JOHN HOLLAND | Modesto Bee

October 24, 2021

A new plant in Merced is turning some of California’s huge supply of almond shells into an especially rich fertilizer. Corigin Solutions hopes to counter climate change with this use of a nut byproduct that has had little value to date. CEO Mike Woelk hosted tours Tuesday evening at the plant, off Thornton Road near Merced Regional Airport. It employs 12 people now but could grow to as many as 40, he said.

The company expects to handle about 1,000 tons of almond shells this year but could grow to about 47,000 within three years. Orchards in and near Merced County will supply them. “We remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it in soils, where we transform the fertility of soils,” Woelk said during a panel discussion for the guests.

The shells surround the almond kernels, which are the top-grossing crop in the Central Valley. The nut meats brought growers an average of $4,680 per ton from 2016 to 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported. The shells are surrounded in turn by hulls, which long have been fed to dairy cattle. The hulls were worth an average of $80.20 per ton last year, according to the Stanislaus County crop report, released Tuesday. Almond shells brought a mere $8.46 per ton, the county report said. They mainly have been sold as bedding for cattle and other livestock.

They conceivably could be burned to generate electricity, but that would not do much to reduce the carbon emissions involved in climate change. Corigin uses a well-known process called pyrolysis to make its products. The shells are heated inside the machinery to 887 degrees, which breaks them into vapors that are reduced to liquid fertilizer. Nothing synthetic is added, so the products can be used by organic farmers. The process also yields “biochar,” a charcoal-like material that can be worked into the soil to sequester carbon. And it produces small amounts of oil and gas that could displace fossil fuels.

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