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Benefits of biochar

Part 2 of our biochar video series covers the benefits of biochar.  One backyard enthusiast calls the charcoal "condos for microbes," and biochar also has a host of other beneficial properties in the soil.  Julie Major from the International Biochar Initiative and Rory Maguire from Virginia Tech point out biochar's most impressive features in this short video.

Take a weekend vacation without worrying about your flock once you install our homemade chicken waterer.

This post is part of our Biochar Videos lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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The final arbiter/accountancy/measure of sustainability will be soil carbon content. Once this royal road is constructed, traffic cops (Carbon Board ) in place, the truth of land-management and Biochar systems will be self-evident.

A dream I've had for years is to base the coming carbon economy firmly on the foundation of top soils. My read of the agronomic history of civilization shows that the Kayopo Amazon Indians and the Egyptians were the only ones to maintain fertility for the long haul, millennium scales. Egypt has now forsaken their geologic advantage by building the Aswan dam, and are stuck, with the rest of us, in the soil C mining, NPK rat race to the bottom. The meta-analysis of Syn-N and soil Carbon content shows our dilemma;

The Ag Soil Carbon standard is in final review by the AMS branch at USDA. Read over the work so far;

Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent. Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon, Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, (living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.

Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw; "Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes; "Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !". Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar. Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come. Microbes like to sit down when they eat. By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life.

This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it.

Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web. The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet. Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure we need to build out.

For those looking for an overview of biochar and its benefits, These authors have done a very nice job of distilling a great deal of information about biochar and applying it to the US context:

US Focused Biochar report: Assessment of Biochar's Benefits for the USA

WorldStoves in Haiti;


The Biochar Fund; deserves your attention and support. Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon

Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left. Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

Soil Carbon Dream

I have a dream that one day we live in a nation where progress will not be judged by the production yields of our fields, but by the color of their soils and by the Carbon content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, a suite of earth sensing satellites will level the playing field, giving every farmer a full account of carbon he sequesters. That Soil Carbon is given as the final arbiter, the common currency, accountant and Judge of Stewardship on our lands.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made forest, the rough soils will be made fertile, and the crooked Carbon Marketeers will be made straight, and the glory of Soil Sequestration shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see a Mutually assured Sustainability.

This is our hope.

My apologies to Dr. King, but I think he would understand my passion


Comment by Erich J. Knight Tue Aug 31 23:39:33 2010

Wow, that's passion! :-) I like your analysis of Egyptian and Amazonian soils, although I suspect that other cultures took advantage of frequent floods the way Egypt did, but perhaps without being noted so much in the history books. China, for example, with their rice paddies.

I totally agree that we need to go back to a system of building soil as our wealth. I think that biochar is only part of the picture, though. Over supper, Mark and I were discussing how flawed even the best compost we can buy is since it is mixed chemically and not biologically. If someone started a compost company that inoculated the humus with biochar and good microorganisms, I'd think they could sell it for at least double!

Comment by anna Wed Sep 1 07:43:53 2010

One of the thinks to think about is the cost of biochar, measured in the amount of energy required and/or CO₂ released to produce it.

Suppose that producing 1 kg of biochar would require burning >1 kg of wood or releases >1 kg of carbon in the form of CO₂. It that still worth it? What would be sustainable?

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Sep 1 18:52:44 2010
Thanks for looking that up! That's why I think that, for us at least, biochar only makes sense if combined with a rocket stove. If I was using the heat put off by the stove to cook our supper, and was able to turn blighted tomato stalks into biochar as a soil additive at the same time, it would probably be a net gain for our mini-ecosystem. Or maybe if we used the heat for something else (though I can't think what, beyond heating the trailer in the winter.) Ideas?
Comment by anna Thu Sep 2 08:21:32 2010

According to the biochar wikipedia article, you need 400-800 °C for biochar production. The same article says you want slow pyrolization to produce the most char, and you can tune the process to run completely on the volatiles released using the retort process, because the higher the temperature the more volatiles will be released, which makes sense. (According to the wood gas wikipedia article, gasification of organics needs at least 700 °C.)

I don't think that a rocket stove will do the trick. Unless you want a rocket stove that boils a cubic yard of soup, and transforms your trailer into the surrounds of a blast furnace. :-)

In essence making biochar and charcoal are chemical processes. Making those clean and efficient requires resources that you don't have.

Since you have sufficient wood, try building a charcoal pile. Those can be built from a about a cubic foot to as big as a house. And the only things you need are wood, straw, dirt (all easy to come by in your case) and some practice. As long as you don't burn more wood than you grow, the process should be carbon neutral. That seems like the simplest solution to me.

Of course you can experiment with adding other dry plant material to the pile. See how it works.

Comment by Roland_Smith Thu Sep 2 13:22:53 2010

I don't want to use wood for my biochar because to me it's not a waste product --- I like our trees where they are and any that fall go for firewood. It does sound, though, like it might be smartest to build something large and save up our waste so that we can get hot enough.

I'm a bit confused by the combination of slow pyrolysis and high heat --- wouldn't that hot of a heat make things pyrolize quickly?

Comment by anna Thu Sep 2 16:33:12 2010
While temperature will be a significant factor in the speed of pyrolysis, there are others as well. E.g. surface to volume ratio (particle size) will be very important for the speed of the reaction. What is called "fast prolysis" is done in seconds, which makes me think of e.g. sawdust or wood chips dumped into a hot reactor and creating mostly bio-oil according to Wikipedia. I can't imagine e.g. quarter log pieces being pyrolized in seconds.
Comment by Roland_Smith Fri Sep 3 13:04:22 2010
Ah! That makes a lot of sense --- thanks!
Comment by anna Fri Sep 3 13:09:32 2010

Recent NATURE STUDY; Sustainable bio char to mitigate global climate change

Not talked about in this otherwise comprehensive study are the climate and whole ecological implications of new , higher value, applications of chars.

First, the in situ remediation of a vast variety of toxic agents in soils and sediments. Biochar Sorption of Contaminants;

Dr. Lima's work; Specialized Characterization Methods for Biochar And at USDA; The Ultimate Trash To Treasure: *ARS Research Turns Poultry Waste into Toxin-grabbing Char

Second, the uses as a feed ration for livestock to reduce GHG emissions and increase disease resistance.

Third, Recent work by C. Steiner showing a 52% reduction of NH3 loss when char is used as a composting accelerator. This will have profound value added consequences for the commercial composting industry by reduction of their GHG emissions and the sale of compost as a nitrogen fertilizer.,

Global Clean Stove Initiative: Another significant aspect of low cost Biomass cook stoves, that produce char, is removal of BC aerosols and no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing "Three Stone" stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria & Aids combined. The Biochar Fund : The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that, and the size of the Biochar corn root balls ) Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon

State Dept. Release; 100 million clean-burning stoves in kitchens around the world.

WorldStoves in Haiti ;

NSF Awards $1.6 million in grants; BREAD: Biochar Inoculants for Enabling Smallholder Agriculture

Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left. Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

Thanks for your efforts. Erich

Erich J. Knight Chairman; Markets and Business Review Committee US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University, June 27-30

EcoTechnologies Group Technical Adviser Shenandoah Gardens (Owner) 1047 Dave Barry Rd. McGaheysville, VA. 22840 540 289 9750 Co-Administrator, Biochar Data base & Discussion list TP-REPP

Comment by Erich J. Knight Tue Nov 2 02:48:29 2010
Wow! That's an amazing amount of new data. I'm especially interested in the biochar/compost combo, perhaps with an addition of a fungal inoculant. This winter, I hope to get some sort of biochar stove going, preferably a little cook stove but maybe just something to produce biochar. I want to see all of this for myself in my own garden!
Comment by anna Tue Nov 2 08:19:52 2010

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