The Biochar Factor


Biochar, Meet Murphy & Seth

I often receive input from impatient—er, eager—potential investors, partners, & customers that they absolutely need biochar technology yesterday, and that since pyrolysis isn’t rocket science, why oh why don’t I deliver it FedEx Time Travel to arrive last week?

It is true that pyrolysis isn’t rocket science.  But have you met my friends Murphy, of the famous Murphy’s Law, and Seth (Set), the Egyptian god of Chaos and Inertia?

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Stuff, where the gods Murphy and Seth reign sovereign.  Welcome also to the Wonderful World of Global Recession.  Combine the two, and you have nothing to bribe Murphy & Seth with.

When I mention this, I get offers.  Ooooh, do I get offers! They perk my little ears right up.  “How fast could we make this happen if I give you $10M?” and, “Hmmm….3 months?  How many months if I put $25M on the table?”  Yes, those are very exciting things to hear, but fortunately, I have a very judicious partner/colleague/friend/boss who has lived longer in the Wonderful World of Stuff, and he Knows.  There is only so much you can bribe Murphy & Seth—which can still make things go faster, indeed.  But only so much faster.  There is a sweet spot between Time and Money.  And all the Money in the world does not make Time move faster.  (Though there are some meditation techniques that can take you outside of Time.  But that’s a different story for a different blog.)

There is an old adage that says:  “Good, Fast, & Cheap:  Choose any two.”  But you can only throw so much money at something and make it go faster.

Engineering of Stuff is an iterative process.  You must try something until it exposes its weakness, fix it, try it again, fix it, try again, fix it, and try try again.  This simply takes time.  Fortunately, to do this does not require extensive training.  It is not as complex as some of the other renewable energy technologies like solar, or even wind.  Pyrolysis and biochar production provides an excellent opportunity for out-of-work automotive workers—when the industry is booming and ready to hire.

There are some biochar companies—Dynamotive and BEST, for example—that are currently producing pyrolysis technology.  BIG pyrolysis technology.  Many tons an hour, enormous processing plants that will also produce electricity to the tune of 10s of millions.  And the simple fact about those is that they take up to several years to design, site, and build.

There are other biochar companies out there that are doing…well, I don’t know what.  Many of them are new, and are probably dealing with the same Murphy & Seth issues that my company is.  Also, interest in biochar, and the fledgling market that accompanies that interest, has only really begun to pick up in the last 6 months.  My company, for one, necessarily had other technologies in the cache in case the whole biochar thing took many years to take off.

Ultimately, this “delay” all somewhat divinely ordained, because the folks that approach me with charcoal-colored dollar signs in their eyes are just a little too eager for the reality we are facing here.  Biochar is not something that we could/should/would blanket over the entire planet immediately.  Global production and application requires advancements in soil science, climate science, biochar and agriculture economics, climate policy, and technology.  It requires infrastructure to support it.  It was 10 years before biofuels were given a small tax credit.

Though we must toe the line of acting fast—in all arenas, not just biochar—to address climate change, we must also toe the line of being scientifically, ethically, and economically responsible.

Stay tuned–I will be at the Pacific Northwest Biochar Conference for the rest of this week, where we will be discussing the economic, social, & environmental implications and requirements for producing sustainable biochar.

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7 Comments so far
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This article really hits home for me. My company, BioChar Brokers, is currently taking pre-orders for bags of EternaGreen BioChar that will be fulfilled this summer. This means we have many eager/impatient customers wanting their bags yesterday. I hope some of them will read this article and keep in mind that good things do in fact come to those who wait! 🙂

Comment by Rebecca M.

I just stumbled across this blog from the PNW Biochar mailing list. Up here in the rice country in Butte County I am trying to get anybody who will listen to me to consider a biochar plot in their gardens as a test case. In the meantime I have found an accidental biochar garden established simply because somebody was dumping a lot of woodstove charcoal in a community compost pile. You should see the compost, it’s amazing stuff.

We also have vast areas of standing dead wood up here due to last summer’s fires. While some of it is getting fed to tub grinders for the biomass power plant there is still much, much more. We could seriously use some prepared biochar, as in charred, ground and charged with nitrogen and critters to keep the hills from sliding into the Feather River. Four inch pine seedlings in oxisoils aren’t very convincing as erosion barriers.

What I can’t find is a pamphlet type document prepared to introduce biochar and accurately inform people as to it’s positive side and appropriate use. Without providing good information we are at the mercy of hacks, rumors and naysayers.

As to the “want biochar profits NOW!!” people…….. agricultural field studies just don’t work that way. Region by region, crop by crop we are going to have to establish that char from X source benefits Y crop in Z soils to the Nth degree. That’s not going to prevent some idiot from digging a massive amount of char into his orchard and having the trees fall over in a storm because the roots can’t keep up with soil changes. There are always fools to rush in.

Nice blog. Got any job openings?

Comment by Pangolin

If you’ll join the Yahoo groups biochar list, you will find all sorts of resources to read and think about. For a short “fact sheet” type of document, Google CSIRO and download CSIRO BioChar Fact Sheet.pdf.

Comment by Jeff

Jeff,

Thanks for pointing me to the Yahoo list. I have been aware of it for some time, but due to the seemingly endless & exponential nature of my work, I’ve consciously chosen to not participate. I can barely post to a blog, let alone be a participating member of such an active community! I have some friends and associates on the list, and they occasionally update me with the creme de la creme of the list, and I am very grateful for it.

I did not, however, know about the CSIRO Fact Sheet. Thanks for that! The CSIRO folks are top notch researchers, (special shout out to Dr’s. Krull & Sohi, whose presentations at the Biochar Conference in Newcastle in 08 knocked my socks off!)

Best,

Lopa

Comment by lopabrunjes

Hi Pangolin,

Thanks for your salient response, & my apologies for the delayed reply, I have been up to my ears in all things biochar. I’d love to get you guys some biochar when we have it for the giving, but it flies off our “shelf” the moment we make any (we have a long list of researchers wanting to test it out). I haven’t been privvy to much about biochar’s erosion-control effects, is there anything you could point to that has enlightened you?

And yes, excellent point about the biochar profit zealots, & the general slowness of agricultural field studies.

As of now, we do not have any job openings….However, I am compiling a Dream Team Wish List, and if you shoot me an email (no secret to the public, so here ya go: lopa at biocharenergy dot com) with your CV & ideal role, I’ll keep you on file and in mind as we rollout Mission: Team Expansion.

Cheers!

Comment by lopabrunjes

hello would anyone be able to give me an idea of the cost in setting up a bio char plant in the uk.

Comment by mark

You want to know all the secrets about biochar ?
This book will help !

http://www.biochar-books.com

Here practice and theory merge under a single cover of “The Biochar Revolution” and reveals hidden secrets of science called Biochar

Comment by new_biochar_land




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