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With a one-two punch aimed at reducing climate change and improving crop yields worldwide, re:char is turning agricultural waste into soil-improving biochar.
With a one-two punch aimed at reducing climate change and improving crop yields worldwide, the for-profit company re:char is turning agricultural waste into soil-improving biochar.
I spoke last week with re:char founder Jason Aramburu, a 2009 PopTech fellow, about how biochar works -- and how it succeeds in an ambitious double-barreled mission.
What is biochar and how do you make it?
Biochar is a carbon-negative soil amendment made from waste. It's produced through a process called pyrolysis. We produce it using specially-designed proprietary kilns that quickly heat biomass up to very high temperatures with no oxygen.
Why is biochar important? What does it do?
Biochar can be burned just like regular charcoal. In a place like Africa, that's a big deal. Beyond that, biochar is added to soil. It holds onto nutrients, water, microorganisms. It improves crop yield. Because it's made from decomposing waste that would otherwise go back into the atmosphere, when it's converted to charcoal we can sequester that carbon in the ground. We convert it into a form that will never decompose back into CO2.
What's the history of biochar?
It actually originates in the Amazon. About 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, farmers would make charcoal and bury it in the ground. They did this for the crop yield improvement. If you go to these sites today, you'll see that the charcoal is still intact in the ground and the soil is black. We call those terra preta. It means dark Earth.
Talk more about how biochar affects soil.
When you put the biochar in the soil, it's like putting a sponge in the soil. Biochar has very high surface area, so it soaks up everything around it. Traditionally when you fertilize or water your crops, you lose a lot of it. The fertilizer runs off or it doesn't get in the soil where it needs to be. With biochar we can actually capture more and hold it in the soil. We find that over time biochar also creates an ideal environment for microorganisms to live, things like fungi and bacteria. Those are crucial for plant growth and crop yield.
Do you sell biochar now?
We're developing equipment to make biochar. We have two systems. One is for the developed world. It's a product that will produce biochar continuously at high levels, along with liquid fuel. We're also producing a very low-cost product for the developing world. We're rolling that out in rural Kenya. That product will only produce biochar.
Talk about the liquid fuel that can be produced by the device for the developing world.
It's called bio-oil. It's a low-grade crude oil substitute. We can upgrade it to a point where it can run a diesel generator. It is primarily targeted for [operations with] a lot of biomass in a small area, so forestry operations or large farms, for instance.
How much can biochar improve crop yields?
There has been quite a bit of study on this. We find that in the U.S. and Canada, biochar can increase crop yields between 20 and 30 percent. In a place like Africa, we find it can actually improve crop yields by up to 200 percent. That's partially because they're starting with a lower baseline. Africa has some of the worst soil in the world.
How much do your products cost?
We're still fixing the price to the developed world system. That's a year or more away from launch. In the developing world, it's really interesting. Charcoal is big business in Africa. Up to 80 percent of people rely on it as a fuel source. The price of charcoal is highly volatile. It can be anywhere from 11 cents a kilo to 30 cents a kilo. We price the biochar according to what the going rate is for charcoal in a village. That ensures that people can afford it and can use it for whatever purpose they need.
What's the biggest challenge you're facing as a start-up? Is it funding?
With funding, we've been pretty fortunate. We just got a great grant from Echoing Green in New York. They've been supporting our work. It's getting on the ground and building the momentum around biochar that's been the real challenge. Everyone in the biochar community thought the Cap and Trade bill was going to happen and that would be a big boost for biochar. Then it didn't. Educating the public about it, that's been the real challenge.
What's your background?
I went to Princeton and I studied at the Carbon Mitigation Initiative. It's a think tank developing low-carbon energy technologies. I also did soil science work with the Smithsonian in Panama. I was working on soil science issues with small farmers there. I have this dual background that's ideal for biochar.
Aug 23, 2010
Thanks for jumping into the fray with us all! I ran across what seems to be a very comprehensive article about the details of biochar production: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v1/n5/full/ncomms1053.html It says that the devil's in the details, i.e. they outline a standard that they coin Maximum Sustainable Technical Potential (MSTB), i.e. no food for fuel, sustainable practices, capturing syn gas to recycle into the process, etc. How does your process stack up in terms of it being on the slow vs fast biochar continuum, with the slow biochar product being the desirable process?
?The Biochar Revolution? with ?The Biochar Solution? I want to call this book: ?All about Biochar? because ?The Biochar Revolution? collects the results and best practical advice that these entrepreneurs have to offer to the biochar community. http://biochar-books.com/ In the book you will read about the challenges of designing low-emissions biochar production systems from small-scale stoves to farm-scale pyrolyzers. Another section of the book is devoted to explaining simple tests to characterize biochar and methods for conducting valid field trials.
Ash, particularly hardwood ash, is a substitute for lime. New England's soils are acidic. Acidic soils keep nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in solution, resulting in washout and depletion of nutrients = low fertility. The addition of ashes, well mixed in the soil, raises soil pH, helping to retain nutrients and providing a more suitable environment for crops, which aren't especially well adapted to low pH levels. This is a little bit different from the action of bio-char, which is similar in some ways to activated charcoal. Bio-char has a lot of surface area and carbon tends to bind with a lot of other substances. It adsorbs and retains nutrients and water, helping to reduce the washout effect and dessication.
It sounds like biochar might be a good compliment to composting as it only holds nutrients since you still need a source of nutrients. I know here in New England early settlers were taught by the Indians to bury small fish and fire pit ash under seeds when planting in our rocky soil. I am sure the ash had charcoal in it.
Hi all, Jason Aramburu, founder of re:char, here. Thanks for the great commentary. To respond to the first post, I hate idiots too : ) That's why I love biochar. The pyrolysis process used to make biochar is actually self-sustaining. We combust the off-gases from the process to sustain the temperatures necessary for the reaction. It's incredibly efficient, and cheap. A farm-size biochar unit is orders of magnitude less than an equivalent anaerobic digestion unit. Also, the great part about biochar is that its effects are lasting. Whereas compost and chemical fertilizers must be reapplied annually and only offer diminishing returns over time, biochar need only be applied once. This offers huge cost advantages in places like East Africa. To the second point, I'm a trained soil scientist, and it's my belief that the presence of charcoal in soils is responsible for the high yields associated with Terra Preta. Virtually all indigenous American societies buried their midden (fish bones, pottery shards, kitchen waste etc). However, we only see significantly elevated crop yield effects in areas where charcoal was buried. I don't doubt that midden may increase pools of fast organic carbon, calcium and nitrogen, but these nutrients would not persist for thousands of years without some kind of absorptive matrix like charcoal.
It's hard for most to revere microbes and fungus, but from our toes to our gums (onward), their balanced ecology is our health. The greater earth and soils are just as dependent, at much longer time scales. Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel. Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent. Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon, Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar. Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle. Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw; "Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes; "Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !". Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar. Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come. Microbes like to sit down when they eat. By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life. ( These oxidised surface charges; carbonyl. hydroxyl, carboxylic acids, and lactones or quinones, have as well a role as signaling substances towards bacteria, fungi and plants.) This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it. Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web. The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet. Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure we need to build out.
Reverse-Geo-Engineering & Prayer It's a real shame that biochar is grouped with infrastructurally impossible "Geo-Engineering" schemes. I would much rather see it framed as it is in this PNAS report (by a Nobel lariat) which also supports Biochar systems sequestration potential; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Reducing abrupt climate change risk using the Montreal Protocol and other regulatory actions to complement cuts in CO2 emissions http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/10/09/0902568106.full.pdf+html Biochar is more reverse-Geo-Engineering. This is why Dr. W.Ruddiman's work at UVA, boldly showing the atmospheric hall marks of Combustion & Ag technology engineering over 10 millenniums need mitigation, with IMHO, biochar and land-management the perfect logical choice. Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle. Hopefully as more in-depth scrutiny and elucidation of biochar systems, relative to the other climate manipulations advanced, will bear out this truth that we just plan to but the carbon back where it came from. I feel Terra Preta soil technology is the greatest of Ironies since Tobacco. That is: an invention of pre-Columbian American culture, destroyed by western disease, may well be the savior of industrial western society. As inversely Tobacco, over time has gotten back at same society by killing more of us than the entire pre-Columbian population. WorldStoves in Haiti ; http://www.charcoalproject.org/2010/05/a-man-a-stove-a-mission/ and The Biochar Fund http://biocharfund.org/ deserves your attention and support. Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon NSF Awards $600K to BREAD: Biochar Inoculants for Enabling Smallholder Agriculture http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=0965336 NASA?s Space Archaeology; $364K Terra Preta Program http://archaeologyexcavations.blogspot.com/2010/08/time-traveling-via-satellite.html US -Focused Biochar report: Assessment of Biochar's Benefits for the USA http://www.biochar-us.org/pdf%20files/biochar_report_lowres.pdf The Terra Preta Prayer Our Carbon who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name By kingdom come, thy will be done, IN the Earth to make it Heaven. It will give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our atmospheric trespasses As we forgive those who trespass against the Kyoto protocols And lead us not into fossil fuel temptation, but deliver us from it's evil low as we walk through the valley of the shadow of Global Warming, I will feel no evil, your Bio-fuels and fertile microbes will comfort me, For thine is the fungal kingdom, and the microbe power, and the Sequestration Glory, For ever and ever (well at least 2000 years) AMEN Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left. Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it. Your Chartarian, Erich
Charcoal is far from "terra Preta 'which in Portuguese means" black earth ". Terra Preta soils have been created by people between 450 BC and 950 AD. It was hardly conscious. Charcoal mixed during these centuries of ceramic shards, organic matter such as crop residues, animal faeces, fish and bones of animals and other materials containing nutrients have a high microbial activity. Cultivating the only charcoal gives no vegetation. Charcoal has no organic structures and microorganisms that help plants to absorb nutrients. Nothing can grow in pure charcoal. Charcoal is produced by pyrolysis (expensive) that is a process in which a substance is heated in an oxygen-free environment, so that the decomposition takes place without combustion. It is a form of thermal decomposition / conversion and all living is injured / killed. The nitrogen and sulphur that are important plant nutrients became compounds that pollute. Thermal conversions break the food chain that is part of the life cycle. No food for soil microorganisms - no help to the plants take up nutrients - no growth.
What fuels the kilns? Are they run off natural gas like most industrial kilns? This biochar is not very eco friendly if the fuel for the kilns adds pollution to the atmosphere while making it. It?s not very efficient to burn fuel to make fuel. For a comparison. Well-mixed compost, using various sources of plant matter, is better for crops and you can capture the methane created from making it. We have a bio fuel generation plant in New Hampshire that uses cow manure to make methane to power gas turbines that run generators. The solid leftovers from the methane digester are mixed into organic plant compost to enhance it. Methane is also collected from the compost production. A $300,000 loan to build the plant has made the farm energy independent and gives it an income source as extra power is sold to the grid. They also make money from selling the compost and save money on fertilizer by using some of the compost on their fields. I would say it is a much better alternative for the farmer than this biochar that puts a ton of money in one companys wallet.