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Biochar believers

Advancing an anciend ammendment for the NW


By Andrew Rodman

Word is that one of Cortez’s grunts stumbled onto a civilization deep in the jungles of Amazona. The mythic metropolis supported by “black soil,” Terra Preta in Portuguese.
El Dorado had been found.

Modern scientists found that a few tropical ancient societies created Terra Preta soil by incorporating charcoal, manure and household wastes into it, “biochar,” creating a host of benefits that are still active after thousands of years.

Can this traditional practice be wed with modern innovations, and help with our strained soils of the Northwest and beyond? Can the promise of biochar be applied to remediate some of the most pressing concerns of the planet and agriculture at large?

Biochar’s offers wedge solutions for an array of problems including reducing wildfire fuel loads, countering nutrient loss in soils, building tilth and adding water retention. These are benefits we need right now!

The platitudes about the possibilities got my attention.

Location location

Up near the Hanford Reach, where tumbleweeds drift in the Columbia River past the town of Richland, Wash., lies the sprawling Pacific NW National Lab. The PNNL, is a high-security science campus focusing on microbial and cellular biology, environmental, analytic and interfacial sciences. Its denizens sport multiple security badges, and walk over manicured lawns tended by leaf vacuumers. This is where I ended up, mid-May after a wrong turn into the Umatilla Weapons Depot, and a cruise past Richland’s Hanford High.

What I found was over 75 biochar enthusiasts from a host of backgrounds and regions- agronomists, scientists, venture capitalists, Forest Service rangers, deep ecologists, activists, composters, gardeners and urban scavengers; all gathered together to work out a process that would proliferate the pyrolysis of biomass and pepper our fields with carbonized black gold.

The PNW Biochar Group meeting - organized in part by PNNL’s Dr. Jim Amonette, John Miedema from Corvallis and Max DeRungs from Canby, Ore - was a major effort to unlock the biochar movement socially, systemically and scientifically.

Bio what?

Biochar is the baking of woody biomass, to create charcoal that is ground up and added to the soil. The biomass is cooked in an oxygen-starved kiln, (a pyrolysis process) where the volatile hydrocarbons are burned or driven off. These vapors can fuel the incineration process.
The charcoal is a carbon-enriched black solid with a structure that resists chemical and microbial degradation. It is then ground up, and applied to the soil, creating edge-effects for micro-organisms, and adding porosity and water retention to the soil. This in part, is how char becomes biochar.

Mass to gas

Excess biomass, such as slash piles on timberlands, tree prunings from orchards and yard waste from urban areas could all be turned into a biomass feed for biochar production. Biochar production processes can potentially utilize virtually any agricultural or forestry waste biomass, including wood chips, corn stover, rice or peanut hulls, tree bark, papermill sludge, or animal manure, adding to the attraction.
The heat capture from pyrolysis can be used to cook, to heat spaces, or for power generation.

Integrating the kiln onto an already heat requiring industry (paper mills, dairies, etc.), can provide much (if not all) of the required thermal drive of the given process, while yielding biochar as a co-product. Design integration of kilns into industrial or even residential architecture offers unbounded opportunities.

Biochar International notes on their website that “Energy and biochar can be co-produced from biomass using thermal processes. The energy produced from the remainder of the biomass is used to heat the pyrolysis unit and/or provide energy for on-farm use, such as heat and electricity for lighting, fans, refrigerators, etc.”

The co-production of biochar from a portion of the biomass feedstock will reduce the total amount of energy that can be produced, but basic soil science research indicates that even at today’s energy and fertilizer prices the net gain in soil productivity is worth more than the value of the energy that would otherwise have been derived from that charcoal.

Once the cost of carbon emissions starts to rise and the value of CO2 extraction from the atmosphere is also considered, the balance will become overwhelmingly attractive.

Questions of scale

At what scale would the practice need to manifest in order for it to achieve its glory?
The answer comes in many sizes. Art Donnelly co-founder of SeaChar.Org (Seattle Biochar Working Group) and his partner Don Hennick demonstrated a small, almost free, biochar producing “stove,” fabricated from street scrap and found objects. A personal, portable, pyrolysis unit. These rust-punk prototypes will soon be adapted by SeaChar for widespread developing world collaboration, application and distribution. The goal is millions of these household energy systems, proliferating over the world’s soil starved landscape, making charcoal that can heal the land, one plot at a time.

Kelpie Wilson, who came to biochar with a love of ecological systems and engineering, was inspired to build a more substantial backyard kiln in her yard in Takilma, Ore. Constructed out of cinderblocks and rebar, her kiln was expanded to a pizza oven. She demonstrated how the captured heat can ultimately warm greenhouses, homes and schools, and how community-level incentives for labor, forest land and fuel loads could all dance together systemically.

On the other end of the spectrum, Tom Miles of T R Miles Technical Consultants, gave a dizzying presentation on “The Economics of Biochar Production” concluding that large-scale pyrolysis systems can be economically and environmentally viable.

Deep ecology reality checks came from Gloria Flora of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, who reminded us that a potential woody biomass bonanza has implications for wildlife habitat and forest health, given the U.S. Forest Service’s focus on getting the cut out on public lands.

Occasionally, the piercing whistles of MaryAnn Simonds (of EcoTechnologies Group) kept us on track, moderating the discussions. Though looking like a cowgirl, MaryAnn gave an inspired dinner keynote at the Siam Thai Restaurant on her approach to listening to nature, and her days as a rattlesnake hugger.

Farming in the black

Agriculture has a huge carbon-positive footprint. Six to 20 calories of energy are needed to deliver one calorie of food to an American kitchen. All over the Earth, soils—disturbed by deforestation and plowing, sterile from chemical fertilizers, pesticides and acid rain—are losing carbon and life, leaking fertility into air and water.

Yet, agriculture can be a huge net carbon sink to absorb vast volumes of carbon out of the atmosphere and store it as stable carbon in soil.

One benefit of biochar is as a carbon sink. Its ability to sequester atmospheric carbon and attract and hold on to nitrous oxide and methane in the soil, could potentially be a wedge in countering greenhouse gasses. If the practice was widespread across major geographic regions, it could potentially become a player in the complex world of carbon trading.
Peter Weisberg from The Climate Trust noted that they might support biochar projects financially by buying the carbon that is sequestered in biochar, instead of released as CO2 to the atmosphere; monetizing the climate change benefits of biochar projects.
Peter notes that, “There is a tradeoff between producing energy and producing sequestered carbon. Energy can be sold, but without a carbon market, sequestered carbon cannot. Offsets provide an avenue to sell this benefit.”

Yet, substantial carbon sequestering would need vast regions of biochar application, requiring char on the order of gigatons.

So much infrastructure to build, while simultaneously building a market for the biochar product itself. Part of that puzzle is in research.

Biochar is one of a handful of new, high-priority research and extension areas identified in the Research Title of the 2008 Farm Bill.

This is how we came to meet USDA researcher Hal Collins, on a tour of the WSU research farm in Prosser, Wash., near the Horse Heaven hills. testing how 10 tons of biochar per acre can help grow his corn.

This USDA ARS Biochar/ Pyrolysis Initiative Field Trial, using char from Dynamotive, is one of only five USDA test sites for biochar domestically, far shy for a whole assessment of how biochar will react in the wide variety of soil regions.

Hal noted that biochar is quite expensive to truck in, being classified as a combustible material. Meanwhile, down the hill from the test plot, a whole pile of wood slash sat, awaiting a likely fate in a burn pile. This reinforced how biochar processing onsite - on a farm-by-farm basis, with a colony of mobile kilns - could offer some localized solutions.

Getting respect

Biochar is getting some positive attention. It is mentioned in negotiations for use as a mitigation strategy during the second Kyoto Protocol commitment period, which begins in 2013.

Biochar is allowed for use in organic crop production, with some restrictions.*
On the whole, I saw a hunger, a passion for positive solutions, tempered with the humility that ancient technologies can be the best way to deal with the cumulative impacts of mankind.

So fitting that this Hanford company town of Richland should host a summit of radical ancient ag - that the most powerful tools of science at PNNL are analyzing biochar’s properties, and that a celebration of Terra Preta happens in the midst all this arid scrub rangeland, so in need of some black tilth and moisture retention itself.
There is so little time to actualize the wholesale solutions that biochar represents on a meaningful scale. So much infrastructure to build, so much work to do.
All these possibilities were making my brain carbonize.

This is what I love about all the biochar enthusiasts that I met. With all the sense of global urgency, and biochar’s promise, with all the drive and passion and selflessness, there was such a yearning to vet the science, to foster cross-discipline solutions, to seek reality checks.

John Miedema summed it up nicely saying, “How can we make sure we’re not such true believers that we end up drinking the Kool-Aid?”

So much work to do, before we can create the next El Dorado.

*If wood is burned and then mixed with non-human manure, it could be allowed in organic production, but restricted to the pre-harvest interval. Biochar made with sewage sludge of any kind, used in any way is not allowed. Burnt manure is not allowed in organic production.










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