All about the Carbon: Biochar

Thoughts on this article from Treehugger: : “Does Biochar live up to the hype?”

Video screen capture Growing Your Greens

If you haven’t heard, Biochar is the charcoal that results from burning cellulose like woods or other plant stalk materials in an environment without Oxygen. This kind of burning is called gasification, since, when heated, many of the more volatile compounds leave the wood structure as gases, leaving the skeleton-like Carbon structure behind. The black biochar remains can be combusted again, like charcoal, but that’s not what we’re interested in here.

There is a buzz about biochar being the answer to the CO2 sequestration woes of the modern world as well as the cure for degraded soils all over parts of the world that rely heavily on subsistence farming. That’s right, reduce C02 levels and feed the world, it’s not a hard sell…if it works.

The Biochar Buzz got started when some researchers found what is believed to be the remains of intentional human intervention in the Amazon Rainforest’s soils in the form of a layer of black, nutrient rich carbon material called Terra Preta. Terra preta is a richly fertile mixture of microorganisms, low temperature charcoal, possibly bone fragments, feces and other ingredients that really make how and why it was created rather mysterious. Since low temperature charcoal seems to be present in terra preta, the theory follows that adding enough low temperature charcoal, aka biochar, to your soil will yield the remarkably stable platform for nutrient exchange and microorganism wonders that is terra preta.

Well, that’s what the buzz is about anyway. In the years since this buzz has begun, people have come out on both sides, some saying that at best, biochar is hit or miss in effectiveness, others saying that it is truly miraculous.

I am intrigued by it, but have yet to dig up a 50 gallon steel drum to dedicate to my own gasification of cellulose materials.  Why not, you might ask? Well, the same decomposition process that takes place in a flash of smoke and gases during biochar creation is available to you, me and everyone else willing to wait on a compost pile or a good layer of sheet mulch. Will I have crystalline charcoal as a result of my compost? No, but I will have a good thick layer of organic material chock full of microorganisms that can help dynamically mitigate swings in soil pH and moisture while exchanging nutrients with my crops. Do I feel that something miraculous is happening in the soil. Yes, there is still magic in compost and nature’s patient decomposition, even if it’s not at Presto Change-o Internet Lightning speed like biochar.

What the buzz around biochar really shows me is a lack of belief in or understanding of the permaculture idea that the only true resource is a healthy system that contributes to the production of valuable thing like clean water or healthy food.

So, biochar is cool, the tinkerer in me wants to rig up a gasifying stove and try it out, but the sooner we accept that Mother Nature plays the long game, the better off we will be. And the best time to start a long journey like that is today.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

Until next time, keep growing, find your rough edges and plant something wild there.


Check out other defenders of the Soil in Dirt: The Movie


About ERay

Gardener, Educator and Designer, but a Cowboy way down deep. When I'm not covered in dirt and bits of vegetables, I'm learning to play the fiddle, training capoeira or BJJ, or working on my scifi novel or busy being the creator behind I grew up on a ranch and farm in New Mexico and have stayed in agriculture my whole life. I started teaching gardening as a bright-eyed Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador after college and I've been sharing agriculture as a way to help people improve their health, environment and quality of life ever since. Since then, I've studied permaculture, holistic management and more recently the Regrarian's design platform as ways to be a better student of and partner with the land. I believe deeply that nurturing a piece of land makes us better dreamers, warriors, lovers and human beings in general.
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3 Responses to All about the Carbon: Biochar

  1. Stevene says:

    The thing about using char that intrigues me most is the permanence. Assuming it lives up to some of the hype, which I’m convinced it will to at extent at least for some people on some soils, it possesses some distinct advantages. It seems to have many of the properties of organic matter, but on a permanent basis. I can see very few ways in which I can permanently improve pasture for instance, or almost any soil for that matter. If I abandoned my garden that I’ve put tons of stuff into for years, it would revert to meadow in a short space of time. There is a great account in this research piece I put together on charcoal use in Europe and America called “Comparative Merits of Charcoal and Barn-yard Manure as Fertilizers”. where this guy talks about two spots on his farm, one is an old barn site rich in manure, and the other was an old charcoal burning site. The Charcoal site was already decades old. The comparison over 28 years was that the barn site became homogenous with the rest of the site and couldn’t be spotted after a time, while the charcoal pits were very obviously more fertile than the surrounding land.

    There are few things we can do that affect soil fertility that much on a seemingly permanent basis. Compost is not the same at all. I think the fire is different. It is a different carbon product and has different attributes. Organic matter seems indispensable to a healthy soil, and while biochar is not, it can clearly be very useful at least in certain situations. We can make stuff grow like hell without it of course, but in the world of soil work, an input that can keep on giving to that extent is truly revolutionary. imagine a coppice system where the biomass is charred in simple pits over a decade or more to permanently improve the soil instead of mulching everything in an endless cycle of labor to keep the system functioning.

    I think it’s arrogant to be planning gigantic scale projects at this point when so many questions remain, or worse to think that we can geo-engineer the entire planet with biochar, or should. But the potential for permanent soil improvements is real enough as terra preta and the accounts I’ve dug up indicate from the 19th century indicate. I feel pretty confident that there are awesome applications awaiting us. Figuring out the when, where, how much etc… is going to take some time. Typically, it has been hyped beyond it’s known merits into a cure all savior for the planet. Anytime we encounter that kind of thing our bullshit detectors should sound the alarm. But that is no reason to reject the idea. We just need to look at the available information, try to view things for what they are and proceed to figure out the problem.


  2. Stevene says:

    Oh, and burning in pits shown in the video in the article you linked, or maybe similarly simple open burn techniques like burning ricks as Kelpie at Green Your Head is working with, is looking to me like a very accessible approach for homescale production. I’ve been scratching my head over how to make the stuff with all the random woody debris I have. After a few trial runs, I think the open pit is going to be a very relevant and accessible approach for a lot of people; mostly because it doesn’t require major reduction to the wood into small or uniform pieces, but also because there is no apparatus to Build or maintain. It also burns relatively clean in most cases, and doesn’t use extra fuel like a retort does.


  3. dilloncruz72 says:

    Thanks for checking out my blog. One of my permaculture teachers, Albert Bates, wrote a book about biochar.


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