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:




Biochar Side Events in Copenhagen
December 8, 2009, 5:16 pm
Filed under: Biochar Policy | Tags: , , , , ,


Presentation on Case Studies in Carbon Negative Ecovillages: Biochar Energy, Carbon Farming, and Climate-Adaptive Built Environments

Wednesday, Dec. 9th, 12:30 pm – 2:00pm
Location: Vartov World Cafe, large yurt near the NGO Klimaforum in Christiania
Description: Case Studies in Carbon Negative Ecovillages, including information on biochar. He will also have an example of a biochar stove supplied by World Stove.
Speaker: Albert Bates

Biochar – Delivering Fast Climate Benefits?

Wednesday, Dec. 9th, 4:45-5:45 pm
Location: Bellona’s Conference Room, Bella Center
Organizer: The Bellona Foundation
Description: Brief presentation of biochar and ongoing research by Bioforsk Norwegian Research Centre. This session will discuss the potential of biochar, the need for policy, regulations, monitoring, economic hurdles, carbon credit barriers/enablers, scalability and the importance of sustainability criteria. Further themes include the developing countries perspective, recognition of soils as a carbon sink and the inclusion of biochar methods in a post-2012 climate protocol.

Dr. Johannes Lehmann, University of Cornell
Debbie Reed, International Biochar Initiative
Thomas Harrtung, Green Carbon Denmark
Nathaniel Mulcahy, WorldStove

Biochar: Climate Mitigation & Adaptation with Food & Energy Security Benefits

Saturday, Dec. 12th, 11:00 am – 12:30 pm
Location: Victor Borg Room at Meetings
Organizer: The International Biochar Initiative
Description: IBI and UNCCD will discuss emerging issues and current science related to biochar and links to food and energy security in developing countries and drylands. Data on water retention, increased crop yields from field studies, joint work and projects underway, R&D roadmap in dryland areas.
Debbie Reed, International Biochar Initiative: Session Chair
Sergio Zelaya, UNCCD Secretariat
Dr. Johannes Lehmann, Cornell University

Wildfire: Why Risk It?

OK, so, I am an irregular blogger.  Sorry, everybody.  Life in BiocharLand is busy and I don’t always make time for blogging.  But I can get better, and I’ll do it, just for you.

In the meantime, here’s an editorial piece I wrote with a little help from my friends.  Please feel free to pass it on. There is no need for forest management to be such a headache.  Let’s just emulate Mama Nature and recoup the costs of the effort in the process.  Let’s…..just…..biochar!

If you’re one of the 140 million people that live in the Wildland-Urban Interface, that ever-beautiful, ever-convenient region nestled in between the lushness of the forest and the culture of the city, you might be quaking like an aspen about the news of the Los Angeles fires.  According to a report from Wildland Fire Programs for the International Code Council based in Washington, DC, an average of 2400 homes are lost every year to forest fires.

“That home in the woods, with the peaceful chatter of pine squirrels, a babbling brook and the occasional deer feeding in the flowerbed has become a dream for many,” says the report from Dan Bailey, the program’s director. “But protecting this dream has become a horrific financial nightmare for the government agencies charged with fire protection in these areas.”  2006 was the worst fire year on record.  Over 89,000 fires burned over 9.5 million acres, destroying 2,256 structures and claiming the lives of 24 wildland firefighters.  That year, wildland firefighting cost the government $2 billion dollars.

Smoky the Bear has no idea how much he had to do with this.  Fires are a natural part of a forest’s way of self-management.  The decades of suppressing forest fires at the demand of Smoky the Bear caused forests to become overloaded with small trees vying for precious sunlight.  Small trees (“slash”) are kindling to a forest fire, and now, our forests are overloaded with them.

The United States Forest Service has allotted $297M to preventative measures, aka “hazardous fuels reduction,” in 2009, with a goal of treating 1.5M acres.  However, there are a total of 600 Million acres of high-risk acreage in the Wildland-Urban Interface, known as the WUI to forestry folks.  40% of all homes and close to 140 million people are located in this fringe, where the undeveloped and developed lands meet.

The two most common methods for reducing fuel loads are mechanical removal and controlled burns.  However, the former is expensive and intensive, requiring biomass transport to a central processing plant; and the latter is not appropriate for WUI areas, where air quality standards prevent it.

What government agencies have so far failed to recognize and utilize, are several other technologies that can not only reduce the fuel load, but add environmental and economic benefits, as well.

Allow me to introduce to you:  pyrolysis.  Think of pyrolysis like a forest fire in a can.  When a forest fire burns, there are oxygen-reduced pockets that smother and smolder the wood, so that it does not combust all the way to ash, but into charcoal instead.  This carbon-rich natural charcoal provides water retention, soil structure, and nutrient holding benefits to the new life that will grow.  Pyrolysis is controlled, clean-emission, partial combustion in an oxygen-deprived environment (like the barrel in the picture below). The most common use of this technology is for internal incineration which can reduce everything from woody biomass to garbage into nothing but tiny handful of ash quickly and cleanly. Currently used for remote areas, it also can produce power, an oil or a char as by-products.  In  some pyrolysis, the charcoal that comes out is referred to as “biochar”, a carbon-negative soil amendment.  Since it is one of the only technologies available that actually removes carbon from the global carbon cycle, biochar has been referred to as one of the solutions that just might save the world.

It’s still early days for biochar, but there are several companies making this technology, with a few of them focusing specifically on mobile systems that can be taken to staging areas in forests to reduce hazardous fuel load.  Phil Badger, of Renewable Oil International, LLC, recently conducted demonstrations of his pyrolysis systems for forest management agencies in Oregon making both bio-oil and biochar.  Waste Conversion Systems has semi mobile units that can internally convert almost any biomass into less than 1 percent ash. And Biochar Systems LLC, whose system is pictured below,  converts woody biomass into valuable biochar. These mobile systems can be loaded onto a trailer, and with the aid of a chipper, a bucket loader, and a few forest laborers, could be the answer to protecting Wildland-Urban community dwellers.

With wild fires costing millions of dollars, risking thousands of lives and destroying thousands of acres of habitat, it would seem that every politician and decision maker responsible should be seeking climate friendly, safe mitigation technology to prevent the risk of fires.

Biochar 1000, mobile biochar technology for forest management.

Biochar 1000, mobile biochar technology for forest management.

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.

Too Much of a Good Thing: What Hugs & Biochar Have in Common
April 28, 2009, 5:51 am
Filed under: Biochar Policy | Tags: , , , , ,

Too Much of a Good Thing:

What Hugs and Biochar Have in Common

Hugs are great.  Who doesn’t like a good hug?  Think of the last time a friend offered a hug because they noticed you looking blue.  Or the last tight warm hug you had with a dear friend before departing.  Or how about the hug after an exciting first date, where you’re wondering, “Will we kiss?  Will we kiss?”

But….all the time?  Have you ever had a girlfriend or boyfriend who wanted to hug you every time they saw you?  After you go to the bathroom, there they are, arms wide open, ready for the 50 millionth hug today.  Or how about the shmarmy new friend you just met who wants to hug you for 10 minutes until their heart chakra oozes all over you?

Yeah.  Everything in moderation.  Even hugs.

So when some advocacy groups started saying NO to biochar, I wasn’t exactly surprised.  I got into this industry a few years ago because I, like many others, realized it was The Best Thing Ever for climate change, soil fertility, and energy.  But as with all Best Things Ever, it must be tempered with Moderation.

Biofuels Watch and other concerned individuals do have a point.  And thank you, after 2,136 protest emails (, I GET THE POINT.  But one of the things you must realize is that WE ARE ON YOUR TEAM.  We are all striving for solutions to climate change, soil fertility, and energy, and see biochar as an invaluable player in the portfolio of solutions to these problems (NOT the Silver Bullet).

But, in the event that the biochar market completely takes off (which it is poised to do), and biochar is very Economically Attractive, the same minds that created Big Oil and could care less about biochar’s carbon sequestration potential could bastardize its benefit.

The root fear of these anti-biochar organizations is that creating a market for biochar will incentivize any profiteering schmoe to use up all the arable land to grow monocrops for biochar production, and/or cut down forests.

Raise your hand if you think biochar is cool AND you’d like to see this happen.

Yeah, no one’s hands are raised.  Mine aren’t, and it’s not just because I’m typing.  And I’m part of the “evil” biochar industry.  (I’ve seen anti-biochar blogs suggest that I , and all biocharians, are evil.  You can even ask my ex-boyfriends.  I am not evil.)

But who’s to stop this from happening?  What we need–and what we will get–is policy and regulations that define market conditions.

The International Biochar Initiative is working with the UNCCD (UN Convention to Combat Desertification) to develop the standards necessary to ensure this won’t happen.  The UNCCD has taken to biochar as a solution to help the folks affected by desertification (think climate change isn’t real?  Google desertification.)

See the UNCCD’s submission on Why Biochar Rocks (paraphrased) to the UNFCCC here:

The IBI and the UNCCD will be meeting with policy leaders, technology developers, academics, NGOs, and scientists during the June climate talks in Bonn, Germany, to develop standards to ensure that biochar is sustainable from “seed-to-socket” (as in “electrical socket”).  They will be bringing the draft policy standards to the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in December for public comment and refinement.

Thanks to the thorough critique from anti-biochar advocacy groups, we have a stronger understanding of the Worst Possible Outcome, and will use that to hone our approach on how to ensure that it is not a Nightmare Come True.

The end result will be a biochar certification standard required for any biochar product sold.  If you don’t have this seal of certification that illustrates Sustainability from Seed to Socket (SSS), you can’t sell your biochar.  Period.

Does this prevent black market biochar? (no pun intended)  It doesn’t.  But does it ensure that we don’t run into the coal or biofuels debacle, where an entire industry is based on being handsomely paid to thoroughly rape our resources for profit?  Good god, I hope so.

This is officially an invitation to make your voice heard.  Have an idea of how we can prevent such shenanigans?  Leave a comment.  I will make sure it gets into the right hands.

So when you read the negative biochar press out there, please take into consideration that the people involved in biochar are not idiots.  It is a diverse group of scientists, policy-makers, and businesspeople with a shared mission and consideration for a whole-systems ecology and economy.  Please.  Can’t we all just get along?

How ’bout a hug?