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, 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.