Bioenergy issues overlap with biochar projects

My disagreement with Albert Bates at the Permaculture Convergence last year was his contention that biochar could be a solution to global warming if we just planted enough trees and cut them for biochar. That disagreement touched a range of issues:

  • Peak water – if we tried to grow trees in marginal or arid/semi arid lands as he suggested we would quickly run up against the problem of water. We are already on the limits of fresh water use, if we haven’t already overshot, where does the water come from and what are the opportunity costs?
  • Peak phosphorous (and in NZ trace elements such as boron, selenium etc) Again, we are reaching peak phosphorous without which growth will be much more limited than we would wish. Where do these critical minerals come from?
  • Peak Oil – given that we are demonstrably in a peak energy plateau with an unknowable time to fall-off, it is critical to ask what is the energy cost of converting all these marginal lands to biomass production? How much fuel will we have to burn to feed and water and house the workers who will do all the planting, the machines to transport the seedlings, the mulches to support the seedlings, the nurseries to produce them, the milling, chipping and transporting etc before the first gram of biochar hits the soil?

Because if we haven’t calculated ALL of that, and done so in a factual environment with good numbers for depletion rates and time scales, we could easily get part way through and find ourselves unable to complete the projects, effectively wasting all of the resources that go into them.

But now Rachel Smolker has added a piece that I did not think of at the time. Ecosystems and markets.

Those marginal lands are already filled with their own ecosystems; have we calculated the costs of converting thnem to biomass production and what sort of repalcements will we create? Will they be biodiverse enviromnents in a permaculture mould or will we be going flat out for carbon sequestration and create yet more monocultures designed to suck CO2?

But her main target is the problem of markets and their political power. IF biochar becomes either an enviromental necessity, or the big players can extract rents from their political cronies, we will see something similar to what is happening as described in Smolker’s document,

Bioenergy, a disaster for biodiversity,health and human rights.

Since humans first learned to manipulate fire, people have used local biomass—including wood, other plant matter, and dried animal dung—for heat and for cooking. Billions of people continue to do so. But now, in addition to these traditional uses there is an unprecedented push for large-scale industrial/commercial bioenergy.

This new trend includes refining plant materials (corn, wheat and other grains, sugarcane, soy and palm oil) to make liquid biofuels for transportation and burning plant materials (wood, agricultural residues, municipal waste, etc.) for heat and electricity. Less widely known is the development of plant-based petroleum substitutes for use in bioplastics, biochemicals, inks, fabrics, pharmaceuticals, and other products.

Proponents refer to a new “bioeconomy” featuring massive biorefineries that take in millions of tons of plant biomass and convert them into all manner of energy and materials.

But two important questions are often overlooked in the rush toward bioenergy: Where will all that plant biomass come from, and what will the consequences be on ecosystems, wildlife, agriculture, human rights, climate, water, and soil?

At the moment I am making char out of trees that have to come down both to protect my neighbour’s house and to open up the amount of light that falls across the middle of the block. The longer term aim to to significantly increase the total amount of biomass being generated by the property in the form of an edible forest and to use the prunings as the source of biochar, compost and firewood – including a woodlot.

I’m prepared to make a case that replacing old, slower growing trees with many more younger, faster-growing ones is possibly net carbon negative if the old trees are properly handled but we also acknowledge that the energy cost of managing the place chainsaws, mulchers, the tractor, WWOOFERS will leave us carbon positive for most of the rest of our lives.

We are doing this because, on balance, we believe that working towards a more sustainable future is better than doing nothing and that some kind of permaculture model is better than anything else we have seen and biochar is a part of that thinking..

I would be saddened to see the biochar revolution being co-opted into the mania for fuel production and contributing to raising the price of biomass and hence the temptation to continue eating the good stuff to make a financial profit.

Coal solution a burning issue

I’m not too sure about the title that the Nelson Mail came up with, but its great to see this article in the media. Lets hope its the start of many more. Thanks Don.

“In the first of a two-part series, Dr Don Graves profiles Biochar, a time-honoured method for improving soil fertility and mitigating climate change”

Biochar as a replacement for perlite in greenhouse soilless substrates

This is the title of a masters thesis by Jake Northup from Iowa State University that has been getting kudos from the international biochar community…

“… Many biochar-based substrates produced plants with shoot dry mass greater than or equal to the control. These results demonstrate the potential for biochar to replace perlite and eliminate the limestone amendment needed for commercial greenhouse soilless substrates based on sphagnum peat. Soilless substrates containing biochar as a replacement for perlite and limestone can successfully be used for greenhouse plant production.”

The full thesis can be accessed from here…

Switzerland: the first European country to officially approve biochar

Switzerland has become the first country in Europe to officially approve the use of certified biochar in agriculture, with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture issuing its approval on 23 April 2013. In it, the Delinat Institute is given responsibility for controlling biochar quality and the sustainability of its production.

SANTFA broad acre research on biochar

Thanks to Barry Batchelor for identifying this story on research under way by the South Australia No-Till Farmers Association. Note the much lower application rates that may better reflect the economics of biochar utilisation in broad acre applications.

Having Your Carbon & Eating it Too – October 13-16 at UMass Amherst

Erich Knight provides some great marketing for the upcoming USA biochar conference:

“This article omits the concomitant benefits of biochars for soil Carbon sequestration, building soil biodiversity & nitrogen efficiency, in situ remediation of toxic agents, and how modern thermal conversion systems are closed-loop, no significant emissions with a 1/3 carbon negative energy cycle, to focus on Biochar as a feed supplement cutting the Carbon Hoof, Paw, Fin and Poultry foot prints of livestock.

The number of ruminants now trampling planet Earth is beyond belief. Ruminants evolved about 50 million years ago, and by the year 1500 there were about 200 million on our planet. Now there are
2 billion, and only 75 million are wildlife! Each year we breed 64 billion livestock (mostly chickens),
that’s about 9 animals per person per year globally. Add to this another 600 million pets and mankind husbands a total of 2.5 Billion animals.

One accounting of the full life cycle analysis equates the Carbon-paw-print of a large dog to that of
a small SUV. A cow Carbon-hoof-print equates to a couple of big SUVs. The potential to slash these
climate costs by 1/3, or more, with such a small diet modification can not be ignored!

Carbon Fodder Reports
The first reports were from Dr Takeo Takahashi at the 2008 Asian Biochar conference, describing the
Japan Biochar Association’s work rejuvenating sick, assumed dead, battery raised chickens. The char-fed eggs had no odor and fetched twice the market price in Japan.
Read more here:

In aquaculture, a doubling in size of fish, clams & shrimp is reported by SuperStoneClean Biochar,
also in Japan [3]

Then from the EU, the Delinat Institute reports major health benefits in cattle & poultry, and have
quantified data collected from 80 farms. Tens of thousands of animals show far better feed conversion ratios, curing chronic botulism, extremely low bio-counts in milk and binding estrogenic steroid hormones in manure. Leave it to the Germans & Swiss to literally take the stink out of Manure. [4]

This hard data and all other aspects of Biochar soil technology will be presented October. 13-17, at
the University of Massachusetts, during the 2013 USBI North American Biochar Symposium

One of dozens of sessions at the symposium, the Biochar Novel Uses Session, will feature Hans-
Peter Schmidt from the Delinat Institute. He has consulted for the most renown viticulturist in
California. His work with “Carbon Fodder” in animal husbandry is unsurpassed, demonstrating efficacy to the Swiss authorities and leading to Switzerland becoming the second nation after Japan (in 1984) to officially recognize Biochar in 2013. Schmidt has helped several EU companies develop Carbon based dog, cat & cattle foods. He has pioneered integrated farm systems producing a continuous cascade of value enhancements. These include health gains and methane reductions from Char-based feeds, the reduction of GHG emissions, and the plant-available conservation of Nitrogen with Char and compost field applications.

At Delinat a “Building Division” is being developed to exploit Char use as a building material in bricks, wood siding finishes, and Char-Plasters for solid state humidity control. If high temperature Char is used…hold on to your hats!…..All cellphone signals are blocked!

Dr. Ron Leng published the first in vivo ruminant study. Previous work with char and rumin liquids showed promise in vitro, but in the cow he achieved a 20-40% reduction of methane belching and a 25% increase in weight gain – with a biochar feed supplement of just 0.6%. [5]

In the Student Union Ballroom of the Campus Center at UMass Amherst, the 2013 USBI North
American Biochar Symposium will host a Biochar Banquet. Various food stations will feature nutrient dense Biochar grown produce, cool carbon negative foods, like Charcoal Peanuts. Quite literally this conference covers Carbon-soup to nuts. This Carbon event has it all. Come learn with us how pyrolitic Carbon can save our soils while saving our climate…”!topic/se-biochar/naB4NB-2Fao

With regard to Erich’s Ref.No.[4], …

The use of biochar in cattle farming

by Achim Gerlach

“90% of the biochar produced in Europe is used in livestock farming. Whether mixed with feed, added to litter or used in the treatment of slurry, the positive effect of biochar very quickly becomes apparent. The health – and consequently the well-being – of the livestock improve within just a short space of time. As regards nasty smells and nutrient losses, the use of biochar could even herald a new age of livestock farming, closing agricultural cycles of organic matter.”

Summary and conclusions

“The use of biochar in livestock farming offers solutions to the increasingly complex problems of modern-day farming, the result of a combination of profit maximisation and disrespect for the physiological needs of the animals. The adsorption qualities of biochar permit a wide range of toxic substances to be bound in the gastrointestinal tract. They also lead to the detoxification of already resorbed toxins (in particular lipophilic toxins) in the plasma via “enteral dialysis”. The oxidation and deamination of biogenic amines also play a particularly stabilising role in the intestines. Dysbiosis can be very efficiently and positively influenced by biochar, and eubiosis can be maintained much longer despite environmental fluctuations in the digestive tract.
A clear separation of the impact in the pro- or metaphylactic field and the therapeutic approach is desirable in theory, though in practice these effects are overlapping. In cases of acute intoxication, the parallel administration of saline laxatives is recommended (Wiechowski 1914).
One current problem affecting Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony in particular is the high level of nitrate pollution in drinking water, the result of intensive farming. The scientific methods for reducing nitrates in the soil have been known for more than a century. Reductions can be achieved by the intelligent use of commercial fertilisers based on biochar. Reports in this area have been published by Sommer (2005). Similarly, the changed economic conditions under which farms operate mean that what is now needed is a re-assessment of certain practices from an epidemiological perspective. These include the disposal of placentas via the slurry system and the widespread use of bone meal as a fertiliser especially on account of increased maize production. One option available for minimising expected epidemiological and drinking water problems involves the inclusion of inert biochar in agricultural cycles of organic matter.
Also necessary are tests on the biochar used, making sure that it complies with the structural, chemical, physical and biological requirements of the European Biochar Certificate (EBC). This is the only way to achieve a transferability of the results gained in the use of different chars to other studies.

Achim Gerlach is a vet working for the Schleswig Holsteinschen Landkreis Dithmarschen and is probably the expert with the most experience in Europe on the administration of biochar in livestock feed. Should readers wish to directly contact the author, please just drop us a line.”

BlueLeaf Preliminary 2013 Biochar Field Trial Results – Small Fruit

Barry Husk from has posted to the biochar discussion groups as follows…

“Just a quick note to give some preliminary results, 1st harvests, from our 2013 biochar field trials on small fruit:


Patriot Highbush variety

5 replicate plots biochar and controls; 100 bushes

Biochar applied by slurry injection to root zone, early May 2013

Equivalent rate of 1 kg/m2, 10 T/ha.

1st harvest: fresh weight +11%, berry size +8% with biochar (p-values < 0.05)

2 harvests remaining


(day-neutral) Seascape variety

5 replicate plots biochar and controls; 15,500 plants total

Biochar applied with manure spreader, early May2013, incorporated with rotary harrow; mounded under plasticulture

Equivalent rate of 10 T/ha

1st harvest: fresh weight +13% with biochar and 3% less off-grade quality with biochar (p-values < 0.05)

Approx. 15 harvests remaining”

More information here…

Canadian farm trial of biochar

The Canadian Biochar Consortium have initiated a large-scale on-farm trial to determine the viability of different types of biochars for agriculture use.  Another focus, less relevant to New Zealand under the present political climate, is the use of biochar as a tool to mitigate the effects of climate change.  See the short article on

No further info at this time but this is a study that is worthy of our ongoing attention.

An update from Lloyd Helferty (Canadian Biochar Consortium) in response to questions about the trial’s duration and access to progress information:

Unfortunately right now we do not have a website [or database] set up. We are still in the early planning stages, and the website and Information Portal likely won’t be put together until we have actually secured the funding that we will be applying for in order to undertake these trials. (Note: It will likely take several months again after we apply for this funding before it is available for us to use in order to implement these sort of things, so don’t expect much in the next few months.) 
With regard to the length of the trials, we hope to run the trials for several years on each farm ~ ideally for up to 10 years, depending on the level of funding that we receive (which could be in the $ millions [?]… again, if we are able to secure the funding.) 
We do feel that we have a good chance of succeeding at securing this funding, however.

Deep soils store up to five times more carbon than first thought: study

“Deep soils store up to five times more carbon than is commonly reported, a new study by Murdoch University and Cranfield University in the UK has found.

Soil locks in greenhouse gases by storing carbon, making it a crucial player in the fight against global warming. Greenhouse gases are released when soils are exposed to air by farming, peat drainage and deforestation.

Current estimates of soil organic carbon are based largely on measurements to depths of 30 cm. This approach has evolved in North America and Europe, where soil is generally more shallow.” …

This is currently being discussed on the international biochar-policy group, latest comment here…

I found a nice back-ground document on soil carbon in NZ, Co/ Prof. Louis Schipper’s Waikato University page… scroll to…

“Soil Carbon and Nitrogen

If you are interested in learning about soil carbon or soil nitrogen, two non-technical articles published in the New Zealand Science Teacher can be found here – Soil carbon, Soil nitrogen.”

I’m not sure how old this article is… but it seems to imply that NZ soils under current farming practices are unlikely to become a useful carbon sink. Does this article need to be revisited with biochar application in mind?