Friday, September 11, 2009

Biochar Chatter

It has been a while since I participated with these forums and the ongoing discussion has sorted a lot out. This is a bit of the information been discussed. Not too much has actually changed except we perhaps have more complete information.

What is noteworthy is that the amount of carbon waste is vast and must be handled in any event. Most such waste is actually fairly uniform.

The problem has been all attention is on trying to create an industrially scaled application protocol. This is delaying the actual use of the method.

There is merit in applying pyrolysis technologies inasmuch as it captures a significant fraction of the byproduct over that needed to sustain the reaction. However, all this generates a series of real costs that are poorly offset by the limited commercial value of the by product. The topper is that in order to achieve efficiency high temperatures are preferred creating their own problems.

I pointed out in the early going that the original method produced an excellent biochar produced at about 300 degrees while consuming the volatiles thorough an earthen kiln. This can be adopted by indigenous subsistence farmers today.

Replicating that on a farm could also be done with a simple two lung kiln in which the charge is roasted at 300 degrees for several hours and the volatiles used to fuel the second burner at 2000 degrees plus to cleanly burn those volatiles. Attempting to capture those same volatiles is non productive at this level and by completely consuming them and capturing all the heat, all the biochar is thoroughly roasted.

So we have two practical methods of application. One is the hand built earthen kiln similar to an earthen charcoal kiln and the other possibly fabricated from a retired shipping container with a special small high temperature burner (the expensive part) and some piping.

Stepping up from that immediately accepts a huge trucking cost as material is gathered and inventoried to feed the large kiln unless one is tied to a major source. Then you have to dispose of the fluids and ship out the char to customers. And no one has figured out how to sell biochar to anyone for cash.

The biochar market is a waste disposal market and needs to be at the point of application which everyone is forgetting. It is already been handled at the moment of disposal. That is when you deliver it to its final destination. That could even include trucking it far into the next state. It is best to truck it to a small farm kiln who wants the product for his soil.


you need large scale pyrolysis ie corporate/local government players. Why?

because the technology has not been scaled down enough yet and a good sized pyrolysis plant will set you back $5-10mil ($5 before the yanks bought up all the technology $10 after the yanks have bought up all the technology.

secondly it is only pyrolysis that can harvest the energy (electricity generation or bio-oils). It worries me that so many enthusiasts are making char without harvesting the energy. A large pyrolis unit has the 'pollution" exhaust of one SUV.

Sources of waste/fuel.

Here i can speak only of my own area/county

Council green "waste" --Locally tonnes and tonnes of green waste and wood offcuts (pallets, off cuts,building waste, flooring etc etc) are collected by the local council(small- outer suburban) on a daily basis.

Storm waste-- A storm recently felled thousands of trees in my area. this ALL went to landfill. Much of my outer suburban area is being "developed" this usaually means taking most of the trees off the site.

Intensive farming waste We have thousands of tonnes of chicken litter produced daily. with the recent(?) drought farmers were not using this for fertiliser.- Again into land-fill. I haven't even looked at pigs or cattle.

Paper Mill waste- wile this is uneconomic as an energy producer, (as it is about 70% water) pyrolising it is preferable to methane producing land-fill --as happens now

Wood-chips-- we cut down thousands of acres of forest, chip them and freight them to Japan for them to make origami (or char?)

Sewerage waste.-- God knows what happens to this. Soon we will have to start harvesting all the water from it. Pyrolysis can do this with some tweaking. Heavy metals? Why? What industry is putting its waste in the sewer?

Plantations Char -After you have charred all the waste, then start growing trees for charcoal (something that has been done and is being done in UK--on a sustainable basis for thousands of years) or stop making wood-chips out of them. Charcoal is far more valuable to society. What ever happened to the "paperless office"?

I am sure if you talk to the people selling this technology that they would have identified many other char-sources (Ask Adriana Downie, from BEST Energies Australia).

If "pyrolysis machines" can sell char for around $200 a tonne, investment in infrstructure becomes economically viable. Give them a carbon credit (or the farmer-or gardiner?) and everone is popping champaign corks.

If char is added to soil--Apart from reducing methane there is the possibility of harvesting water from waste (soon to be essential here).

reducing farmers inputs of water (saving energy from pumping etc)

reducing farmers inputs of fertiliser (which we are running out of)

reducing farmers' pollution by agricultual chemical and fertiliser run-off -(What will shortly kill the largest living organism on Earth-The Great Barrier Reef -it may even be too late to save it).

IMHO replicating Terra preta soils is the only way out of the Looming Global Warming disaster. (If not "out" at least moving in the right direction) Other geo-engineering ideas are just too silly, expensive, fanciful, or unproven (as is C.C.S.). Terra preta seems to suffer from being too simple an idea to catch on. Yet it is, and if Govenments and Copenhagen don't give the lead people will start doing it themselves anyway-- with more emissions than pyrolosis.

In other words we have NO choice but to go with char. we should have started 5 years ago.

Michael Angel

Be the change you want to see in the world – Ghandi

2009/9/5 John Seed <

Friends, this email from my long-time friend and forest-defending colleague George Marshall nicely sums up my own concerns about where biochar may be headed.

Would anyone care to assuage these concerns?

Beautiful funeral ceremony for Geoff Moxham yesterday, hundreds of well-wishers, lots of biochar in the eulogies,

for the Earth


----- Original Message -----
George Marshall
John Seed
Sent: Saturday, September 05, 2009 8:14 PM
Subject: My concerns with biochar

Dear Seedy

Lets assume for now that all the wondrous things ascribed to Biochar about soils and carbon sequestration etc are true. In a way it doesn't matter because my concerns apply whether it is true or not- it will still go into large scale production if there is enough commercial pressure for it. After all plenty of biofuels are net carbon emitters but they still get used because industry has lobbied for it.

Anyway my concerns are all about the source of biochar. I had not really thought about biochar until talking with my friend Anna Jenkins, formerly of FSC who is advising the Carbon Gold project in Belize
http://www.carbon- She is cced

My first concern was that it is being set up by Dan Morell who is a carbon trading businessman. Although it is all very touchy feely local development stuff (and the project looks good to me) it is clear that Morell's objective (and, no doubt anyone commerically involved) is to get Biochar fully transferable in carbon trading. In truth I don;t see how it could be economically viable on any significant scale unless it had some substantial subsidy - and carbon credits seems most likely. Reading the biofuelwatch briefing
http://www.biofuelw uk/docs/biocharb riefing.pdf it is clear that there are much bigger fish going after this.

When biofuels were kicking off there were lots of nice small community type projects esp waste oil recycling. In retrospect the question that should have been asked was this: when the big corporate players come on board and biofuel is an international commodity, what will be the lowest unit cost source that can provide significant supplies. I remember talking with George Monbiot some eight years ago and our answer took us straight to oil palm, This was assuming a competitive market- we shoud have imagined that existing pork barrel politics could easily extend to a ludicrous subsidy for other crops like corn (US) and sugar (EU)

So now we know this is the right question, let's ask it for biofuels: if this is tradeable it will presumably be a standardised commodity- a kilo of biochar is a kilo of biochar- so given the inevitable chase to the bottom on price, what will be the cheapest (or the most corrupt/subsidised) source ? To my mind here are these contenders:

Relatively benign (with major caveats)

agricultural waste- potentially a good source for all biofuels, but there must be some significant economic impediments of it would be more used.

other waste streams- the carbon part of domestic and commercial waste such as wooden building materials (pollution issues here)

forestry waste from plantation forestry - thinnings etc. I wonder if this produces enough for viability?forest floor waste- dreadful for ecology

Less benign

Plantations for biochar purposes- issues here of what land, where, who owns it, can it be used for food or something else, does it actually sequester net carbon, is land being cleared for it and all the usual plantation issues. Plenty of potential subsidies and tax breaks here.


Uncommercial species from logging in natural forests- aha- Rimbunan HIjau's wet dream- they can rip out the valuable timber species and pyrolise the rest and then, having cleared the whole thing out they can stick some other plantation on top. For forests that do not have many commercial species and otherwise would not be commercial to log, this could tip the balance. And, as we know, corruption is rife here.

I think the potentially deadly thing with biochar is that it is such a low grade commodity that it can use anything. So the nearest analogy is driftnetting the oceans to make fishmeal.So if you were some unscrupulous commodity trader, what would you put your money on? Or can you suggest something else?

I think these concerns should be front of mind for all biochar enthusiasts and promoters because it is clear to my mind that unless you demand and obtain some rigourous standards for what constitutes environmentally and socially acceptable sources that are in place at the very outset it will immediately go to environmental mining by default.



1 comment:

Unknown said...

We sell a pyrolysis unit that processes 3 English tonnes per day of feedstock and produces about a tonne per day of char. The unit has a small footprint and can be mated with a 20 Kw generator set.

Price: $360,000 U$D with the gen set or $289,000 U$D without. Prices are FOB Indianapolis, Indiana.

Warning: Some of the Pyrogas will need to be fired to maintain the operating temperature of the pyrolysis vessel, which is the reason that only 20 Kw of power can be produced.

Fuels that can be used include crop waste, wood waste, manures, sewage sludges, food waste, sorted garbage and trash (with metals, glass and recyclable plastics removed), carpet trash, tires, etc.