Backyard Biochar This site has descriptions of my experiments with Flame Cap Kilns. I also report on work by others.
US Biochar Initiative I am on the advisory board of the USBI. We are sponsoring the 5th North American Biochar Symposium in Corvallis, Oregon - August 22-25, 2016
Illinois Valley Forest Collaborative I've been involved with the group in my hometown for several years. We are working with the US Forest Service on hazardous fuels and small diameter timber sales. Biochar is a part of what we do.
Umpqua Biochar Education Team (UBET) I am working with UBET on a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA-NRCS. We are helping small farmers learn how to make biochar and use it to manage manure and make premium compost.
I am reading Naomi Klein's book, This Changes Everything. This is revolutionary. Here is a quote from the intro: "The bottom line is what matters here: our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity's use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it's not the laws of nature."
A online magazine from Yale highlights biochar and soil carbon in two excellent articles by Mark Hertsgaard and Judith Schwartz. This is good, in-depth science journalism and just what these new, complex topics need. Soon, I predict, Soil Carbon will become a household word! I mean, everyone knows that soil fertility requires N,P,K. Soon we will all understand that we need C as well. Carbon is good, not bad. It's just in the wrong place and we need to move it from the sky to the ground. That doesn't sound so hard, does it?
Researchers at Massey University in New Zealand did a public survey of attitudes toward geoengineering the climate. Geoengineering includes a number of speculative ideas for cooling the planet that include things like putting giant mirrors in space as well as more down to earth ideas like building soil carbon with biochar and other methods.
Public opinion is firmly on the side of soil carbon. The sensible New Zealanders prefer the more "natural" approach of returning carbon to carbon-depleted soils over grand engineering schemes that might literally "cost the earth."
Biochar - using charcoal as a soil amendment - was one approach that received positive feedback from the public and Prof Wright said it was because it was seen as a natural way to solve the problem. "It was a striking pattern really. Interventions such as putting mirrors in space or fine particles into the stratosphere are not well received. More natural processes of cloud brightening or enhanced weathering are less likely to raise objections, but the public react best to creating biochar or capturing carbon directly from the air."
Last weekend's Biochar Burn School was fantastically successful! Many thanks to all the participants. I was especially pleased at the diversity of people who attended - young folks and elders, permaculturists and scientists, land owners, nomads and Forest Service professionals. Thanks to everyone who came back for an extra day, just to see what else we could learn about this process.
Special thanks to Peter Hirst of New England Biochar for showing up with tools, educational materials and expertise.
I will be writing up a report with more details, but for now, the best way to understand what we did is to take a look at these pictures:
Well,I just got back from the US Biochar Symposium in Amherst, MA. It was a super gathering of biochar researchers, practitioners and entrepreneurs working at all scales. There was way too much information to properly absorb, but I did my best. I gave a couple of presentations too, including a history of 19th century biochar. Check out my slides here:
Download- The Roots of Biochar.
It is a lot of work to search through these 19th century books and journals for information about biochar. But if you are up for the task, the good news is that many sources are available for free on Google Books. I made a Google Bookshelf that contains most of the sources I used. Here is a link to my Google Bookshelf of 19th Century Biochar Sources.
In an interview, Australian philosopher and author Clive Hamilton talks about the enormous risks of large-scale manipulation of Earth's climate, why climate change deniers believe in the solution of geoengineering and what it all means for humanity.
I don't completely like the headline - it should rather be something like: "Is supporting 9 billion people by 2050 bad news for biodiversity?" But the point is well taken. Meeting human needs for food and biofuels will push other species off the planet as we hog all the available land to support more humans and their stuff. Not a happy future for anyone.
The excellent Ithaka Journal has published my article: Justus von Liebig and the Birth of Modern Biochar. You must put Ithaka Journal on your reading list. This journal of Ecology, Winemaking and Climate Farming comes out of Switzerland and publishes excellent accounts of practical expermentation with biochar and other techniques at small farms and vineyards. Articles are in German, French and English. Publisher Hans-Peter Schmidt kindly agreed to publish my article on Liebig and Biochar.
Justus von Liebig was a Rock Star in the early development of chemistry, especially agricultural chemistry. I mean, just look at this picture of the young Liebig. What a cutie, and smart too!
The young Justus Liebig
Liebig managed to impress just about everyone with his rigorous approach to actual experimentation as a way of understanding Nature. Earlier chemists were more inclined to observe phenomena and then sit back with their books in the library and construct theories. Liebig built a lab that was the envy of Europe. He turned out results and soon he had many emulators. One experiment that he sponsored used charcoal to grow plants with impressive results. Liebig published the results in 1841, and this report was picked up and republished in agricultural and gardening journals for decades afterward, stimulating a widespread interest in the use of charcoal in agriculture. You could say it "went viral", at the slower information virus speeds of yesteryear. Read my article in Ithaka Journal to learn more about this early biochar movement.
Mark Hertsgaard has a good article on biochar up at Slate. Hertsgaard is an environmental journalist who does a consistently great job analyzing the big picture of our planetary predicaments. He has several current articles on agriculture and climate change that are really good. In another article, Hertsgaard interviews food expert Michael Pollan. Pollan points out that agriculture is key to our climate crisis, not only
because agriculture is responsible for 25% of carbon emissions,
but because agriculture has the potential to sequester massive amounts of carbon in soils. One statistic that neither Pollan nor Hertsgaard mention is this one: Most agricultural soils have lost between 25% and 75% of their soil carbon in the last 5 decades (Rattan, L. Depletion and Restoration of Carbon in the Pedosphere). That means there is tremendous potential to use soils as a carbon sink.
And there will be huge benefits in doing so. Carbon-depleted soils have less ability to hold water and nutrients. Carbon-depleted soils are compacted and dying soils. They cannot support as much soil biota - the microbes, fungi, arthrodpods, nemotodes and other "wee beasties" that make up the soil ecosystem. Industrial agriculture often resembles a sort of field-scale hydroponics, where plants are fed liquid chemicals in a sterile environment. The "soil" is just the medium that holds the plants up. In that kind of agriculture, disease can run rampant because there are no natural controls, and so the full arsenal of pesticides is added to the chemical brew - all very energy intensive and carbon-spewing to produce and apply. Soil needs carbon to function normally. Compost, manure and plant residues are essential for soil carbon building, but we find that we can accelerate the process if we use biochar. And we don't have a lot of time to waste, so biochar needs to be part of the soil carbon restoration program.
There is some very exciting new research on the synergisms that can result when biochar is added to compost. Several studies have looked at the effects of biochar on the timing and results of compost maturation and found that adding biochar to compost reduced the amount of dissolved organic carbon in mature compost while increasing the fraction of humic materials (Jindo et al., 2012; Dias et al., 2010; Tu et al., 2013). What this means is that using biochar in compost helps stabilize the easily degraded biomass carbon in grass, wood, manure and other wastes by facilitating its conversion to the more stable humic substances. Following the addition of 2% biochar to compost, Jindo et al. recorded a 10% increase in carbon captured by humic substance extraction and a 30% decrease of water-soluble C. They also found an increase of fungal species diversity in the mature biochar compost as compared to the control and proposed that these fungi were responsible for the increased humification.
I am putting biochar in my compost pile. How about you?
Here are the citations:
Dias, B. O., Silva, C. A., Higashikawa, F. S., Roig, A., & Sánchez-Monedero, M. Á. (2010). Use of biochar as bulking agent for the composting of poultry manure: Effect on organic matter degradation and humification. Bioresource Technology, 101(4), 1239–1246. doi:10.1016/j.biortech.2009.09.024
Jindo, K., Suto, K., Matsumoto, K., García, C., Sonoki, T., & Sánchez-Monedero, M. Á. (2012). Chemical and biochemical characterisation of biochar-blended composts prepared from poultry manure. Bioresource Technology, 110, 396–404. doi:10.1016/j.biortech.2012.01.120
Tu, Q., Wu, W., Lu, H., sun, B., Wang, C., Deng, H., & Chen, Y. (2012). The Effect of Biochar and Bacterium Agent on Humification During Swine Manure Composting. In Functions of Natural Organic Matter in Changing Environment (pp. 1021–1025). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-5634-2_189