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.