Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Biochar at the San Francisco Chronicle

This is pleasing to see. Biochar is now beginning to invade the flower pot. All this leads to increasing confidence in the process for initiates to the process who all have to do it themselves before they can internalize the biochar revolution. It is also clear that manufacturing is happening with whatever feedstock is available. I dislike wood based biochar, because it will be coarse and thus less effective but it is still biochar.

And that is what must be appreciated. All organic material if raised in temperature to around four hundred degrees will convert to biochar. This means that the molecular bonds are broken and all hydrogen is driven off. After that it is only elemental carbon. Even nasties such as PCBs can be reduced to elemental carbon. Thus arguments regarding feed stocks usually demonstrates ignorance in this case.

Elemental carbon just happens to be a powerful solid crystalline acid that is happy to sequester everything else with a free ion. Thus even toxins can be grabbed and held, knowing that no plant will normally choose to recover it or recover much at all. In the meantime it will sequester plant nutrients and simply hold them in place until a searching root arrives and pries it loose, even years later.

It this sounds like a perfect solution to all the world's woes over agricultural productivity, it is. Besides it was proven with a five thousand year field trial in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest. If you can operate a field in the face of ten feet of rain every year, take three crops per year and never use fertilizer in the exact same place were next door you get one crop every fifteen years, then perhaps you are on to something. It sure beat cutting down trees every year.

In the meantime we must allow time and common sense to slowly do their job. This is a great first step that commits the mainstream media into telling the story. This remains the sole reason that I have complete confidence in the future of humanity's ability to grow ample food. We will do everything the wrong way first, but then we can come along and apply biochar and it is all good soon enough.

Biochar aids soil fertility, keeps carbon in earth

Kimberly Gomes

Sunday, June 17, 2012
After many afternoons digging in The Chronicle's garden, I've grown accustomed to the strong winds that blow through the intersection of Fifth and Mission. Yet I couldn't help but notice the dusty, depleted soil that barely clumped in my palm. With 6-year-old dirt harboring very little organic matter, our planters were looking more like dust bowls.

Like many container gardeners, we've struggled to maintain soil fertility on our San Francisco rooftop. Typical potting soil contains a mixture of sand, compost and perlite. After just a few years, nutrients leach out with water and what's left is spent compost and soil looking as if it belongs in a sandbox. Some may say, "Bring out the Miracle-Gro," but if the soil can't retain the nutrients, it's only a temporary pick-me-up.

I sought guidance from our mentor, S.F. master gardener Fred Bové, who was already two steps ahead when he arrived. He plopped down two hefty bags of biochar, pulled out a handful of dark dirt speckled with fragments of charcoal, and introduced me to an organic alternative for gardeners looking to enhance fertility.

"Think of it as a savings account for your soil," he said.

The benefits don't stop there. This high-quality charcoal is also being hailed as a tool to fight climate change and produce renewable energy. It's the subject of the U.S. Biochar Conference, which brings scientists, policymakers, farmers and entrepreneurs to Sonoma StateUniversity in July.

To me and perhaps much of the local population, the word "biochar" is just as foreign as the Brazilian turf from which it originates. Near the end of the 19th century, researchers found highly fertile sites in the Amazon that contained astounding levels of carbon compared with surrounding soils.

Beneficial microbes

According to studies compiled by Cornell University, pre-Columbian Indians created the rich dark earth revered as terra preta de indio. The Indians smoldered crop waste and leftover food in pits where there was little oxygen. Rather than burn it to ash, the low temperatures converted the waste into carbon-rich charcoal whose porous structure provides a haven for beneficial microbes and stores nutrients.

Today the process is simulated by pyrolizing organic material - heating it at relatively low temperatures in a closed container. As the waste heats up, it gives off gas that can be captured and used as clean energy. The charcoal left behind, biochar, is gaining attention for its ability to hold carbon back from the atmosphere by storing it in the soil.

When plant waste decomposes, the carbon dioxide retained during photosynthesis is normally released back into the atmosphere.

Trapping carbon

"Biochar production interrupts the natural carbon cycle by taking the plant material with its embodied carbon and processing it into a form that is very stable and will not decay anywhere near the natural rate," said Ray Gallian, director of the Sonoma Biochar Initiative, a nonprofit promoting biochar use in Sonoma County and host of the upcoming U.S. Conference.

Biochar's porous nature also helps soil retain water, thereby reducing fertilizer runoff.

"Fertilizer regularly washes away with the rain. However, if the soil has high carbon content from compost or char, the fertility is bound in the soil and available to plants for a longer time. The carbon works like a buffer, allowing your fertilizer to stretch over longer periods of time," said Trip Allen, president of Energy Anew, a San Rafael company that manufactures Biocharm and, along with Sonoma Compost Co. in Petaluma, sells it to home gardeners.

Gallian and Allen are just two of many local advocates for biochar. Having previously used Biocharm, the Regenerative Design Institute of Bolinas, a pioneer in sustainable agriculture, now uses homemade biochar to revive vegetable beds.

"We grind the biochar up and put it in worm castings. We also make biochar balls to put around the plant's roots," said Penny Livingston-Stark, the institute's co-founder. "In general, it perks up the plant. Edibles that were once not doing so well went from dull to vibrant."

Still in its experimental phase, biochar is not widely available. However, its potential as a source of renewable energy and soil rehabilitation has caught the attention of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists as well as organizations looking to aid farmers in developing countries and discourage deforestation.

Not a cure-all

Amid all this enthusiasm, some environmental experts, including Albert Bates, author of "The Biochar Solution" (New Society Publishers, 2010), warn that biochar production should not be viewed as a cure-all and does not come without risks. If transported long distances or produced in a large kiln, the process could generate more CO2 than the biochar sequesters. The closer you can get it to the farm the better, says Bates.

He also warns that without standardized criteria, companies can use inorganic, potentially toxic feedstock or genetically modified tree plantations during production.[This is nonsense and promotes ignorance of the science - Arclein]

"USDA and other authorities have left a large void unfilled, and businesses will fit it the cheapest way they can," says Bates. However, in May the International Biochar Initiative drafted protocol and material requirements that would dictate what deems a substance biochar.

Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, physicist and founder of Navdanya International, a network of seed keepers and organic producers, cautions that industrial biochar production shouldn't be proposed as a magical solution to climate change. She advises proponents to avoid a reductionist carbon mentality and keep in mind that plants, like humans, need all the essential micronutrients and trace elements.

"We need to remember that calcium, magnesium and copper, the mycorrhizae and the earthworm are also part of the soil's life, not just carbon," Shiva said.

Will Bakx, soil scientist and co-owner of Sonoma Compost Co., also stresses that biochar alone will not guarantee healthy soil.

"Biochar works as a hotel for microorganisms. If there are no guests, the hotel will be empty," he said. "A good supply of compost will provide the guests."

Keeping these facts in mind, we've prepared a future fava bean plot with a compost-biochar blend, while testing remedies such as adding Epsom salt to our magnesium-starved lemon trees and worm castings to our grape vines.

There is no one way to revive the soil. By combining the advice of these experts, we hope to keep The Chronicle's garden thriving for years to come.

Putting biochar to the test

Intrigued by biochar's potential, we're experimenting in The Chronicle's garden in the hopes it will revive our containers. Garden mentor Fred Bové and I planted three sets of 'Cherry Belle' and daikon radishes, adding 1 to 1 1/2 cups of straight biochar to approximately 1 cubic foot of potting soil, a biochar-compost blend to another and regular potting soil to the third container, to see what works best. When using straight biochar, be sure to add a quality compost to introduce beneficial microbes, and water well for a few days before planting to help the nutrients settle in. For a simple, cost-effective approach, select a "pre-charged" blend, pictured right, commonly made up of biochar, compost and various nutrients (see "Application tips").


Sonoma Compost Living Biochar ($15 per 25-pound bag); Sonoma Compost Biochar ($19 per 25-pound bag), 550 Mecham Road, Petaluma; (707) 664-9113.
Energy Anew Biocharm Biochar Soil Amendment ($15 per 30-pound bag).

Also at Sunnyside Nursery, 130 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., San Anselmo; (415) 453-2701.

2012 U.S. Biochar Conference

Sonoma Biochar Initiative will host the 2012 National Biochar Conference July 29 to Aug. 1 at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Biochar experts will discuss topics ranging from biochar's application in suburban landscapes to its role in global climate policy. Early registration $395. For more information, go

Kimberly Gomes is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:

This article appeared on page H - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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KP said...

Hi Arclein, I have the 220L biochar drum sorted now, it takes all the shrubbery clippings from the garden after they have dried. I have a basic inlet and chimney control, burning from bottom to top, and I clean the smoke up by having a gas pilot flame in the base of the chimney.

I'll send you some photos on the next run.

arclein said...


The use of a pilot light was indicated and i am glad that it works well. once the burn is well established,smoke should be subdued, but running an after burn is a good way to make sure