May 8, 2010

Biochar increases soil fertility, improves soil water retention - The Prairie Star: Montana Ag Newspaper

By TERRI ADAMS, The Prairie Star
Thursday, May 6, 2010 6:10 PM MDT

Biochar is a new buzz word in agriculture but, exactly, what is biochar?

Biochar is a soil amendment made by converting manure, crop residue and other bio-waste materials, including sawdust, into charcoal by using pyrolysis, which is heat without oxygen.

“It is made in the exact same way as charcoal. You heat the material above a certain temperature without letting any oxygen in,” said Catherine (Catie) Brewer, a PhD student in chemistry and graduate research assistant at Iowa State Univer-sity. “This is different from burning or combustion in which you add oxygen. Without oxygen you get biochar.”

Biochars are attracting a lot of interest for both commercial and agricultural applications, and for small scale use. According to Brewer, chars have shown the ability to increase soil fertility, im-prove water retention, lower soil acidity and density, and increase microbial activity.

Biochars also help with the carbon level of the soil.

While some forms of carbon, like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon particulates, are harmful to humans and animals when in the atmosphere, carbon is very beneficial in the soil.

It acts as a home to beneficial microorganisms and as a sponge to hold nutrients where plants can use them, resulting in higher plant yields with lower input costs.

Biochars also help the soil hold just the right amount of water, retaining water during periods of drought and improving drainage during wet seasons which helps reduce flooding, mudslides and other problems associated with excess moisture.

The longer the carbon can remain in the soil, the longer the soil and plants can benefit from its presence.

Brewer explained that all bio-matter has two types of carbon in it - a carbon that is immediately available and decomposes quickly and a more stable carbon that breaks down in the soil over a long time.

The majority of biomass releases its carbon quickly and the benefits rapidly deplete.

For example, corn stover left in the field one year disappears within a few years. In biochar the majority of the available carbon is the more stable, slowly decomposing variety that can benefit the soil of years.

“Producers would put biochar on one part of their field and then not have to reapply it again for a couple of decades,” said Brewer.

Decades? Decades, affirmed Brewer. “If you make the char right and if you apply it in accurate quantities the first time,” she said. Brewer said researchers can see the effects of char in the soil for hundreds, even thousands of years. Some of the richest, blackest soils in the world are loaded with biochar materials that have been in the soil for centuries.

“Some producers are worried about tilling bichoar in because they use no-till or reduced-till methods; but with biochar they may only have to add it once with a lasting benefit,” she said.

Brewer explained how the biochar process might work for producers. After harvest, a corn producer would gather all the stover off his field and take it to a pyrolysis facility that can heat the biomass to the proper temperature without oxygen. After the farmer offloads his stover, he would then drive around to the back of the factory and pick up a load of char, take it back to his farm and spread it on his fields for long-term fertilization benefits.

Biochar is not the only usable product of pyrolysis. “Whenever you burn something you get three byproducts,” explained Brewer, a gas, a charred solid, and a liquid. Relating it to cooking, Brewer said that when you burn something on the stove or in the oven there is a release of gas from the product, charred remains left behind, and a sticky, oily residue or tar.

In Brewer's research group they are focusing on processes that favor the liquid product, known as bio-oil. This bio-oil can be collected and upgraded so that it can be shipped for processing in existing refineries.

Even the gas from the pyrolosis process can be captured and used to produce heat or electricity, said Brewer. The different products and the amounts would vary by the biomass used and the method. It could be tailored to fit different needs. For agriculture producers, it would be a way of turning their bio-wastes, from crop resi-due to manure, into valuable, long-acting fertilizers, improve the soil on their land, and increase their yields.

Currently the biochar industry is small and limited to small facilities, but it is growing.

“We have a chicken before the egg problem when it comes to larger-scale implementation,” Brewer said. While big industry might be interested in building biochar facilities, they want to make sure they will have a market for the char. That market will grow as research continues to test its viability and validity in small research plots.

Already there are some companies looking at producing small biochar facilities that can be used in backyards or moved from field to field in the agriculture sector.

“You could make char yourself at home, in 55-gallon metal drum. You just start a fire and when it gets going you put the lid on the drum and let it burn without oxygen,” she said. Making char that way is very inefficient and provides low yields. “It's also dirty in regards to air pollution.”

Brewer stated that there are other, more efficient ways, and the more efficient the method the cleaner the output. She would eventually like to see co-op-sized facilities used by several farmers or small communities for the benefit of the community.

She said that they are even developing small biochar stoves that would use biomass as a fuel and produce char for returning back into gardens and yards.

Developing countries are especially in-terested in the stove aspect.

For more information, check out the International Biochar Initiative's Web site at

Biochar Education: Cops, Cookies and Biochar | BioEnergy Lists: BioChar (or Terra Preta)

Raina's stoveBiochar Education: Cops, Cookies and Biochar
Submitted by Erin Rasmussen on May 6, 2010 - 4:48pm
Last updated May 06, 2010
in How To Wilson, Kelpie
Tom Miles, Kelpie Wilson

The kids are so enthusiastic about doing these projects. They love the hands on aspects and the team work in problem solving. Their teacher, Darlyn Wendlandt does a wonderful job of involving them. Darlyn and I will be writing this up for Green Teacher magazine. I will also be presenting this work at the upcoming USBI conference and hopefully at the IBI conference in Brazil in September.

The report will also cover a biochar education project I am doing at an elementary school. One part of this project is making a tin can TLUD that I designed to be made using only simple hand tools. Inspired by designs from Hugh McLaughlin and Christa Roth. You can find a 6 page illustrated guide to making the stove at my website This is where I post all my biochar project reports. Here's the link to the stove instructions: If you would like to try it yourself, I made an illustrated instruction sheet you can download here: How to make Dome School Biochar Stove

Kelpie Wilson and I attended an energy fair at a Vancouver, WA, High School (Heritage High School) yesterday. For the past few months we have been helping teachers and students at the school learn about biochar. The display was outdoors and included a biodiesel processor, a biodiesel powered Go Cart, solar panels on the school, a solar pond, and solar cookers. One of the prominent exhibits was Kelpie's "Backyard Biochar" retort that the students built and have been using for the last couple of months. Kelpie also demonstrated a pellet burning tin can TLUD and later helped students make them.

Several of the schools in the district have achieved high levels of energy and resource conservation. At Heritage High School they have combined the biochar projects with biodiesel and agriculture so they all work together. Students have been making biochar from wood and paper waste from the school. They want to make biochar from non-recyclable waste from the school and community and use it in a community garden they are building on the school grounds.

We found the fair to be a fun learning experience. Students in or between classes and at lunch would wander out to look at the exhibits, ask questions, and make comments. I heard many very perceptive comments and suggestions.

Kelpie will be reporting on the project separately but I thought the teachers and principal at the school used a couple of great gimmicks to spice up the display: cookies and cops.

Cookies. Student had incorporated Kelpie's "pizza oven" feature in the retort so they could make cookies while the retort was heating, otherwise it's a little boring just watching the retort. Each batch of cookies that came out of retort was greeted with enthusiasm.

Cops. With dozens of students looking on the school principal went for a ride in the biodiesel Go Cart that was driven by one of the popular young teaching assistants. They disappeared out of view around the school. As they returned to the exhibit area they were followed by a squad car with lights flashing and sirens screaming. The cart was stopped and the driver was "arrested", cuffed, and taken off in the squad car. The cameras came out and the students thought that was the highlight of the day.

Students and teachers have big plans for more biochar next year.

Practicing permaculture | MNN - Mother Nature Network

FRESH FOOD: This is a basic example of creating a backyard oasis using the techniques of permaculture. (Photo: Cicadas/Flickr)

Ecological garden designs educate students from the Chicago suburbs.
By Em-j Staples, Local Correspondent
Fri, Apr 30 2010 at 6:26 PM EST

A busy road bustles with high traffic at the five o'clock rush hour. Stoplights transition from red, to yellow, to green, as thousands of cars pass beneath them. White Escalades and navy blue mini-vans power the main four-lane road as they travel to destinations in the area. Supermarkets and gas stations monopolize the town. Off from one main road within a five-mile span stands Super Target, Jewel Osco, Piggy Wiggly, Walmart, Walgreens and White Hen Pantry. This community is a suburb, one hour and 15 minutes northwest of Chicago. It was a community made up mostly of cornfields just 12 years ago. Now big-name industries have plowed their way to make it the commercialized market it is today. Land space is rare and the consumer is king.

My hometown suburb represents a current trend in the United States: reducing land space to produce commercial opportunity. However, residents in suburbia still have the potential to produce their own food and plant the sustainability seed. Permaculture is an idea that allows consumers to produce their own food, instead of buying into the commercialized system. Regardless of space, anyone can garden efficiently. Regardless of experience, anyone who is willing to dedicate the time can cultivate his or her own crops. Regardless of cost, with compost, anyone who is willing to invest patience will save money. All of these factors result in a method of gardening which gives back to the environment. It becomes planting with a purpose, instead of gardening with greed.

Nature takes care of itself even in suburban areas, 75 minutes from Chicago. These suburban yards have to consider the lack of space and the lack of vegetation cover. Homeowners must use their given space very effectively because there isn't enough room to grow a huge variety of plants. However, within residential neighborhoods, plant communities are utilized in different designs. The big focus on suburban permaculture is to cultivate enough to supplement the suburban consumer's needs.

Go to your local library and check out a book about creating permaculture. I'll bet you will become absolutely and entirely hooked with all of its greatness.

Local mom juggles three kids, sheep farm - Beloit Daily News

Center: Suellen Thomson-Link holds up a young lamb born this spring on Kinkoona Farm, the sheep operation she owns and operates along with her children on W. Dorner Road, Brodhead. Photo by Debra Jensen-DeHart - Blog  - VERY CUTE!


Local mom juggles three kids, sheep farm

By Debra Jensen-De Hart
Features Editor

Almost nothing goes to waste on Kinkoona farm.

From rain water to manure and on to recycled lumber, it all has a purpose.

And that’s exactly as Suellen Thomson-Link believes it should be.

A certified permaculturalist, the busy mother of three children bought the farm about eight years ago at 16734 W. Dorner Road, Brodhead.

She and her brood have been making improvements ever since, and continue to use permaculture (ecological) practices as they care for the 35 acres they own plus 13 more.

Born and raised in Australia, Suellen also is a licensed, occupational therapist and a dance movement therapist who goes to work away from the farm, three days a week.

The children: Sundara Link, 11, Acaya Link, 13, and Syon Link, 17, are home schooled.

They and their mom operate the sheep farm which also is home to a variety of other animals, including: horses, a donkey, two pot-bellied pigs, five dogs, cats, ducks, geese, quails, chickens, a turtle, chameleon and a parakeet or two.

“I bought the farm after I was divorced,” Suellen said.

At the time, the home on the property, homesteaded in 1856, was in sad shape.

“When we came here, I tore out the inside of the house,” she said.

Restoring the walls and rooms was hired done.

Meanwhile, the family concentrated on the outside, the pastures, outbuildings and the animals.

Barns and sheds needed to be re-roofed and painted; new fences needed to be put in place and erosion concerns needed to be addressed on the hilly and scenic countryside.

Through her training in permaculture practices, Suellen and the children worked through the challenges.

Living near her Amish neighbors, she also has solicited their help on occasion with getting projects done.

A young Amish woman was hired to wash wool shorn from the 80 sheep at Kinkoona, and on a recent day, she operated a washing machine, the old-fashioned kind with a hand-cranked wringer.

Wool collected gets washed in an organic, citric-based solution in keeping with the natural and chemical-free style of farming. Later it is used for both human and animal needs, for bedding for comforters and liners for coats to keep calves warm in winter, for example.

Among her many talents, Suellen also sews and has a special room for sewing comforters and more in her home.

The busiest time of the year, of course, is the lambing season, just over in March.

“I come out and check every two and one-half hours,” she said of keeping vigil on the sheep giving birth. This year, 84 lambs were born.

In the summer, the family also hosts farm day camp for children who want to experience life on the farm. Participants get to meet Ladybird, the big percheron work horse, Daisy Mae, the friendly pot-bellied pig and the new lambs. They also explore the nearby stream and its inhabitants and learn about plant and wildlife as well as the ecology applied to the farm.

Kinkoona is the Australian Aboriginal word for laughter.

And while the farm is Suellen’s obvious joy, it also is endless work.

“I work from dawn ‘til dark,” she said.

But then, “We are trying to re-establish what nature had here before.”

From no-till planting to managing weeds with machetes, building up terraces to stop erosion, adding gutters to the outbuildings to collect rain water for plants and animals, composting by creating dirt from manure, straw, worm and organic garbage and more, Kinkoona may mean laughter, but working in partnership with nature is serious business.

However, “I love doing what I do — I love being outdoors,” Suellen says.

She also gives much credit to her children.

“My children are fantastic.”

The family does have a computer and an active Web site, but, “We don’t have a television, we don’t have time to watch it.”

The family also is a frequent vendor at Chicago farmers markets where they sell their products and organic plants like sunflower sprouts and mint.

Passionate about living in a chemical free way and in working in harmony with nature, the busy mother says it is all worth it, not only in her daily life, but for another important reason, as well.

“This is my inheritance to my children.”

Kinkoona is one of five farms open to the public for tours today between 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. in the Brodhead area. The farm tours are sponsored by the Brodhead Chamber of Commerce.

May 6, 2010

Gulf of Mexico spill: dome sent to contain leak | GDS Publishing

A large containment dome is being sent to the leak site 50 miles off the US coast to try and contain the 5000 barrels of crude oil still spewing into the fragile Gulf of Mexico. The 100-ton dome will be loaded onto the transport ship the Joe Griffin and will face a 12-hour journey from Port Fourchon on the Louisiana coast to the epicentre of the disaster some 50 miles offshore. BP has been trying to contain the spill since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig over two weeks ago, and has used several methods including containing and burning the surface oil to trying to disperse the oil with dispersants. They have also began drilling a relief well to stem the flow, but this could take two to three months. In the last day or so, workers have managed to plug one of the gushing leaks on the underground pipeline, but experts have confirmed that this has made no impact on the amount of oil entering the Gulf every day, which still remains at around 5000 barrels. The dome is now seen as the best chance to stop more oil entering the water, causing damage to the fragile eco-system within the Gulf and affecting both the wildlife and America's southern coastlines. Once the dome has arrived at the spill site, BP chief operating officer, Doug Suttles confirmed in a briefing that it will take up to five days to position the dome in a position to contain the spill. This could be just enough time, as gentler winds are projected off the south coast, meaning the oil spill will not expand to shore. Possible disaster However there are concerns that the 100-ton dome could rupture the already leaking pipeline if it is placed incorrectly, and cause an oil catastrophe on a scale unseen on Earth before. The dome has never been tested before at the depths required in the Gulf, about 5000 feet below the surface, and placing such a massive structure is not without risk. "We are all hoping that this... will work, but I want to remind everybody that this containment system is the first of its kind deployed in 5000 feet of water," says Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry. Environmental impact of more leaking oil There are more than 6000 animal species threatened in the Gulf of Mexico, and Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says that the threats affect some 445 species of fish, 134 birds, 45 mammals, and 32 reptiles and amphibians. The threat is not just confined to sea animals like bottle-nose dolphins, manatees and various whales, as the Brown Pelican is under threat due to contaminated nesting sites and fish and coyotes, raccoons and foxes could also see their habitat affected. 38 turtles were discovered from Alabama to the Louisiana delta since April 30, the majority of them the endangered Kemp's Ridley turtle, although NOAA scientists have suggested there is no evidence to link the turtles with the spill. Related articles: Gulf oil spill latest: Containing the spill | Oil and Gas News | US oil rig sinks and causes oil spill off US coast | Back chat: The lessons learned from hurricane Katrina

Ocean Algae to Biochar– A discussion with Dr. James Lovelock - re:char

Here at re:char, we are often bombarded with requests for proprietary information about our technology. “Can you please provide schematic diagrams for your pyrolyzer systems?” “Can you provide the details of your bio-oil upgrading processes?” Although we believe in the open-source model, it’s exceedingly difficult to have a completely transparent tech development process while remaining a competitive, for-profit enterprise. That said, we would like to provide the public with a better sense of how we generate ideas, and broadly what we see as the future of biochar and carbon-negative energy.

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with our new science advisor, Dr. James Lovelock. Working with someone as brilliant and creative as Jim is a great honor. His ideas are often so forward-thinking that within a few minutes of discussion, my mind is blown. Dr. Lovelock has been recognized recently for his assertion that mankind continues to ignore and drastically underestimate the looming threat of global climate change. Like Jim, we believe that an aggressive rollout of biochar and carbon-negative energy systems is vital to preserving the Earth as we know it. However, according to our calculations, a carbon-negative energy scheme based on pyrolysis of agricultural waste could sequester a theoretical maximum of 2 billion tons of CO2 per anum. The execution of such a plan would likely constitute one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements, but without corresponding emissions reductions, 2 billion tons would only be a drop in the bucket. In the event that we fail to reduce emissions in a timely manner, a more abundant source of waste biomass may be necessary to ensure our survival. That source could be ocean algae.

According to Dr. Lovelock, ocean algae represents over 70% of Earth’s biomass. In addition, overgrowth of ocean algae is largely responsible for the phenomenon of aquatic dead zones. From our research, we know algal biomass is a viable and compelling feedstock for pyrolysis. While the task of cultivating and extracting biodiesel from algae is complicated and expensive, the process of converting algal biomass to biochar and bio-oil is relatively straightforward. What remains elusive, is an efficient and cost-effective way to collect ocean algae. Fortunately, Dr. Lovelock has a suggestion:

Take a place like the Gulf of Mexico… theres a good steady ocean current that flows through there called the Gulf Stream… there are also lots of platforms there, disused oil platforms. These platforms could be good locations for starting some biochar experiments.

As it turns out, the Gulf Stream plays a significant role in the formation and growth of harmful algal blooms. There is strong evidence that blooms in the Gulf, such as Florida’s Red Tide, ride the current into the Atlantic, where they can devastate ocean life. A strategically-placed ocean platform, outfitted with appropriate collection systems and pyrolysis technologies, could capture the biomass generated during these algal blooms, efficiently converting a global hazard into valuable products. On a large enough scale, the potential carbon sequestration benefit would dwarf that of land-based systems.

Obviously, the notion of pyrolysis of ocean algae is still in its infancy. Many technological and logistical hurdles exist before preliminary trials are even feasible. However, given the threat of global climate change, and humanity’s reluctance to cut emissions, we believe such ideas are worth exploring. We invite you to discuss via the comments.

Best Free Online Applications and Services - Gizmo's Best-ever Freeware

Online applications (also known as web applications or webware) are getting more popular, particularly when broadband Internet access has become more common and readily available to more users. With online applications and services, you do not need to download and install them into your computer for using them—you just need to open up a browser and access them online.

Not only that you can save harddisk space as they do not need to be installed, but also in some cases you can work with files that are saved online from any computer anywhere, without the need to carry a storage device even a USB stick around with you.

These applications and services are cross-platform, running via your browser as a client irrespective of what operating system you are using, though a few services might be related to a specific operating system.

Like to use them? Here we have compiled a list for best free online applications and services—click on related links or product logos and you can start using them right away. The list contains items grouped by categories, each of the items has a brief description with a link, where applicable, to a review by our editors.

I highly recommend Gizmo's Best-ever Freeware! Monte Hines

May 5, 2010

Opinion: Oil Slick You Can't See Threatens the Entire Ocean - AOL News

File:Bill McKibben at RIT-3.jpgBill McKibben (May 3) -- If you think that slick of oil spreading across the Gulf of Mexico is a nasty sight ... well, it is. And so we'll probably do something about it. Within hours of the crude reaching the coast, an aide to President Barack Obama said new offshore drilling would be put on hold. But here's the problem: An even bigger slick -- this one of acid -- is spreading across the entire ocean. It's doing damage far more profound than even the oil. But since you can't see it, nothing's happened. Other Views: Halting new offshore oil and gas development because of this one isolated incident would be an even worse disaster, says H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis. The catastrophe in the Gulf shows the need for clean energy alternatives, says Frances Beinecke, president of Natural Resources Defense Council. The day after the gulf rig blew out, the National Research Council quietly issued a report on what exactly carbon dioxide, which is warming the atmosphere, is doing to seawater. As the oceans absorb some of the carbon our factories and engines pour into the atmosphere, the "chemistry of the ocean is changing at an unprecedented rate and magnitude," the report said. "The rate of change exceeds any known to have occurred for at least the past hundreds of thousands of years." Already fishermen report that oysters aren't reproducing, and biologists are saying that coral reefs may not survive the century. "This increase in [ocean] acidity threatens to decimate entire species, including those that are at the foundation of the marine food chain," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. Lautenberg, by the way, gets serious points for presciently standing up to President Obama in late March, when the administration ended a longstanding ban on offshore drilling. "Giving Big Oil more access to our nation's waters is really a 'Kill, Baby, Kill' policy," he said at the time. "It threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars." At a conference in spring 2009, Nancy Knowlton, an American researcher, described what's at stake with refreshing bluntness: "Coral reefs will cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, perhaps 2050." She's far from alone in her view. "We are overwhelming the system," says Richard Zeebe, associate professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii. "It's pretty outrageous what we've done." Pretty outrageous, sure. But here's the thing: Doing anything about it would mean confronting fossil fuel. Not telling BP to put better blowout preventers on its rigs -- that's easy. We'll definitely do that. But facing up, really facing up to our addiction to fossil fuel, that's hard. British Petroleum pretended to do it in the 1990s, when with great fanfare it changed its name to Beyond Petroleum. But it didn't mean it. Let's say we were serious about saving the ocean from crude oil, and from the acidification of carbon. We'd have to stop using oil, not to mention coal and gas. We'd have to take the steps urgently to move the world off fossil fuel and on to renewable energy. Those steps aren't impossible, but they do require a resource we're short on: political will. The energy legislation that Obama and Senate Democrats are ready to push is about as weak as possible. The oil companies were allowed to "suggest" the teensy fees they'd add to the price of their products. Lindsey Graham, the one Republican senator even considering signing on to the bill, described its merits as follows: "It's all about business." As late as Thursday, somewhat unbelievably, he was touting the idea that it would allow more offshore drilling. So far Obama has done too little to deliver on his promises to move us past fossil fuel. Now, sadly, that rig in the Atlantic is giving him a defining moment. Will he make cosmetic changes around the edges? Or will he stand up and tell the truth: As long as we're addicted to fossil fuel, there's no way to make the sea safe. Even when it's blue it's dying. Bill McKibben is the author of "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet" and more than a dozen other books. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes for Harper's, National Geographic, The New York Review of Books and other publications, and is founder of the environmental organizations Step It Up and He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College.

Biochar: An Introduction | Reality Sandwich

charcoalbig.jpgJames Bruges

The following is excerpted from The Biochar Debate: Charcoal's Potential to Reverse Climate Change and Build Soil Fertility, available from Chelsea Green.

Charcoal and biochar

Charcoal is one of the oldest industrial technologies, perhaps the oldest. In the last decade there has been a growing wave of excitement engulf ing it. Why?

Because some scientists are saying that we might be saved from the worst effects of global warm ing if we bury large quantities of it. Not only that: we can restore degraded land and get better harvests by mixing fine-grained charcoal -- biochar -- with soil. Others say that charcoal's use could be just one of several technologies to mitigate climate change. Yet some maintain that it is an extremely dangerous technology. The jury is out on which is closest to reality. This Briefing aims to provide an overall view of the subject and describes the best way to encourage the appropriate use of biochar.

The theory is simple. Plants, through photosynthesis, capture car bon dioxide-the main greenhouse gas-from the air as they grow. The carbon of CO2 provides their structure and the oxygen is released for animals to breathe. If the plants are left to rot, the C and O combine again in a relatively short time to release carbon dioxide back into the air. However, if the plants are heated in the absence of oxygen -- called pyrolysis -- charcoal is formed. Charcoal is largely carbon. As anyone who has organized a barbecue knows, charcoal can be burned, in which case the carbon goes back up into the atmosphere. But if it is buried, the two elements take a long time to recombine as carbon dioxide. This means that some of the most abundant greenhouse gas can be taken out of the atmosphere and locked into the ground for a long time. Deep burial-rather like putting coal back where it belongs-is one way. But there is another option.

Additional excitement came with the discovery of deep dark areas of "terra preta do indio" -- Indian black earth -- in the Amazon rainforest where the soil generally is thin, red, acidic and infertile. The patches of terra preta are alkaline with a high carbon content, and contain pot shards indicating that it was not natural: a pre-Columbian civilization had created it. It is extracted and widely used by garden contractors because it is so fertile. It has remained fertile and retained its carbon content through the centuries.

Terra preta is black because it contains large amounts of charcoal. Infertile land had been converted to fertile land that supported a thriv ing civilization through the wise use of the trees that had been felled. Could charcoal, therefore, not only be a vehicle for reducing global warming but also a means to increase the fertility of degraded land, and help feed the world?

Charcoal used for this purpose is referred to as biochar. Biochar is pulverised charcoal made from any organic material (not just wood) and, when mixed with soil, it enhances its fertility. It locks carbon into the soil and increases the yield of crops. To many, this appears the closest thing to a miracle.

The process of converting plant material to charcoal gives off heat together with gases and oils. Certain plants and certain processes pro duce a high proportion of charcoal, whereas others produce more gases and oils. This is where the problems start. These chemicals could become the main commercial attraction of biochar. As has been found with biofuel, growing crops to fuel cars can be more profitable than growing food to feed people. If left to the market, producers of biochar might buy up productive land, plant monocultures, and develop their equipment primarily to produce fuel and industrial chemicals.

Then there is the suggestion that the burial of charcoal should earn carbon credits. As above, the financial motive could lead to "growing carbon credits" in preference to growing food. And if widely adopted, as hoped, the carbon market would be flooded with credits; industry would buy them at fire-sale prices and carry on with business as usual to the detriment of the climate. A strong financial incentive to use bio char is desirable, but carbon credits may not be the best approach.

There are two prime objectives. It is essential to find ways to sequester greenhouse gases if we are to avoid the worst effects of global warming. It is essential also to enable farmers throughout the world to use biochar if it can bring degraded land back to fertility and increase yields. The process cannot be left to "the market," which has been described as an out-of-control demolition ball swinging from a high crane.

In the final chapter I outline twin policies for reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The first policy would ensure a reduction in the use of fossil fuels. The second concerns our use of land. The requirements for the two are so different that separate regulations are necessary. The first is called cap-and-dividend (in the US). The second is the Irish proposal for a Carbon Maintenance Fee (CMF), which would provide a powerful incentive for every country, rich and poor, to enable its farmers, businesses and individuals to maintain land-based carbon.

A visit to India

I had been caught up in the excitement surrounding biochar before visiting India in January 2008. While there I asked every one I met about the production and use of charcoal. My obses sion was embarrassing for my wife Marion, but paid off when it led to meeting Dr. Ravikumar of the Centre for Appropriate Rural Technology (CART) in Mysore. He talked about a "charcoal revolution" that would bring employment to the rural poor. He had been work ing on stoves to produce charcoal in the absence of oxygen for about eight years at CART. But CART was closing, so he was looking for an organization to promote the development of his ideas. I suggested he contact our friends Amali and Cletus Babu, who had started the non-governmental organization SCAD, Social Change and Development, in the southern tip of India 25 years earlier. Their objective is also to bring knowledge and employment to communities in the 450 villages where SCAD works.

Later, David Friese-Greene, while visiting SCAD, was taken to meet some banana growers who had been adding charcoal dust to their crops during the last four years. They had tried this quite by chance, having come across a supply of almost free charcoal made from rice-husks as a by-product of some other process. They told David that digging it in with the banana plants cut the amount of irrigation water needed in half and doubled the yield of their crop. Maybe there was a bit of exag geration here -- I don't know. They added that the bananas taste better. In Britain we only receive one kind of banana, referred to by our Indian friends as tasting like expanded polystyrene, but there is a great variety in south India and the different tastes are appreciated and affect sales. Neighbouring farmers have been impressed with the results and are adopting their practice.

The fact that burying charcoal extracts carbon dioxide from the atmo­sphere is of little significance to SCAD's farmers. They are only interested in increasing the yield of their crops. If this can be clearly demonstrated to, or by, farmers, and if the equipment for producing the charcoal were affordable and available, the practice would spread naturally.

But everyone in India is aware of carbon credits. They are like a magic wand, a source of income and development whether or not they are truly effective in reducing carbon emissions, or whether they simply allow Western industry to carry on emitting as usual. So we discussed the subject.

If the farmers were to earn carbon credits, surely this would be an added benefit for them? Possibly; but possibly not. There is no way in which these farmers could take part in transnational economic mecha nisms. As the value of credits rose to exceed the value of food crops, the smallholders would be displaced by agribusiness seeking to accumulate large areas and plant monoculture crops primarily for the purpose of attracting credits. Only agribusiness could handle the complicated global trade. The process would require an army of monitors, but this would be an open invitation for corruption. Western entrepreneurs looking to extract profit would descend like hawks. And, of course, set ting up this novel kind of infrastructure would take years. In a small way in this corner of India I had become aware of the arguments taking place more widely between advocates and opponents of biochar.

The players

The uncertainties associated with biochar -- proof of its permanence, its effect on forests and crops, the million different ways in which it might be used, certification, the money trail -- are more complex than negotiators have ever previously encountered. Coming to a global agreement on carbon credits for charcoal would take years. And if it were successful, the carbon market would be flooded with credits and collapse. Industry would then have little restraint on its emissions. How many more years of failure before the rich are prevented from buying indulgences that allow them to carry on making yet more money while destroying the climate? And how much time do we have? The legacy of national leaders will not be determined by their handling of war, terror ism, or the economy but by their failure to take immediate action over the threat of global warming. They could initiate measures to encourage biochar within a month, given the will.

The aforementioned governments and global negotiators are one group of players. In addition there are many groups involved in pro moting the use of charcoal for sequestration that are primarily con cerned with understanding the science, demonstrating the benefits, and promoting good practice. The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) is a leading body promoting scientific and practical understanding.

The most thorough scientific study so far is Biochar for Environmental Management, edited by Johannes Lehmann and Stephen Joseph, and I refer to it frequently. Chapters are written by scientists for scientists -- each concentrating on a single aspect -- demonstrating the ecological complexity of biological systems and, incidentally, vividly showing how difficult it would be to define, for commercial purposes, its effectiveness in sequestering carbon dioxide. The book has few direct hints for farm ers and is rather impenetrable for the general reader.

There is a need for an intermediate organisation to translate theory into advice, in the way that the USDA-funded National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service advises organic farmers. Practitioners using trial-and-error methods throw up complex, messy, and difficult questions that cannot be resolved simply by reference to the science.

Then there are commentators who talk of economics and regulation. However, scientists, practitioners, and commentators all agree that a great deal of research and trial will be necessary for a full understanding and application of the process. Scientific uncertainty over the applica tion of biochar, however, is no reason to rubbish the whole subject. By doing this the biochar skeptics lose credibility for their reasoned cam paign against the market-based approach. Remember that uncertainty over detail was used to great effect by climate skeptics who wished to rubbish the science of climate change.

Biofuelwatch is an organisation that has highlighted the dangers of biofuels and argues that many of the same dangers apply to the devel opment of biochar. Some industrialists see charcoal just as a by-product of a process that is primarily focused on producing biofuel. Companies developing biofuel aim to replace fossil fuels with "clean" energy from plants, though the claim to be clean has proved faulty in many cases. It is also generally accepted that the rise in food prices above what many of the poor can afford is due largely to biofuels displacing grain crops. Biofuelwatch examines what would happen if the production and burial of charcoal were to earn carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol or its successor. As the availability of fossil fuels diminishes, the value of these credits could become so huge that commercial interests would initiate planetary geo-engineering projects-Shell and J. P. Morgan are already in on the act -- and farming could give way to industrial mono cultures that would have unknown but potentially disastrous conse quences for the climate, for people, and for biodiversity.

Then there is James Lovelock. In a recent interview in New Scientist replying to the question "Are we doomed?" he said, "There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of char coal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste -- which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering -- into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the carbon dioxide down quite fast. . . . This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit." Note that his focus is on farming, not on economic mechanisms.

Chris Goodall includes biochar in his excellent book Ten Technologies to Save the Planet. This analyses each of the technologies from a commercial perspective. Only two of the technologies would extract carbon dioxide; the others would just reduce emissions. There are many other books and magazine articles that touch on the subject. In his book Sustainable Energy-Without the Hot Air Professor David MacKay analy ses the potential sustainable fuels for Britain. He describes his approach as "numbers not adjectives"-i.e. setting aside preconceptions, eco nomics, politics, and even ethics. He analyzes the potential and limita­tions of each permanent energy source, with solar photovoltaics emerging as having the greatest potential. It is interesting that 70 per cent of renewable energy will reach the end user as electricity. This is important for determining the type of equipment that should be researched and developed. One of the biggest savings as compared with present energy use will be in doing away with the need to convert fossil energy into electricity.

In all of this I have been influenced by the philosophy of Fritz Schumacher, best known for his classic work, Small is Beautiful. If his recommendations had been followed, we would not be in the mess we are in today. I have found much in his work that is directly relevant to the use of biochar, so I have tried to look at the issues through his eyes.

As you can see from the above, this Briefing is not just about the stuff we burn in barbecues. A very old technology -- the production of charcoal -- in the hands of farmers throughout the world could become a major player in the struggle to avoid the worst effects of global warm ing. Given such potential, it must be considered in relation to the global economy, to commercial pressures, to international negotiations, and not least in relation to agricultural practice.

Toil to improve soil - Weekly Times Now

Genevieve Barlow

May 5, 2010

FORMER farmer Russell Burnett is developing a machine that he hopes will produce biochar to build soil carbon content.

The graduate microbiologist, who worked as a food technologist before farming around Finley in southern NSW for 24 years, has invested almost three years and about $500,000 to build his prototype biochar producer.

Who: Russell Burnett
What: Biochar
Why: Striving to make it work
Where: Bendigo, Victoria
Biochar is charcoal produced at high temperatures without oxygen in a process called pyrolysis.

The appeal of Russell's invention is its broad diet, anything from animal manures through to car tyres, that he says can be converted to a more stable form of carbon.

Though lifeless, the highly porous biochar or charcoal is thought to stop fertilisers from leaching and also attract soil-dwelling microbial life (bacteria and fungi).

Russell said mychorrizal fungi, for example, which live on plant roots feeding nutrients into plants seemed to take to it like fish to water.

He thinks it could maximise the effectiveness of soluble fertilisers and even help cut the volumes of fertiliser required.

Trials on sugar cane in northern NSW are testing biochar's impact on nitrogen use from applied urea.

Closer to home, trials on biochar's effect on soil structure, yield and soil carbon have been set up at Hopetoun, Carwarp, Elmore, Clunes and Mathoura.

The first year of the Clunes trial on wheat plots compared the effects of applying zero biochar and 100kg/ha DAP with one tonne/ha of biochar and no DAP, 2.5 tonnes/ha of biochar and no DAP and five tonnes/ha and no DAP. Each approach was replicated three times.

"The aims are threefold," Russell said.

"To determine the long effect on soil structure of a once-only application of biochar, to determine how a once-only application of biochar may reduce the long-term requirements of high analysis soluble fertilisers and the compounding effect of adding biochar on soil's carbon content."

Russell said it might take years to show any impact.

"We're hoping to show that, using biochar, farmers could halve or even reduce by two-thirds the amount of soluble fertilisers such as DAP and MAP that they use."

He said adding biochar could also be an asset for farmers wanting to enter the carbon market.

His idea was sparked by a BBC documentary The Secret of El Dorado which highlighted archaeological evidence of Amazonians building loamy soils in inhospitable rainforest using charcoal.

"It just made a lot of common sense," Russell said.

"I know from my own experience as a farmer that when charcoal was left behind after burning, the growth in the paddock was better.

"The plants love it. The soil microbes love it," Russell said.

Bendigo soil scientist Christian Bannan is monitoring plant growth and crop yields on the trial sites.

He said research overseas had shown that biochar increased the soil's water-holding capacity and improved soil structure by allowing greater aeration, water infiltration and root elongation.

But these benefits were yet to be officially proven in Australia.

"In our trials we found that generally five tonne/ha of biochar yielded more than 100kg/ha of DAP but at this stage that's impractical (for costs reasons)," Christian said.

"In the long term we might apply one tonne/ha of biochar a number of times to achieve a 20 per cent increase in yield every year whereas DAP's impact is exhausted every year."

Russell is refining his machine in a Bendigo industrial estate shed where his company Biochar Energy Systems operates.

He's been working closely with Northern Poultry Cluster Ltd, a group of poultry producers and processors hopeful of adding value to poultry manure and possibly using the energy generated during pyrolysis.

"None of this is rocket science, but we're just trying to keep things simple," Russell said.

He said there were others working on biochar plants in Australia and around the world but were asking a lot of money for facilities that processed two to three tonnes an hour.

"For a facility that does a tonne an hour you are looking at about $600,000."

Elmore farmer Frank Harney believes biochar is a vital tool for farmers in a climate of change.

"In Europe biochar is used but Australians are silly enough to burn their stubbles and let it go to waste," Frank said.

Commercialising Russell's small-medium scale biochar producer might face some challenges like: how much is biochar worth, how much is needed to improve soil health and how much of the energy produced is saleable?

Meanwhile, his belief in biochar's benefits for farming country is unshakeable.

"I've played around with it myself and it always works."