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A Biochar Revolution? Let’s Find Out

biochar hands

I just had a great phone call with Jeff, one of the founders of the Biochar Company.

Screen shot 2012-03-16 at 10.45.53 AM

He and his company are doing the entrepreneurial grunt work necessary to bring biochar into the mainstream.

How?  They working on improving the quality of biochar production through easy to use technology, and finding ways to drive down the costs of biochar to end-users.

Here’s why bringing biochar to the mainstream is is a good thing.  We’ve got a fifty thousand square miles of depleted and polluted lawns in the US alone.

This soil will be rehabilitated as we return to producing food locally.  It’s just a question of how it will be done.

biochar hands

One of the best ways for us to do that is by adding biochar as a soil amendment.

What is Biochar?  It’s simply a type of charcoal.  What makes it special is that it is extremely porous.   Its surface is dotted with nooks and crannies that hold things.

This porosity makes it able to:

  • soak up and safely store pollutants and contaminants in soil (soil remediation) 
  • improve the ability of soil to retain/manage water,
  • house beneficial organisms such as fungus and bacteria.

The end result?   High quality soil. 

Soil that can boost the fertility of your garden over the next couple of decades (in some cases, much longer) with less water and less fertilizer.  That’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, making high quality biochar is harder than most people believe.  For example, there are nearly thirty methods used to produce it. Each method produces biochar with different characteristics (porosity, PH, etc.) due to differences in the temperature used, the feedstock used, etc.   This also means that just scooping some ash and charcoal out of your Firepit is not likely to produce the results you are looking for.

Fortunately, that complexity doesn’t mean you can’t make high quality biochar at the local scale if you know what to do.  That’s where I think the Biochar Company can help, by refining the technologies required and growing the markets for locally produced biochar.

For example, they are working on ways to insert biochar production into viable long term business.  Here’s an example from Hawaii.  Note how biochar production fits into the system.

Hawaiian

Let’s hope they are successful since I believe we are going to hear a lot about biochar in the next decade.

Regardless, I’ll keep you up to date on its progress.

Resiliently yours,

 

JOHN ROBB

 

PS: Members can get the details on this interview in February’s Resilient Strategies report.  

John-Robb

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • vera

    I get biochar for free by shutting off the flue of my high efficiency stove overnight. Slow, lower energy burn results in a layer of biochar in the morning.

    The big question I have is… how useful is it really on dry sandy and alkaline western soils?

    • John Robb

      Vera,

      You can get amazing results from biochar in nearly any soil.

      However, it’s a bit harder than the method you described to make biochar.

      For example: you need to control the temperature of the pyrolysis to get optimal porosity and PH.

      How it fits your soil is a function of what you “charge it” with.

      I’ve got a detailed write up on biochar in February’s Resilient Strategies report. Cuts through lots of the misinformation on the topic.

      JR

      • vera

        I ran it by the professor at Cornell who runs the biochar dept., and he thought adequate biochar could be obtained that way. Hey… another way to make your house productive! :-)

        • vera

          Oh, and I charged it with horse manure. What else can you charge it with?

    • different clue

      Is that biochar or is that creosote? And are you cutting back on air’s ability to get to the burning wood? If so, do you run a carbon monoxide risk?

      • vera

        My impression is that the flue levers (I have two) do not cut air off completely. The resulting char is nothing like creosote… it comes in black chunklets that are soft and can easily be crushed in the hand. You can still see the structure of the wood in them. Also, the stove door is well sealed. Maybe I should get a monoxide meter to see if anything is escaping.

  • Ryan

    A key step to the integration of biochar into soil fertility is lacking here. One of the most important steps, “charging”, or inoculating, is easily done if several other resilient living methods are currently employed.
    Ideally, a mixture of compost / vermicompost tea, molasses, kelp powder, and starter culture should be brewed in with the Char,
    Method I use:
    5Gal bucket
    2 gallons of char
    2 gallons of water
    2 cups of alfalfa meal
    1/2 gallon vermicompost tea
    2 tbs molasses
    1/2 cup kelp powder

    The key here is the fish tank air bubbler that aerates this mix for 48 hrs while it brews. You incorporate the Biochar as any other soil amendment, and the remaining liquid is an absolutely amazing “complete” fertilizer.

    If you don’t pre-charge the Char, it will deplete the rhizosphere of nutrients and MO during the first season.

    • vera

      Seems like work. Why not just mix it with manure and letting it sit for two days?

      • vera

        I just checked my stove, and despite the fact that I had not closed the flue completely, there is still a small amount of char. So it’s probably safer to go with leaving a tiny crack open.

  • vera

    Here’s another idea. Save your bones, ye meat eaters, and throw them in when making biochar. Then you’ll get an extra helping of phosphorus too.

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