

“You can see why customers are excited to try my media even though we are still testing,” Holman said.

“That’s the difference between us and everyone else,” he said. “We’re having OSU take my blend that I know works really well and improve it so we get optimum removal and value for our customers.”

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO  - Biochar totes come ready to be placed near business stormdrains.

Because Sunmark is using Oregon byproducts rather than charcoal like other competitors, Earthlite media is also cheaper. This is comforting to companies mandated to filter stormwater.

“For the longest time, the cheapest thing out there was one hundred thousand dollars for treating stormwater,” Holman said. “And I’m doing it for a fraction of the price.”

Plus, once the blend begins to fail and it’s time to replace the mix, the end form is essentially the same form of biochar the company uses in its soil for other projects.

“Even if it goes to landfills it’s still a good thing,” Holman said.

Pending OSU’s testing, the company wants to move toward commercializing the product.

“The idea is to take it from a local ‘I’ll do anything to clean my storm water,’ to a commercialized product nationally,” Holman said.

“The goal is to figure out how to get a blend of biochar that is the most universal.”

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