The Biochar Factor

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.