Has anyone started experimenting with charcoal as a soil amendment? "Biochar" as a fuel source, carbon sequestration technique, and soil amendment seems to be a hot topic now.
As a part of a total soil amendment program charcoal, not used for cooking food, could be a good addition, but since the wood that would make the charcoal is at least just as good as the charcoal why burn the wood and generate pollution just to get the charcoal?
I have been experimenting with charcoal since the topic was first brought up in early December of last year on this forum. I must admit that the results are extremely impressive as it relates to my garden plots and their production. Terra Preta is indeed a hot topic, but for some reason the thread was removed from this forum and not restarted. I have learned many things since starting this project; one thing that is of benefit for my location is the ability of charcoal amended soil to hold moisture. This has been a real plus considering our current drought conditions. I currently am constructing a bio-char 55-gallon drum to see how well it works in creating charcoal.
I could sit here all day conversing about charcoal and what it is doing in my garden. However, such discussion brings about negative opinions, lack of knowledge, and stated desires to maintain the status quo without the insight only experience can provide. The possible abundant source of fuel for gasoline/diesel-powered auto/trucks alone is reason enough to get excited about this new/old technology. Add to that the possible ability to grow edible crops in soils considered infertile only magnifies the importance of this topic IMO.
IMO, the organic gardener has the upper hand when incorporating this technology into a useful medium. Our understanding of the soil food web, composting, and organic soil amendments are priceless when the concept of Terra Preta is put into operation. I trust your adventure into this exciting innovation will produce the same results both my open-minded friends here at home and myself are discovering. In the mean time, I will continue to sit here like the "Maytag repairman" and marvel at what my eyes behold within the boundaries of my garden
I looked this up on wikipedia, and all I can say is WOW! If they did soil management 4 to 5 thousand years ago and its STILL black and fertile, WOWIE ZOWIE!
What a concept.
It seems to me that you could produce the char as a product of a wood gassification rig, and use the gas to run a water heater or stove burner or so on. Google wood gas to find more. Mother Earth News even had a car that ran on wood gas back in the 70s. But I remember seeing somewhere (didn't find it in a brief search) about a guy who used corn stalks and cobs to produce gas to dry his corn grain. Anyway, gassification leaves charcoal clinkers as a byproduct, or producing bio-char leaves "wood gas" as a byproduct, but it seems to me both of these can be used.
I need to get on the ball and do some experimenting with this in my very arid climate. It has been rattling around in my head ever since it came up last year, too, but I let it slide.
From experience I can tell you that charcoal and even charcoal ashes do no harm to plant life. Actually, they seem to improve plant health by quite a margin. The dreaded charcoal briquette ash has actually shown a remarkeable positive difference in flowering plants. Those awful chemicals in charcoal briquettes that we cook our food with doesn't seem to bother plants at all. Hey, this is from observation only so please don't flame me. Next year I'll try some of those ashes and charcoal chunks on my veggies and see if it works there too. Ya know, we might be missing something here. Best regards.
Hi Folks...what is the magic ingredient(s) in charcoal that makes plants grow better and faster then they normally would? Are we dealing with alittle voodoo/witchcraft again...:-) Ayup...I can see it now...my Kentucky Wonder pole beans 35 feet tall. Franklin
Making charcoal the "traditional' way, using a pit, or pile of dirt, or what ever has been around, probably, since Man began using fire. More modern technology, using kilns, steel and brick structures with regulated air intake and so on are more efficient, however it can also concentrate some of the toxic stuff as well. Essentially thats the way that creosote is made, condensed smoke from making charcoal.
So just a precautionary note, given the nasty stuff thats in creosote, to treat it with respect.
Actually Franklin, there isn't any magic involved. Stuff sticks to charcoal -- that's why it gets used in ERs for overdoses and poisonings. Soluble nitrogen sticks to charcoal, too. Normally, nitrogen leaches out of soil very quickly, but with the addition of charcoal, the nitrogen remains in the root zone of your plants. That means you get better growth with less nitrogen application. Additionally, the gritty, porous structure of charcoal stores water without smothering roots. Nitrogen plus oxygen plus water equals happy plants. Far from magic, that's the same old formula. Besides that it's more wettable and more sustainable than, oh, say, peat.
The Terra Preta of the Amazon also sustains the growth of nitrogen fixing fungi and bacteria so that it not only maintains nitrogen, it generates nitrogen.
Creosote goes by another name now days ... biodiesel. "Agrichar" actually holds the potential for generating "carbon negative" fuel as well as restoring soil. It decreases the need for nitrogen on crops and decreases nutrient runoff. However, I'm not about to try making my own -- I'd hate to wind up with a heap of charcoal and ash where my house once stood.
I use it just a little simply because small hunks of charred wood, not completely burnt to ashes, make their way into our ash bucket on a recurring basis. I have been flinging this into my gardens (crumbling up the hunks when I notice them) and the rest of my yard. Can't say I notice anything in particular, I am just avoiding putting it into the landfill by spreading the ashes and charcoal (from plain wood burned in our wood stove) on our slightly acidic soil.
We also have a rarely used fire pit and from what isn't burned when we put out the twice yearly fire we get our charcoal for our barbecue needs. Guess I could put some of that into the garden just to check it out more vigorously, we don't grill much.
From the Cornell Univ. Study:
"The high fertility of the prehistoric Anthrosols (ancient charcoal treated soils) may have been more related to nutrient release from successively available soil pools than high ion contents at exchange sites. Without fertilization, the leachate in the Anthrosols had extremely low concentrations of nutrients while nutrient availability was high compared to the Ferralsol (leached out untreated soils). Low leaching at high nutrient availability ensures sustainable soil fertility. These results coincide with observations made by Petersen et al. (2001) who found Anthrosols in Western Amazônia which have been under continuous cultivation without fertilization for 40 years."
The amazing thing to me is the ability of plants to use available nutrients immediately. One of the first things I noticed when charcoal was added to my compost was the germination of weed seeds within the compost. This made for easy removal before adding the compost to the soil. The fact that I was using charcoal from the fireplace instead of low heat created charcoal was reason for even more anticipation to see what would happen once bio-char is used.
The results of making/using a 55-gallon drum for making charcoal was successful. The resulting charcoal is very lightweight and sounds like wind chimes when banging together. Be warned, this process creates a lot of smoke when cooking, and I do mean a lot. However, since a top has to be used on the drum the risk of fire is minimal from what I can see. I plan to get some squash in the ground using this bio-char to see if the plants will respond better (hard to conceive of that looking at present results). I understand that those who live in urban areas are using a product called "Cowboy Charcoal" found at Lowes since it is made using the same technique. I have no knowledge of how well it works or the cost.
It is a "no-brainer" as to weather or not this gardener will continue to use charcoal in my garden. Having a use for small twigs and sticks instead of waiting for them to break down in compost and the fact that they are responding in the soil as a form of humus adds even more to their value. IMO, this technology should not be taken lightly or ignored completely
Here are some of the URLs that I saved from the last go around on Terra Preta. Would like to give it a try, but here in southern California the fire marshals would come down hard if they saw any smoke. Fire season never stopped last winter and we're in the midst of dry season again right now. It is criminal that either arsonists or stupid human tricks cause most of the fires.
Terra Preta is Portuguese for black earth. "Rich black soil terra preta was created by humans up to 4000 years ago in infertile regions of the Amazon. The high nutrient content of terra preta is recreated today by low-temperature slow burning pyrolysis of biomass. The resulting product, black carbon, known as bio-char, reduces the need for fertilizers. It can also be used as a fuel." (1.)
"Inspired by the fascinating properties of Terra Preta de Indio, bio-char is a soil amendment that has the potential to revolutionize concepts of soil management. While "discovered" may not be the right word, as bio-char (also called charcoal or biomass-derived black carbon, recently in context of agricultural application also named agri-char) has been used in traditional agricultural practices as well as in modern horticulture, never before has evidence been accumulating that demonstrates so convincingly that bio-char has very specific and unique properties that make it stand out among the opportunities for sustainable soil management.
The benefits of bio-char rest on two pillars:
1- The extremely high affinity of nutrients to bio-char
2- The extremely high persistence of bio-char
These two properties (which are truly extraordinary - see details below) can be used effectively to address some of the most urgent environmental problems of our time:
1- Soil degradation and food insecurity
2- Water pollution from agro-chemicals
3- Climate change
'Soils with bio-char additions are typically more fertile, produce more and better crops for a longer period of time.'" (2.)
"Important lessons can be learned from the recalcitrance of black carbon and its effects on the biogeochemistry of soils. Given the apparent ubiquity of black Carbon established by several authors (Schmidt and Noak, 2000; Skjemstad et al., 2002), refinements of global Carbon models and sequestration estimates may be necessary. Further, the potential for enhancing sequestration by active management of black Carbon could be established with important linkages to energy production and land use." (3.)
"Eprida offers a revolutionary new energy technology for sustainable fuels and sustainable income while producing co-products which also allow us to remove greenhouse gases from the air. We mimic nature's methods for biomass conversion and build a sustainable food and energy production." (4.)
I've been reading up on terra preta for the past few months and have been making small batches of it from time to time with left over heat from BBQs (yep, making charcoal from charcoal). Besides the great benefit to one's garden soil that charcoal seems to provide, there is a tremendous potential for normal folks to start a grassroots carbon sequestration program by incorporating charcoal into their soil. From what I've read, charcoal in soil is an extremely long-lasting form of carbon entrapment (i.e., it doesn't break down and eventually become CO2 in the atmosphere).
Now I have a question regarding all this that I haven't been able to find the answer to: Does anyone know what percentage of roasted coffee beans is charcoal? I'm assuming that a certain amount of coffee beans becomes carbonized during the roasting process (particularly dark roasted ones) even if this is a miniscule amount. I've searched all over the web for this info and have even emailed Starbucks though they only deigned to give me a "Thank you for your interest...." reply. I'd like to know what portion of the coffee grounds that I compost/scatter around will remain in the soil as charcoal.
Thanks to anyone who can provide elucidation,
French roast or Vienna? ;-)
This all makes sense to me, as this stuff is essentially activated carbon, a product which has been used for decades to remediate contaminated waste. The process by which nutrients "stick" to particles of charcoal is known as adsorption.
There's one thing I don't understand though... why does this stuff persist so long? Why does it not get converted to CO2 by bacteria and/or fungi? Certainly, if a tree falls in a forest, it will be consumed and converted to CO2, methane, and other "stuff" within a few short years. One would think that charcoal would disappear even quicker because it has a much higher surface area....
I've used lump hardwood charcoal as a grill fuel for years. This year i smashed up several pounds of coal and added it to the mix i use when potting up pines and maples. The results seem encouraging. It seems like the coal is good for drainage and air space in addition to the biological benefits. It's also lightweight and apparently does not degrade very quickly. I'll be interested to see the roots next spring.
The Eprida biochar is for sale on ebay @ 5$ Lb. Yikes!
The price didn't stop me, i bought some and will test it out on slower growing potted maples and conifers.
Years ago I remember that the recomendation was to put charcoal in the bottoms of the containers. I'm not sure why but in recient years it seems that the focus seems to have shifted more to stuff like perlite and vermiculite but that is probably more from marketing.
Can some one explain the process for making bio-char that also gets one bio-fuel? I've done some research into making bio-diesel from veg oil and it isn't really as safe/simple as some would make it sound.
Years ago people would put charcoal in the bottom of pots to "help drainage" and possibly (they thought) absorb excess nutrients, or "salts" because people then, just like now do not understand that not all charcoal will absorb "stuff". The absorb stuff, such as the activeated charcoal used in the filters in fish tanks, the charcoal needs to be processed to do that. The charcoal from your backyard grill, or your houses fireplace or wood burning stove, is not, and will not be, activated charcoal.
Some of the studies I have seen on the Terra Pretta concept is that there is only very short term benefit from burning off the forest cover. That some people 4 or 5,000 years ago burned off the forest, farmed that area for a time and then moved on and repeated that cycle does not mean it is a good thing.
Maybe revisit the terra preta concept. It is not at all the process of slash & burn nor is it "burning off the forest cover."
Recent efforts stimulated by Terra Preta research included the investigation of biochar (biomass-derived black carbon or charcoal) as a soil amendment to enhance nutrient availability and retention. Charcoal amendments were shown to significantly decrease nutrient leaching and increase crop growth (Lehmann et al., 2003), and the tests of slash-and-char systems were suggested as an alternative to slash-and-burn (Lehmann et al., 2002).
blutranes, any updates?
I sort of stumbled on this thread by chance. But, I live in Amazonia, Manaus, Amazonas and have been around Terra Preta first hand. It is amazing stuff. It is also littered with pottery shards. And, it appears that many of these were made for the purpose of soil enhancement. I have been on plots of up to 30 acres of the stuff. it is great for growing bananas, watermellons and even marijuana. The terra preta areas are favorites of the pot growers in the area. The population densities in our area were much greater than many imagined and terra preta is one of the reasons they could be sustained.
This will be a long one but worth reading I think. First of all biochar is NOT activated charcoal. It would best be described as slightly underdone charcoal. How underdone is really up to debate and study at this point. Most people making this stuff will be doing so for the many planetary benefits it may provide. A lot of people are making biochar the old fashioned way. Perhaps you have come across the barrel method. I have made a smaller batch this way with a metal five gallon bucket. You have to ask yourself 'do I want to blow out a lot of smoke for 5 or 6 hours'? Luckily I stumbled onto gasification. If you make a decent gasifier there will be little to no smoke. The best thing about it is that you will be burning the smoke to create the heat to make the biochar. So you can make your biochar without releasing a bunch of CO2 by burning wood. The size of your garden will determine how big of a gasifier you will make. Gasifiers get hot so use common sense and keep water handy. You will also want water to put out the charcoal once the gas has burned off. If you google 'wood gasifier' you will find many links showing you how to make one. Make a practice one to see how they work before building your main unit. Everything you need to make one is already in your house. I made mine with a putty knife, can opener, hammer and a metal punch(aka anything metal that will make a hole). This method produces better agrichar than the standard charcoal method(my opinion).
Now for a few special notes.
The fuel for the gasifier should be really dry and made into thumb sized pieces to allow air flow and deep pyrolysis.
Try various fuels. I have had difficulty with pine needles. Some of the best biochar I have made has come from alfalfa pellets. Variety of fuels will increase the chances of getting good results(my opinion).
Fertilize the biochar or it may sponge a bit off of your garden. I highly recommend soaking in urine for 2 or 3 days. Either straight or half water. The other method that I recommend is adding it to your compost. You could also use livestock manure in water with the char. Last resort would be a half or quarter strength commercial fertilizer.
My last suggestion is to add it to your garden over a period of 3-5 years. There is little information about how much to use. Adding it year after year will give you some control and give you a chance to read the plants.
Please keep in mind that this is my first year using it. The above was gleaned from A LOT of reading and searching. If I said anything that is not factual please correct me. And please make your biochar in an environmentally sensible way. If you have questions let me know.
I put up a couple of vids on how to make a biochar making gasifier. See them here
Could be wrong but I was told the use of charcoal aided in the process of nitrogen fixation i.e. the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into plant usable nitrogen compounds such as ammonia.
I used bio-char last fall. This season my plants do look very happy. I cannot say that it's from the charcoal alone. I did make a few other changes.
Last week there was another vendor selling bio-char on ebay. The price was way lower. I grabbed 15#. I'm going to blend it into the mixture for fall potting.
I am helping with a charcoal FAQ. Any suggestions as to what questions to address?
"Any suggestions as to what questions to address?"
A very nice web page, with lots of information many can use.
As I have said before, I am a mear layman who is fond of growing a good tomato or watermelon for family and friends to enjoy. Yet I have been doing some thinking as I observe my garden as well as five (5) others that I provide compost with charcoal added as they grow throughout this year. Hence there are some questions I have that could be considered for your web page. In this context a "pure carbon source" will equate to charcoal:
1. If a pure carbon source is added to compost pile or garden what will the soil food web do with this carbon source?
2. How long will the soil food web generate pre-digestive acids in an attempt to decompose this pure carbon source?
3. Where is the nitrogen coming from to digest this pure carbon source by the soil food web, and what happens to this nitrogen once digestion occurs?
4. If the soil food web doesnt care where a food source comes from (synthetic-vs- organic), why would the soil food web care if the pure carbon source is created at any given temperature or not?
5. What happens if one adds a pure carbon source to an oxygen rich environment such as a compost tea brewer teaming with organic microbes?
6. If a pure carbon source is added to an organic rich soil, amended with remineralization amendments (rock dust), what will happen to the plants growing in said soil?
7. How much C02 is generated by the soil food web as it digests this pure carbon source, and what happens to this CO2?
8. If compost tea is created with a pure carbon source added, what happens to the plant said compost tea is sprayed upon?
9. If a pure carbon source is forced to adsorb a pure nitrogen source such as alfalfa tea, what will happen to this pure carbon source when added to microbe rich environment such as a compost pile or well-amended organic garden?
These are some of the questions I ponder as I watch my own and others gardens grow. I trust a few of these questions and answers will be of some service
Is this the same as Carbon Black?
Harvey Gardner asked:
"Is this the same as Carbon Black?"
No. I am speaking of charcoal, both activated and what is known as "bio-char".
"The current International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluation is that, "Carbon black is possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B)". Short-term exposure to high concentrations of the carbon black dust may produce discomfort to the upper respiratory tract, through mechanical irritation."
Not a good thing to have around IMO. I trust this is of some use...
Peat sellers claim that peat does a similar thing by holding nitrogen and other nutrients and keeps them from leaching out of the soil. Since peat is mostly carbon is it just or good or better than biochar carbon?
That is one of those loaded gun questions due to the controversy of mining peat moss. In another recent thread it was discovered that recycled paper offers the same benefits of peat moss and is found just about everywhere, plus the paper is free. Thus using recycled paper could be the resolution many have sought to stop the mining of peat moss and save the bogs they are found within. As to weather peat works in the same manner, I do not know, I dont use peat
Thanks for the reply. I somewhat disagree that peat is "mined" like non-renewable resources are mined. A peat bog begins filling in again as soon as the peat harvesting operation is completed and the water table restored. A water-filled basin is then created that plant life (moss) immediately begins to encroach upon and refill. Peat is a renewable resource.
As to newspaper I use all I can get in my woodstove and mulching my garden. I can dig peat for free on my own land and therefore find it very convenient and useful. It makes a good soil ammendment in this sand I have, but it would nice to know how it compares to the charcoal ammending.
What I'm left with after digging peat is a little frog pond and amphibians need all the help they can get.
Like I said, I stay out of the controversy of what peat is or is not. Now that I have thought of it, peat does not compare to what charcoal/bio-char can do IMO. There are aspects of charcoal that are only now beginning to be understood, while peat in its form of humus is very limited in its application, again IMO. I am sure you are doing what is best for your gardening situation, and I do convey the best in your organic adventure...
Mixing Peat and charcoal (with chicken manure, and compost, plus topsoil from between beds) seems to produce fine results in my shallow-to-rock, sandy soil. I sense that the slight alkalinity of the charcoal is nicely balanced by the acidity of the peat.
Since making the charcoal involves burning which destroys valuable nutrients as well as pollutes the air why would making this charcoal be better than composting the same material and conserving those nutrients that are lost by burning and is proven to be much less of a pollution source?
Kimmsr, scientists are still studying biochar and are a long way from understanding all of it. But it appears that charcoal seems to be sort of unique in it's ability to retain nutrients. I don't know that they even know all the WHY of it, but it does appear to have to be charcoal, and not just unburned, buried wood.
The charcoal apparently traps both nutrients and moisture and holds it for use by the plants. The eye-opener for scientists was that the Amazon gets about NINE FEET of rainfall per year, and usually it leaches all water soluble nutrients out of the soil there. But in the spots where Terra Preta exists, the nutrients have been retained, even after many years, in spite of all that rainfall. And the scientists are measuring the still-existing charcoal in MICRONS, which is how they measure bacteria. That is the big WOW of it.
Personally, I think what the native peoples in those areas of the Amazon did was strictly accidental, and not any Big Plan on their part.
Here's MY theory, which may be totally crackpot, and I give you leave to laugh at it:
The native peoples of the Amazon had a hard life. Their natural soil was poor, leached by tropical rains, and acidic. They had wild animals like jaguars roaming around, looking for easy meals. They probably ate whatever they could find, hunt or grow, and were glad to get it. They also had to make their own pottery under primitive conditions; some of it came out good, some broke in the firing and just from use. They had all kinds of debris: human waste, pet and livestock waste, leftover bones from meals, probably blood from butchering, entrails, non-useful weeds, ashes and charcoal left over from cooking fires.
They did plant crops, and some of the mapping I've seen indicate that the planted areas were right next to their huts, where they could scare off crop predators and keep their own livestock safe. They may have burned some areas to limit the weed competition. This area was probably their dump, too. They may have spread the refuse out and worked it into the soil from as simple a reason as to keep the smell and the flies down, as well as to keep predators from cruising around.
Since I have wood heat, I collect the charcoal when I clean out the stove. If I have meat with bones, like a chicken, I put the carcass in the wood stove and burn it. I reserve the sifted charcoal and bones, and put the ash in a barrel to use as potash in the garden. I add the charcoal and bones to my garden beds and to my compost piles.
I have some broken terra cotta pots. And while I'm not sure that pottery is a valuable additive, it MAY be, so I will pound the shards to powder and add that, too. But soil scientists here say that clay traps nutrients and sand doesn't, so I guess it's a good idea to add some clay to your sandy soil. Do the pottery shards act the same way as the clay they're made from? Or do the shards act the same as the charcoal?
This may not be doctrine, but it's what works best for me, until I find that there is something else I should be doing.
But there's no real bible on it yet, and it will be interesting to see how it all turns out.
I have yet to read if any studies have come up with any indication of how much charcoal should be added to the soil?
The Acres article mentions 20% to 30% by weight, but then relates that "(i)n row crops, this would translate to 30 percent by weight of the top 6 inches" (of soil). The photos that I've seen on the net of Terra Preta are definitely not just the top 6 inches, but 2' or more. I recall the numbers 10% to 30% from the reading that I have done, so the parameters are the same.
In the book 1491 by Charles C. Mann, it was indicated that the pottery was specifically produced to be incorporated into the Terra Preta by the abundant quantity, and required a substantial community effort to produce. That reminded me of the work of Dr. Philip S. Callahan, ANCIENT MYSTERIES MODERN VISIONS the MAGNETIC LIFE of AGRICULTURE, and PARAMAGNETISM relating to the effect magnetic forces have on plant growth. He related that red clay pottery exhibits paramagnetic properties that enhance plant growth. Some of his later work indicates that volcanic dust/particles also are paramagnet, but I'm going by recollection, so take that with one of those particles.
The earth's magnetic field isn't as strong in the equatorial regions as it is at the poles, possibly the Amazonian pottery in the Terra Preta soils has a paramagnetic effect that lends to its productivity. It would be interesting to know.
The wildfires went through here late last October, so I incorporated some of the charcoal from part of a stairway that burned into a garden plot. I cannot tell one way or another if there was a positive effect, but am going to continue to experiment.
By the way, only a part of the stair burned. We were fortunate that the house survived even though the Chaparral and some of the landscape plants on the property burned as well as the homes of three of our immediate neighbors.
This morning I calculated out the amount of charcoal / bio-char a square foot would require in the top six inches of soil. The BIG boys and girls figure that an acre to a depth of six inches has Two Million Pounds of soil. One acre is 43,560 square feet.
2,000,000pounds / 43,560square feet = 45.9137pounds per square foot to a 6" depth
46 lbs. x 10% = 4.6 lbs.
46 lbs. x 20% = 9.2 lbs.
46 lbs. x 30% = 13.8 lbs.
A Terra Preta soil that had charcoal / bio-char to a depth of 2' at a 10% concentration would have 18.4 pounds of biologically active carbon under each square foot of surface area. That would be 36.8 lbs. and 55.2 lbs. at 20% and 30% concentrations respectively.
Also I requested that my Senators cosponsor this measure in S.1884.
Find your Senators @ http://www.senate.gov/
Title: A bill to amend the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 to reauthorize and improve agricultural energy programs, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Sen Salazar, Ken [CO] (introduced 7/26/2007) Cosponsors (None)
Latest Major Action: 7/26/2007 Referred to Senate committee. Status: Read twice and referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
Harvesting Energy Act of 2007 (Introduced in Senate)
SEC. 110. RESEARCH AND DEMONSTRATION GRANTS FOR BIOCHAR PRODUCTION SYSTEMS.
Title IX of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (7 U.S.C. 8101 et seq.) is amended by adding at the end the following:
`SEC. 9012. RESEARCH AND DEMONSTRATION GRANTS FOR BIOCHAR PRODUCTION SYSTEMS.
`(a) Definition of Biochar- In this section, the term `biochar' means charcoal or biomass-derived black carbon that is added to soil to improve soil fertility, nutrient retention, and carbon sequestration.
`(b) Grants- The Secretary shall award competitive grants to eligible entities to assist in paying the cost of research and development to develop and commercialize biochar production systems on multiple scales (including on a single farm, local community, and cooperative scale), with a goal of creating production systems that maximize the coproduction of renewable energy and biochar for use as a soil enhancement.
`(c) Eligible Entities- To be eligible to receive a grant under this section, an entity shall be an eligible entity described in section 9003(d).
`(d) Authorization of Appropriations- There is authorized to be appropriated to carry out this section $10,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2008 through 2012.'.
So is it better to use fresh lump charcoal instead of the leftover ashes or are ashes fine? If you use fresh lump charcoal, do you break it up with a hammer or just add it straight in?
I'm hoping to transform my property one day into la terra preta, lol
The current issue of the National Geographic has a great feature article on soil (also an online soil quiz), which includes an in-depth section on terra preta.
Biochar could be just what our sandy soil needs. But some parts of the concept just won't sink into my skull, leaving these possibly dumb questions circling overhead.
Why are the deposits so deep - as much as 6 feet - when most crop plants have shallow roots? Are the deposits stockpiles, meant to be spread on the land, and if so, why weren't they?
How can the use of biochar be carbon neutral when making it involves so much smoke?
Do clinkers from the wood stove count as biochar?
There's a ceramics studio a few miles from here and I'm thinking of asking for their broken/dried out bisque (once-fired) or greenware, and dig it into some of our very sandy soil. Any thoughts on whether this would benefit it?
As I understand it the pottery and the biochar attract and hold nutrients but how and why are those nutrients released to plants?
The deposits are so deep because they were dug that deeply into the soil. I have bookmarked a photograph that I'll try to find and link that shows a human burial urn below the Terra Preta soil. This is man made soil akin to the depths achieved by the double dug Grow Biointensive concept - http://www.growbiointensive.org/.
In the book How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons, there is a diagram that depicts the root system of selected vegetables. Beet roots can penetrate to a depth of 10 feet (3.048m), carrot 8' (2.438m), and sweet corn, lettuce and tomato 4' (1.22m). Bioactive soil developed to enhanced depths can produce amazing results. I personally have grown parsnips in such soil. The resultant produce was 2" (5cm) at the crown, took a short time to cook, and were very tender unlike store bought.
Terra Preta is carbon negative. Although smoke is released by burning to create the charcoal, plants as part of the Carbon Cycle can recapture that portion, while the charcoal, by one estimate, is locked in the soil for up to 50,000 years.
Clinkers count while ash doesn't. Last week I was at http://e-alkalinesoilsterrapreta.blogspot.com/ . It is interesting to note that in this practical research the charcoal clinkers are applied to the fields after the ash is washed off; I assume to lessen the effects of ash on pH in this already alkaline soil. In time, the clinkers will break down to provide more habitat for the soil microorganisms that inhabit the pores of the charcoal and that are responsible for a great part of the benefit of Terra Preta. If I remember correctly, the pores in the charcoal that are the habitat of the microorganisms that researchers are studying are on the micron level, and in the photos of the Amazonian Terra Preta the charcoal is unidentifiable.
A Surform plane was used to separate the charcoal from unburned parts of the stairway that I mentioned in a previous post. I'm going to purchase Cowboy Charcoal and am thinking about running it through the Chipper/Shredder.
Before expending the energy to collect pottery shards to add to the garden, I think that I'd read Dr. Callahan's book Paramagnetism: Nature's Secret Force of Growth. In Nova Scotia, the earth's magnetic forces are much more concentrated than what they are at the equator and if there were a question in that regard an ergs test would probably allay any fears. Besides, the amount of energy that the Amazonians expended as a community to produce and incorporate that much pottery into their soils may have been for reasons that we would consider Metaphysical. In that regard, consider the book Agriculture by Rudolf Steiner.
Just thought with regard to my last post relating to - Clinkers count while ash doesn't. I was thinking in regard to water retention. If you have an acid soil and want to modify it then count the ash.
I kinda have a question. What exactly about terra preta sequesters greenhouse gases? Is it the carbon itself? The microogranisms in the terra preta? The plants grown in terra preta?
Thanks terran (and jxbrown for starting the thread). It seems worth trying here, in the most passive way possible (clinkers we get anyway, some greenware), in one section of the garden.
I have nearly finished burying our underground dome house. It has taken 9 years to get this far. There is no topsoil left, I now have about an acre of clay subsoil on top of and surrounding my house. Would it be useful to add charcoal to clay soil, or is it primarily useful for sandy soil?
Baldgranny, we want pics!
I finally got around to working on the charcoal project again yesterday. I had 44 pounds of Cowboy Charcoal soaking in a 32 gallon trash barrel that had Effective Microorganisms (EM) mixed with water and unsulphured molasses. It had been soaking for just under two months.
I decanted the liquid and put it in one bed, and then ran the charcoal through the chipper. The consistency of the material after that was from granulated sugar to a slurry, and formed a layer about two to three inches thick on a 21 square foot bed. After it was dug into the top twelve inches, it just about disappeared.
This morning I sprinkled the beds with 3 ounces of unsulphured molasses in two gallons of water just to give the microorganisms breakfast.
There are a few volunteer parsley sprouts in the bed that received the liquid; they seem to be happy. I'd better cover them, though, to keep them safe from the migrating birds. I'm a little surprised that the birds hadn't already snacked on them.
To paulns about the Nat Geo article:
A possible explanation for the ancient 6' deep terra preta deposits is that they pertain to tropical conditions of agriculture. Where you are from (Canada), the short growing season ensures that no food crop could ever live long enough to achieve such deep roots as 6'. Conversely, some of the crops grown by primitive Amazonians could not only live for several years, but also grow year round, which explains the utility of deeply ammended soil "discovered" there.
Charcoal is a very inert material and adds nothing except perhaps aeration to the soil, the ashes hold all the nutrients.As a plant food, ashes contain 5 to 7 percent potassium and 11/2 to 2 percent phosphorous. They also have 25 to 50 percent calcium compounds. Hardwood (e.g. oak) ashes contain more potassium than those from softwoods (e.g. pine). If left out in the rain, because these nutrients are water-soluble, the ashes will lose their nutritive value. The less soluble carbonates which cause alkalinity will remain longer. So, I think we are talking about ashes here, at least that is what I want from fire box residue.
Biologically active Carbon holds at least four times its weight in water. Ash does not hold water.
From the post on this thread of September 5th 2008, "[i]n the book How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons, there is a diagram that depicts the root system of selected vegetables. Beet roots can penetrate to a depth of 10 feet (3.048m), carrot 8' (2.438m), and sweet corn, lettuce and tomato 4' (1.22m)".
Mother Earth News recently sent out an online 'How To' article on making Bio-Char in the garden for those signed up to receive info via e-mail at
I'll post a link and hope that it works.
Terran, did the presoaking of the Cowboy charcoal aid in the chipping/shredding of it by making it softer, easier to break up into small pieces?
No chipper shredder here, just a sledgehammer.
Soaking the charcoal made a big difference in the chipper/shredder just by keeping the dust down. I went out to smash a piece of charcoal with a sledge hammer used as if it were a tamper to check for you and it broke up easily, but wanted to scatter.
As I mentioned, I let the batch that I made soak for about two months and the chipper turned the saturated charcoal partially into slurry. I would think that it would be better to have the charcoal moderately soaked if it were to be broken by hand, so that the bits would still want to fracture. As a matter of fact, I think that it would work better that way, as well, in a chipper/shredder.
With the next batch, I am going to test the way the charcoal breaks apart every so often while in the soak to see if I can reduce the amount of slurry. The big boys and girls relate that the microorganisms live in the nooks and crannies of the charcoal particles. I would guess that by the time the charcoal is reduced to a slurry there wouldn't be much habitat left, if any. My thinking, though, might be too mega instead of micro, so who knows?
Thanks a bunch! I think I'll do the same ...soak, test, soak some more if needed.
I find it interesting when I crush wet charcoal, it feels like high quality loam in my hands.
Sorry for butting in. I am curious and have a question about putting your soaked charcoal through a shredder/chipper. How much of it became that small, I mean the part that are smaller than say, 1/4"?
My understanding was that the charcoal serves as a "reservoir" for all the ingredients the charcoal was soaked in that the soil/plants can draw from over time. Consequently, the smaller the charcoal particles, the easier/faster for those ingredients to be leached out of the charcoal, reversing the purpose of it to be the reservoir. It would almost have the same effect as just watering the soil with that ingr. mixture.
I have bought 2 big bags of charcoal and haven't done anything with them other than opening 1 bag. Some are really big lumps, too big for my pupose of mixing them w. my potting soil. I am still thinking how to break them into smaller pieces w/o creating a lot of dust and getting very small pieces. I am going to break them before soaking.
No chipper/shredder here either, so once it gets warmer outide, rather than taking the sledgehammer directly to the charcoal, I'll try driving a big nail and hammer it through the charcoal. I realize this won't be as fast as just hitting them with the sledgehammer. So much for relax-therapy, lol.
CCC (comments, critics, corrections) welcome.
I'd say that most all of it was smaller than 1/4 inch.
I can see some of the tiny bits on top of the soil, but until I harvest I won't know for sure how much of the bits are at depth, have broken down, or disappeared. As I mentioned, I'm not sure of the size particle that would still be gargantuan to a microorganism.
I have, also, wondered about the bio part of bio-char. It seems that most of us are experimenting with the charcoal, while at least one person is working with an amount of Eprida BioChar. It has been a long time since I perused their site, but my recollection is that their process can be variable in the extent of carbonization, and might be, somewhat, more comparable to the result the Amazonians obtained in their smoldering middens. It would be interesting to know if there have been any studies on nutrient availability derived from the incomplete combustion of green matter in a midden.
I may have to talk to the CDF (California Department of Forestry) to see what hoops I'd have to jump through to experiment with a pile of ice plant that I collected recently. We have, actually, had rain recently, so they might not object to an open fire. Basically, it would be to see how burning (¿ steaming ?)green matter differed from processing it through a compost pile.
Your welcome Penny.
I'm new here and have read much of the posts on this thread, but didnt see anyone mention a book called "The Carbon Connection" by Leonard Ridzon and Charles Walters, Jr. 1990. Over 10 years ago, I purchased a barrel of a certain type of soft bituminous coal screenings from Ridzon Farms. It was called Nutri-carb. He has 2 books which discusses his research into pure forms of carbon which benefit plant life. Unfortunately, Leonard has passed away and I don't know if anyone is continuing his work. He was from Ohio and had a backpage ad in AcresUSA for many years.
I attended a Reams Basic Soils seminar in, I believe it was, 1985 presented by Dr. Dan Skow with Dr. Reams in attendance. The subject of Humates was brought up but not discussed in detail.
It seems that the studies of Bio-Char, coal dust, and humates are related to the need for biologically active carbon in the soil for increased productivity and plant health.
A search for 'humates' brought up this site that seems interesting.
Don't pay $5.00 lb for char, go to Lowe's or Ace Hardware, they have Cowboy Charcoal $8.00 for 10lb. (Lowe's) and Frontier 18lb. for $9.00 (Ace Hardware) they are natural hardwood only charcoals. No chemicals or additives. It is what I am going to use, read it somewhere on line, it has the same properties as bio-char, from what I read on the bag.
As a kid we cleared garden spots on farm. Burned alot of mesquite trees, brush etc. The gardens grew massively with zero failures for years. We never watered nor did any soil work. The charcoal and or ash may have helped.
I bought a bag of natural charcoal from lowes for 8.00. I tried few different ways to make particle size smaller. Gave up put the charcoal in bucket with water, It fell apart fast. I just got 4 bags of royal oak for under 7.00 each. I will break it up with water and scatter it.
Not sure if this will work, but I am willing to try it. Steve
Hey Stephe, how exactly do you break up the charcoal in the water? Do you use a hammer or shovel of some sort?
Am making my own charcoal from black locust using a retort that re-burns the woodgas, the end product is generally a bit lighter than Cowboy, probably from firing at a higher temperature. This means less residual volatiles, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on who you listen to.
The retort burns quite cleanly, and since charcoal is being produced, in theory there is less carbon going into the environment than through composting. (black locust takes forever to compost anyway.)
Crushing is done with a 150 pound concrete cylinder like a garden roller, rolling in a trough of paver blocks. I moisten the charcoal with diluted fish emulsion as it comes from the retort, and use the same solution to dampen the charcoal during crushing if dust appears. I periodically sift the contents of the roller trough with 1/4 mesh, since the charcoal tends to compact, which slows crushing.
I divided an 8 foot by 6 foot bed of sandy loam in half lengthwise, and worked in 5 cubic feet of charcoal eight inches deep into one half. The other half simply got fish emulsion equal to what was applied to the charcoal. There are three "Better Boy" tomato plants in each half of the bed, i am quite curious to see what effect, if any, the charcoal will have.
wow, that sounds like alot of work. I'm curious about your results also. I think partly it's a longer term effect than just one growing season though.
Building the retort was a lot of work, but enjoyable...i got to recycle junk and learned to weld!
Making the five cubic feet of char was easy, i just fired up the retort over several days and kept an eye on it while doing other garden stuff.
I'm dealing with sandy loam that holds water and nutrients poorly, so hope for some early positive results regarding water, nutrients will take several seasons.
I did a simple test last night and learned something interesting. A teaspoon full of home made char weighs .9 grams, same amount of Cowboy weighs 1.75, and is way harder to crush. Over 12 hours floating in water, a 5 gram chunk of Cowboy absorbed 1.2 grams of water, a five gram chunk of home made absorbed 3.4, which is hopeful regarding soil moisture.
wow tubjugger do you think you can post pictures? How large is your property? Do you have any nearby neighbors? My very messy attempt at making my own char ended in lots of upset neighbors (suburban area...not too smart lol)
Pictures of my baby, are you kidding? There are some posted on the Yahoo biochar group, i think you have to join to view them, but the group is worth joining.
I have about 2 1/2 acres, much of it wooded, nearest neighbors about 100 yards away. The retort puts out a little smoke for the first few minutes as the fire is lit, after that it burns clean with just heat shimmer, it's about as objectionable as a charcoal grill, be great for a suburban location.
Interestingly, it also cooks well if you just put a few sticks in the retort to provide smoke and a bit of steam, and then build a small fire in the firebox. I did maple smoked baby back ribs in it for some guests a couple of weeks ago. I figure that if somebody ever calls the cops about my infernal machine, i'll just tell them it's a barbecue/smoker!
The retort has a fast firing cycle, if you are dampening the char to use in the garden it takes four hours to run off a batch.
I actually joined the group a month ago. Just looked at your pictures...incredible!!
If only charcoal makers were mass produced, I'd buy one in a heartbeat
Upon further inspection, it also seems that your machine recycles the volatile gases back into the fire. That is true carbon negative technology! And all made of recycled junk! Amazing....
Very perceptive takadi, you spotted the reburner piping; mark of a true-blue collier to pick up on that.
I had done a google on retort and found an article by a knife maker making his own char. His was made of 2 55gal drums. No welding, just threaded pipes to get the gas back under into the fire.
Really amazing stuff, I plan on doing some thing like this when I'm back home in UT. Don't think I could do it in my little back yard of military housing.
Drum retorts like the one you were looking at are great fun and pretty easy to build. Two-can top-lit updrafters are even easier to put together, but not as exciting. Have fun.
In the following, I'll give you some message regarding the potential of charcoal in the field of energy harvesting. The same message has been posted in my own blog. (If you like, please visit my blog at the following URL.)
"Possibility of Energy Harvesting using Charcoal"
I read a recent online article relating to energy harvesting that reports some findings of electricity produced by a tree, i.e., a potential difference between the tree and the ground. Specifically, it is reported that University of Washington (Seattle) researchers recently demonstrated a nanoscale "boost converter" that integrates the ultra-low-voltage potentials generated by trees.
Tradition from old times in Japan credits that the potential (it is called âpositive life forceâ) gathers in a mass of charcoal chips or powder and is good for health of a human as well as the environment in the vicinity. According to the findings of âinjured potential in earthâ by Mr. Satsuki Narasaki (1899-1974), a Japanese physicist, the potential can increase in earth when injuring the earth by digging a pit and then charcoal powder of high purity (pure Japanese cedar based charcoal powder) fully fills in the pit and it is covered with earth. Such findings have felt into oblivion for most as a phony, but the minority has experienced to date for themselves the presence of this strange phenomenon.
A large number of tests according to Narasaki findings has been studied and reported before. For instance, one electrode stuck into earth (about 2 inch in depth) and another into earth in more depth (about 10 inch in depth), in any case, both electrodes in earth are placed above the pit (a square about 60 inch on a side) filled with charcoal powder (about 240 pounds), compacted with water over powder and then covered with earth. The potential difference between them was measured at about 120 mV initially. Two months later, it shows 242 mV when measured again. Further, it is reported that the potential difference was measured continuously between those levels even after that.
From other point of view, it is known that the charcoal made from woods contributes both the fertile ground and the CO2 fixation in earth (âcarbon negativeâ). Therefore, I think one electrode in the tree and another in earth above the pit being filled with charcoal powder may be a good idea to circulate the green-tech energy system and to change the trees to the credit, i.e., âcarbon negativeâ for a debt, i.e., âcarbon emissionsâ, and then a mini-power plant as well as a power collection system when they connect with each other.
Nothing venture, nothing win. Have a try! Here, I recommend using charcoal powder produced by my friend in Nanmoku-village at Gunma-pref. (near northwest of Tokyo) in Japan for your experiments. High quality charcoal powder is a specialty of this village.
Incidentally, do you consider harvesting the power (electricity) from vibrations of a tree by wind in windy locations? If a gyroscopic power generator such as âSTABILITY ANALYSIS OF GYROSCOPIC POWER GENERATORâ published in âProceedings of PowerMEMS 2008+ microEMS 2008, Sendai, Japan, November 9-12, (2008)â can be downsized by the latest micromechatronics and a large number of mini-gyroscopic power generators can be installed in the tree (and in more vibrant branches), I anticipate more feasibility of energy harvesting like the production of electricity from wave-motion energy off the coast (Study of Kobe University).
Electricity can be used for a sensor network of self-diagnosis of trees, into each of which trees a sensor for self-diagnosis is installed and operated by electricity self-generated, and it can be utilized for the study of thigmomorphogenesis and mechanoperception in trees (see, http://www.plantbiology.msu.edu/faculty/faculty-research/frank-w-telewski/ Prof. Frank W. Telewski, Department of Plant Biology, Michigan State University, is an expert in this field). The goal of this study is summarized in âEcosystem Adaptabilityâ (see http://gema.biology.tohoku.ac.jp/01gcoe_e.html , study of Tohoku University). In any case, no more bulky and expensive wind turbines (it is reported that the wind turbine may cause symptoms to a human in the vicinity, i.e., hypersensitivity due to the swish sound at low frequency from its vane)! â¦ it may be a laymanâs way of thinking.
I have used fire ash since the 1940's when my father cleared his vegetable plot each year by turfing the top inch or so and forming a large heap in the centre of the plot.The heap contained everything from weed seeds through to worms and wood lice.He would then set the heap alight and add more organic material as the clearing continued.The pile would slowly burn for several days and hopefully the worms and other good people had sense enough to migrate from the heap back to the soil.This material was then spread out over the ground and planting proceded.[a common practice in UK at the time]
These days I use the ashes from my wood stove .All my ash is thrown into the chooks pen and they procede with the break down and mixing processes.My garden is a series of small compounds where I grow a large variety of vegetables ,berries and fruit figs etc.( the compounds are bird, wallaby and possum proof]The chooks migrate between different pens occupying an area for a few years.
The chooks do much of the work and the soil soon becomes magnificent.
I believe that charcoal needs time in the soil to increase its benefits.Most people are looking at small time spans.I get quite amazing results, and can't understand why companies and governments are so reluctant to start solving food and climate problems using charcoal.
I took some cheap natural charcoal (no paraffin, not briquettes, looks like black sticks) and crushed it up. I soaked it in water with fertilizer. I have started adding it to soil. It makes the soil look better. :) It lowers the pH. Charcoal doesn't rot in the soil. Has a lot of intricate little holes with surfaces that hold fertilizer. Does it do any good? No idea.
I'm very interested in the experiences of other gardeners. Not looking for high-minded carbon-offset hopes so I can drive my car around guilt-free or spooky "biochar" crystal power belief structures. Just want to know if plants do better. I suspect that soils prone to leaching benefit from something that hangs onto N, P, K. And, like perlite, etc. anything that improves drainage is good. But I'm a charcoal agnostic so far.