The Biochar Factor

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.

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?