The Biochar Factor

Telling the Biochar Story at TED

As many of you may already know, I’ve been offered the distinct honor of speaking on biochar at TEDxBerkeley in February.  It’s a dream come true to me–I’ve wanted to speak at TED ever since I was first introduced to its amazing collection of inspiring humans several years ago.  TED is one of the things that makes me feel like it might be OK to bring a child into this world someday.  I’m serious.

TED is about storytelling.  When you hear a presentation at TED, it’s not “the technical potential of X” or “proving the business case of Y”.  It’s, “this is the story of how I came to be involved in researching the stickiness of gecko feet, and why that’s relevant to the world today, and you.”  The speakers lead you in with authentic and personal stories, and sneakily slip in technical data, specialized information, and inspiring perspectives along the way.  TED is great about providing ample information and support to speakers so that they can deliver “The Talk of Their Life” (no pressure…), including a “10 TED Commandments”, which include such guidelines as “do not sell,” “don’t flaunt your ego,” and “show us the real you.”

TED wants to hear about biochar.  And I want to tell them. This is an opportunity for the biochar story to be shared with a broader audience than it’s ever reached before.  I am incredibly excited to tell the biochar story, in a way that is also authentic to my experience with it.  Which brings me to ask:  what IS the biochar story?  Biochar is incredibly complex–there are so many angles to cover, so many potential applications and potential benefits, so many caveats and considerations to ensure that it is accurately represented (without the “Magic Bullet Flair” that so many tend to give it).

I have 18 minutes.  About 10 of those are going to lead into the story of how I was introduced to biochar and realized its incredible value to our world today (this story includes Burning Man, meditation, and a small barely-inhabited island off the coast of Lombok called Gili Meno.  Of course.); as well as the ancient history of biochar–how it has been dubbed the Secret of El Dorado; and how it helped to increase the Amazon Basin’s capacity to support larger populations than people thought possible.

Which brings me to my question for all of YOU:

What do you think the biochar story MUST include?

Please leave comments, including statistics, benefits, concerns, inspiring quotes, or stories about what inspires YOU about biochar.  The theme for this TEDx conference is “Engaging the World”, and I am particularly keen for insight on how you think we can best engage the TED community (and the 100,000+ watching live online Feb 19th) in biochar–without selling a product or asking for investment.  How do you think the civilian world can dig its teeth into biochar?  What story should we be telling to the world together, that will inspire both hope and pragmatism, and get people jumping off their chair to join the biochar movement?

If I nail this talk, there’s a good chance it will get placed on, for an even wider audience.  So help me out!  I see myself as a representative of a much larger community–I’m just the megaphone.  Lend me your voice, and I’ll shout it out to the world!

NECESSARY DISCLAIMER: While I am very grateful for your time in making suggestions and comments, I make no promise that I will be able to use all, or any, of your comments or suggestions.  Thank you for understanding this, as I work with the nuances of developing a compelling talk that is fluid and appropriate for the audience.



NEW POST:  Thank you to everyone for your insightful comments!  After receiving an extremely helpful coaching session from TEDxBerkeley’s speaking coach, I simplified and personalized my biochar story for this talk.  As she said, “TED wants 90% story. People connect with people more than they connect with ideas and facts. Tell them a story that they can connect with.”

Here is my story of biochar — how it found me, and why I decided to dedicate myself to helping bring the benefits of biochar to the world at large:



21 Comments so far
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Greetings Lopa: The idea of using biochar to enhance urban soils came on strong last week at the Sustainable Sites Symposium in Chicago. The quality of a landscape depends largely on the quality of its soils. Root invigoration research indicates a tree given a more productive enviroment doesn’t need as many roots to thrive. This can have huge implications for urban forestry. Biochar can help support a larger and more vigorous urban canopy. The value of potential soil health improvements are too great to ignore. Symposium attendee Christine Esposito, @TerracomChicago, reports that the City of Chicago is receptive to making sites available to study biochar in urban soils. I am thinking that you could use could use the wealth building (, potential of revitalizing urban soils to good effect in your presentation to TED. And even a short mention would help to advance urban biochar efforts.

Comment by Philip Small

Sustainable Sites Symposium in Chicago

Comment by Philip Small

Restorative development and reWealth: TEDxMidAtlantic 2010 – Storm Cunningham – 11/5/10

Comment by Philip Small

Hi Phil,

Thanks so much for this idea, this is a great way to engage and inspire people in tangible ways that are closer to most people, than, say, sustainable waste management. I think the two main thrusts of my talk will be climate and soils–this integrates nicely into the soils component.

Thanks, Phil! Appreciate you taking the time to respond.



Comment by lopabrunjes

[…] The idea of using biochar to enhance urban soils came on strong last week at the Sustainable Sites Symposium in Chicago. The quality of a landscape depends largely on the quality of its soils. Root invigoration research indicates a tree given a more productive enviroment doesn’t need as many roots to thrive. This can have huge implications for urban forestry. Biochar can help support a larger and more vigorous urban canopy. However biochar effects are complex, affected by source, pyrolysis process, and site dynamics.  There is little research to support urban use of biochar, but the value of potential soil health improvements assures eventual study. Symposium attendee Christine Esposito reports that the City of Chicago is receptive to making sites available to study biochar in urban soils. I am thinking Lopa Brunjes could use this story to good effect in her February biochar presentation to TED. […]

Pingback by Chicago: Biochar and Urban Soils | Land Profile, Inc.

Let me first say, Congratulations!
This is a huge honour, and I believe that you will be able to do justice to the Biochar community, and especially, make clear that our intentions are in fact sound and are for the greater good.

A message that helps to clarify of our intentions should therefore take a priority spot within your speech, and it should be placed withing a context that makes sense to people within an authentic and personal story that is *yours*, but that also includes the “technical data, specialized information, and inspiring perspectives” that are the hallmarks of TED storytelling.

While this will be *your story*, I would hope that you point out several often unmentioned and unpleasant realities of today’s world, including our transportation and energy predicaments [Peak Oil], our environmental predicaments [species extinction, global warming and the enormous and ever-growing pressures being placed on our biological resources] and the human/social predicaments [income discrepancies, loss and lack of purposeful work/employment (joblessness) and the increasing poverty and resource issues — including access to food — that are at the heart of our “growth-based” consumption economy].

Finally, you should end the presentation with a message of HOPE — embedded within a message about how Biochar could become one of the ‘key’ tools that could help us overcome many, if not most, of these predicaments.

Please read through the message I sent out earlier to Erich K. on the [biochar-policy] list (I CC’d you). Title: “Tar Sands With Biochar,….Costa Rica Feasibility”
In that message I attempt to outline a direction, a path for the Biofuels and Biochar industry that can hopefully help to achieve the practical energy, environmental and social solutions that are needed to overcome some of these issues.
I try to provide an overview of how “a new paradigm in the Biomass Supply Chains for Biochar and 2nd generation Biofuels” can be created — one that is embedded in ecological economics and one that can give us hope that a socially and environmentally equitable “Sustainable Development paradigm” can be achieved that helps to bridge the gap between rich and poor and between the urban and rural economies of the world.

Good luck,
Lloyd Helferty, Biochar Consulting Canada

Comment by lhelferty

Hi Lloyd,

Thanks for taking the time to add your perspective to this, I appreciate it!

Yes, I will certainly be including a discussion about the broader environmental devastation that’s going on…in fact, “my” story of biochar is actually very much about how I woke up to the deteriorating world around us, and realized just how many of these problems biochar could address.

And, yes, a message of hope, indeed, is critical! That’s precisely why I put up this post–to get feedback from our community on how best to relay that message of hope in a way that the average layman can sink their teeth into and get excited about.

Biomass supply chains are certainly critical, and exciting to those who are working in the industry…but for the average person I think it is less enticing than it is to you and I, who are geeks for this stuff =)

Thanks again for your time in responding, and for all that you do for the biochar community.



Comment by lopabrunjes

Lopa: Perhaps one way to get people to jump off of their chairs about the potential of biochar is to relate it to where most people in the US live: cities.

Here in Chicago, we’re doing the first known tests of biochar in urban soils, specifically to see if it can help urban street trees survive longer than their average life expectancy of a mere seven years. The potential is to make urban spaces more livable with something that helps urban trees stay more healthy.

Residents of the community where this biochar testing is taking place are excited that the research is happening there and are very engaged in the care of their “community forest.”

Something else about this urban investigation that might get the civilian world to dig its teeth into biochar is that, if it turns out that urban wood waste makes a suitable biomass source of biochar, we can create a sustainable closed-loop system. The wood from trimmed or downed urban trees can fuel creation of biochar that can help sustain living urban trees.

This research is the result of a public-private partnership involving an international tree-care company and a nationally recognized nonprofit organization that collects and studies trees, with enthusiastic support and assistance by the City of Chicago, in part because the city sees biochar’s potential to help implement the Chicago Climate Action Plan.

Comment by Christine Esposito


Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. I think you and Phil are onto something great, and I’m going to endeavor to bring it into my talk, even if its just a mention. Do you have any compelling photographs that illustrate the benefit, or show the project in action, that you could share?

I again make no promises that I will in fact be able to include this, but I do think this is a fantastic, close-to-home application of biochar that tells much more of the story of “what’s in it for the average urban dweller?”

Thank you also for the great work you are doing. I think Chicago is a great flagship city for urban biochar. I’d love to also see biochar integrated into more of the greenroofs in Chicago.

Thanks again for taking the time to respond.

My best,


Comment by lopabrunjes

Thank you, Lopa. We’ll definitely see what photos we have that can help tell the urban biochar story.

At the sustainable sites symposium that Phil mentioned, I did indeed overhear attendees discussing biochar and greenroofs. So much potential.

And your talk will help fuel the momentum.


Comment by Christine Esposito

Hi Lopa, very excited to hear you speak again! I agree that strengthening our urban soils would be a great subject to speak about. Considering soil health plays such a large role in the quality and quantity of ecosystem services, improving the health of our urban soils through an integrated waste management plan, including the production and application of biochar has enormous potential to improve ecosystem services across an urban fabric. Improved urban ecosystem services in return has the potential to greatly reduce many of our infrastructure and utility cost including from, air, water, food and energy life cycles… all of which biochar directly benefits. Just imagine, biochar in part, could help enable an urban framework that actually becomes the vehicle for humans stewarding this earth, not destroying it.

Comment by Ariel Fisk-Vittori

Thank you for your reply, Ariel! It’s great to hear so much enthusiasm for urban soils. I particularly appreciate your last sentence–very well put. I will add this to the cache of votes for “biochar in the urban environment”. Thanks again!



Comment by lopabrunjes

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Comment by new_biochar_land

Hi Lopa. I do have some photos I can send you depicting the Chicago urban soils research. Would you send me your email address?


Comment by Christine Esposito

Hi Christine,

Thanks! You can email me at lopa at biocharengineering dot com.

Comment by lopabrunjes

Hola Lopa,

I’ve been a big TED fan for years and have been wondering who/when/where biochar would get TED’ed. Thank you for being that voice!

There are so many dimensions of the biochar story. As a biologist, technologist, and sustainability advocate, I would say that one of the things that makes biochar so compelling is that is lies at the intersection of so many diverse disciplines. Plus, while we know a lot about how to make it and how it works in the soil, there is so much we DON’T know, e.g. the intricacy of biochar microbial interactions; the subtlety of “signaling substances” present at very low concentrations in biochar that might stimulate plant response far out of proportion to CEC enhancement or other better “known” effects; the sheer complexity of possible combinations of feedstock and pyrolysis parameters, not to mention post treatment, co-treatments, application rates, etc. What we do know makes biochar worthwhile; what we don’t know makes it an exciting scientific and technological frontier.

Finally, I would caution against being too ardent a champion of biochar per se. Biochar creates value in the context of sustainable agriculture, restoration of global carbon balance, and more; but biochar is just one of a suite of technologies and disciplines that may help move civilization back toward equilibrium with global environmental support systems.

Rob Lerner
Costa Rica Biochar Project

Comment by Rob Lerner

Hi Lopa,

This is incredibly exciting news, and we’re looking forward to your talk rather a lot. Biochar needs all the advocates and midwives it can get!

I’ve been trying to think of succinct ways to mention the issues that we keep coming across in our presentation of biochar as a carbon offset solution, and, well, they have surprisingly little to do with carbon emission offsets.

Most people are freaked out about the possibility that natural forests will be wiped out and converted into charcoal, to then be replanted with fast-growing monoculture plantations. A google search for biochar gains as many hits for detractors decrying the “evil sustainability and biodiversity implications” of widespread pyrolysis practice, as it does the myriad benefits of encouraging char production for improved soil fertility etc.

We’ve been running into the sustainability wall with the offset policy people, who want to severely limit the applicability of biochar project creation, in the face of this conflicting google search record. Resistance seems to be a popular response to the discussion of this “new” technology, and that needs to change if we’re to move forward in any meaningful way.

An additional area that keeps coming up in discussions from people as far apart as Vandana Shiva and Gwynne Dyer is food security. Be it urban or rural, developing or developed, global food production seems to be continually hitting a productivity ceiling. In the face of the massive Russian droughts and grain shortages of last year, the entirely unpredictable weather that’s currently hitting a vast majority of the globe, and the steady rise of population, I think addressing biochar’s potential role in food security would be incredibly beneficial and motivating for those not already in the biochar loop.

BUT, regardless of what you end up focusing on as your key discussion points, I am thrilled to hear that you have been chosen for this TED task. You make a fantastic spokesperson for the biochar world, and I wish you the best as you prepare your presentation.

Break a leg!
– alison

Comment by Alison Lennie

Heya, what about embeding your talk at ted into the post?

Comment by TwityPity

Great call, thank you! It can be seen here:


Comment by lopabrunjes

Was googling for TED videos on BioChar; there’s nothing there at the moment.

I’ve got a deep interest in working in BioChar in promoting sustainable agriculture practices in India.

Please keep posted (@rahuldewan on Twitter) when your video goes live on TED.

All the best!!

Comment by Rahul Dewan

Hey Rahul, thanks so much for your comment. You can see the talk here on YouTube at:

Let me know if I can be of service in any way! It’d be great to see more biochar projects in India.



Comment by lopabrunjes

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