Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Biochar: Practical Masterclass by Albert Bates

When I say, I understand that farmers do not have time to protest and do not have time to go to workshops on important practices and transitions, like in the use of Biochar (charcoal), I really do. When I say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take good notes’. Again, I really do!

I’m sitting down to write up eight and a half sides of A4 and it’s fascinating, informative and practical, so please read it and incorporate it into your general plan.

You can make biochar in an open pit 

People asked, must it be a sealed unit to produce charcoal? Doesn’t the openness to oxygen, turn everything to ash?

No, the thermo dynamic is created by keeping the flames at the top as the cap, to burn off the gases. 
There is a toroidal motion created by a wok-shaped pit. The heat goes down the centre and gases escape up the sides, leaving just carbon (which is what we want)

In proper conditions (like dryness of woody waste) we can expect to produce 4 wheelbarrows of biochar in 45 minutes. 

In practice, we built the fire out of twigs – one to two inches thick. Then we put the kindling on the top, with cardboard and newspaper and lit it. This is counter-intuitive to the usual arrangement of lighting a fire at the bottom. 

Be mindful of what you are burning. You will not want to use biochar from treated pallet wood onto your land as fertilizer or indeed into feed or as a water filter. Newspapers are usually printed with soya ink nowadays so not toxic and can be used.

Flames are providing the cover, depriving the bottom of oxygen. Therefore, the fire gradually burns downwards. The volatiles will burn off, leaving behind black charcoal. Ash is the second stage burn, charcoal the first. Like, if you blow out a match before it has burned away, charcoal remains.  

When you are getting your fire established keep looking for ash, as an indicator. We don’t want ash so build the canopy of flames further. There might be a flame 5 feet high and this is a good thing. There will not be smoke, only the blur of gases burning off.

Is charcoal from some woods more acidic? 

Yes, there is a recent categorizing called ‘fit for purpose’.  There are more non agricultural uses than agricultural uses. It can be used in building materials and obviously municipal bio-waste would be too contaminated to use for agricultural use. But it is another area for farms to make the most of, that their waste, could be fit for the purposes of water filtration and soil amendment. 

Also, one can check the pH of the soil and choose the pH of the biochar to add.

To what extent does biochar remove carbon from the atmosphere?

One study said half a giga tonne removed over a century but that was when they were only looking at it as a fertilizer.

Charcoal has an amazing structure which both retains the surface definitions of the plant it once was. In the burning process, it can bond to itself. It makes tetrahydral connections that make it ‘recalcitrant’ – i.e. refusing to be released back into the atmosphere. Safely stored, like in the bogs or in coal. 
Peat and coal were formed 360 million years ago, out of just plant matter mineralized and are understood now to be a carbon sump – safe storage for carbon, balancing out the increase in the atmosphere from industrialization.

The Cornell Study from 2010 says that actually bio char could remove 1.7 gigatons of carbon emissions from the atmosphere every year. At the moment there’s 417 parts per million in the atmosphere. Using biochar, that can be brought down to 370 per million. At this point, the ice can start to form again at the ice caps at the North and South poles – which will also correct the ozone holes there, where our atmosphere has been scattered and damaged.          

Non-Agricultural Uses for Biochar

Wider uses for biochar include strengthening cement and asphalt in roads – instead of bunker fuel and tar, used now. It is heat resistant and cold resistant. Massive amounts of roads are being built all the time, especially in China, where there is major infrastructure being put in but also closer to home. They found that if we get onto it, we could have the situation back in balance by 2050.

What can be used to make Biochar and why?

There is a risk of farmers wanting to grow crops specifically to make biochar but it is important that we don’t suddenly justify growing swathes of genetically modified Eucalyptus or other woods. It must be mixed age and mixed species. 
Most importantly, we should use waste products: Wood chip, woodland thinning, litter and bedding from animals. Also, wood furniture, cardboard, paper and all woody waste from the landfills.

In Tennessee the instructor was able to use the waste of two paper mills and chicken litter from a nearby farm. Large biochar operations are underway in Finland and Sweden that process all the municipal waste that is loosely made out of natural materials. Because of wood treatments and their contents, there is a risk of chemicals and heavy metal contamination so it will be important to keep that out of the food chain. However, it can be sequestered in roads and crumbling infrastructure. For example, in bridges with weakened columns, a carbon exoskeleton that won’t degrade at all can be wrapped around and it will not degrade at all. 

News flash: 20 minutes into the pit experiment. There is a clean burn now, no smoke. Always watch for ash as a litmus test. Keep fire on top of wood, not the other way around, as it will stop the oxygen getting to the carbon. The flame is tall.
25% of the weight of non-carbon material is left when finished.
50% is lost but would have been lost anyway.
60-85% carbon will be left. 
That could be as high as 90-95% in the efficiency of a retort (I think this is a sealed reactor). An effective way of gaining our climate goal.

We are starving the bottom of oxygen. You’ll see the gas escaping, not smoke. That’s good! 

In a sealed unit, the volatiles can be saved, stored and distilled for bio-oil, bio plastics and bio-sourced long chain hydrocarbons. Look up studies to understand more how this is harnessed carbon, like coal is not releasing, using or withdrawing carbon. It is safely stored. These are as good as fossil fuels.
We have an opportunity for a new industrial era.

Some countries are already using bio-vinegar, made this way, as a natural pesticide. Also fertilizer is often made from rice husk biochar. This must be in China where they only eat white, therefore de-husked, rice. We would have the same quantities of some other waste product, here.

A rotary kiln is needed to make electricity from the process. In these larger operations, the reactor is placed close to the waste product food shed, be it millet, sorgon by-product or another biomass.

Biochar as fertiliser

Biochar generates a 15% better yield and is one dollar cheaper. Furthermore, biochar is cumulative. It is feeding plants through the nemetodes. That biology starts a process so that after two years, there is no need to apply it anymore.

Worldwide, there are 200 biochar reactors, utilizing wood waste from municipal landfills.
Individual farms can make it out of any wood chip. 
It is very effective in compost toilets and will completely stop the smell of ammonia in any drains, animal barns etc.

Can it be used RAW? No.

We must apply the four M’s to charge the biochar.

1)    Moisten 

A study tried putting raw charcoal straight into soil but it simply drew out all the nutrients present into the pores of the charcoal and the plants wilted. Raw, it is hydrophobic, repels water. It is not good in soil at holding microbes. It has a micro pore structure. It is a carbon skeleton of the original plant. There are pores on the walls of the pores and pores on the walls of the pores. It is fractal!! Microbes stash in core structure – so suitable for compost toilet as absorbs nutrients in. But on the soil, it would absorb at the expense of everything else in the garden. However, real studies looked at biochar, moistened straight out of the fire – started possibly by the putting the fire out process – pouring water (or ideally urine!!) into the bottom of the pit. This activates an hdrophyllic effect – now sponge-like. It makes a time-release possible, in dry periods. Quench with slurry or cow urine, there is a 30% gain over a water quench.

2) Micronize

Ideally biochar will look like rice husks or chip or chips at first. It needs to be ground down into uniform size – the size an earthworm would digest, therefore a powder. 

If you are going to use the biochar to filter and clean water, the biochar should only be broken up to chunkier dimensions, like to the size of BBQ charcoals. A powder would clog up pipes.

3)  Microbialize

This is the adding of microbes. Vocashi is a sort of fermentation and is a fast composting system. Biochar is a coral reef for microbes. Thermophyllic compost, is what results. So, to charge the biochar, put it in the compost to absorb the microbes by filling in its pores.

4)  Mineralize

Microbes need food. Adding the biochar to a good compost pile will do it or add the particular mineral lacking.
After these four M’s: Moisten, Micronize, Microbialize and Mineralize, you have:
Charged Char.

Charging the Biochar: Do this conditioning. 

The expansion of the microbial profile, within one week, amounts to 1000s of DNA markers and each has their own function.

In the soil, the nemetodes tell about any nutrient deficiency in the roots, to the fungi that go off to find what’s needed.

If we are lacking these moderators, we can’t have a nutrient rich diet. Plant can’t get a good diet, then we can’t and animals can’t. It’s the efer generic board - I think this is an I-phone reference about unlocking your phone and a parallel situation in a crop's root system.

Compost toilet. 

Using biochar accelerates composting between 15% and 30%

For animals and fish.

It scavenges sulphur and nitrogen best, nitrous oxides. Nitrogen is needed for ammonia, so reduces smell completely. It is a natural deodorant. Added to a fish tank, it improves the cleanliness of the water. Also leads to a 1-2% weight increase in fish. Added to animal feed, there is greater efficiency, increased weight gain, 30% reduction in digestive gases and no need for animal antibiotics. The biochar takes the poisons out of the digestion, scavenging toxins.
There is an 80% elimination of greenhouse gases from compost – the lifecycle of compost was recently studied in Cuba.

Feeding biochar means that cow manure will already have biochar in it. Then the dung beetle does its thing where it makes balls out of the dung that reaches the roots and improves the soil and distribution of nutrients for you. It leads to nutrient density, a burst of greenery.   

News flash
The appearance of a blue flame tells us it’s ready. 

Make biochar in your home stove

What we have done in a fresh-dug pit can be done in a stove at home. Look up how to do it. I think it involves making a little tray with holes in it that you put in your twigs and again light from on top. This might take a bit more research on my part but it’s worth it as you can make a little for the compost or whatever at the same time as keeping your house warm.

We dragged all the charcoal out of the now wet pit. Pieces that weren’t burnt through, we put to one side. Ash obviously was left behind. If the black washes off your hands after your initial micronization of the charcoal, which it did on the day, then it’s clean. Otherwise, it has volatiles still entrained in it.

It needs to be further cleaned as a pre –inoculate for its next use or use for clearing drains.

Brilliantly, grey water, of which we have a bumper harvest still, thank God, in Ireland can be filtered and cleaned by passing it through carbon cascades!

It is literally photosynthesis going both ways. 

Can I just add that Albert used all my favourite words and concepts and that is how I know that using biochar would lead to a bright rejuvenated future.
Words, in particular included Toroidal, Tetrahedral, Fractal and Recalcitrant!

This course was held on the 12th August 2019 at the beautiful Highbank Organic Orchards, where delicious Apple Cider Vinegar, ciders, organic vodka, molasses and brandy are made - as well as what is known as vegan honey, their Apple syrup. Hosted by Rod and Julie Calderpotts. Organised by  Máire ní Bhraonáin and Brian Dillon and delivered by the brilliant Albert Bates, following his 10 day permaculture course at Cloughjordan eco village. All such inspirational people and those attending, many thanks to all!

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