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Saved by Philip Small
on May 21, 2008 at 4:06:58 pm
 

Welcome to the Gardening with Biochar FAQ!

... a work in progress...

 

1.0 What is Biochar?

Biochar is charcoal formed by low temperature (350 to 450 deg C) pyrolysis.  Ideally it is made in a way that achieves maximal woodgas condensate retention.  Additionally, it can be infused with nutrient byproducts, such as nitrogen [and calcium? fact check needed] as achieved by EPRIDA.

1.01 How does biochar relate to agrichar and to Terra Preta?

Agrichar is a synonym for biochar. This material was fundamental to the creation of Terra Preta de Indio, as it is to creating its modern equivalent, Terra Preta Nova. Terra Preta "Classic" was made by adding charcoal, broken pottery shards along with the organic fertilizer amendments. This, in conjunction with the microbial ecology occurring in these soils, resulted in an incredibly rich soil, and a reputation for self-regeneration.

1.02 What is pyrolysis?

Pyrolysis is partial combustion due to restricted oxygen.  This releases heat energy and yields combustable gases (aka syngas, wood gas, and producer gas) and charcoal.  The charcoal produced is a combination of black carbon, along with small amount of condensate and ash.

1.03 Can I substitute other forms of charcoal for biochar?

Yes, up to a point. The woodgas condensates in biochar give it considerable value, but that is not to imply that using simple charcoal, or charcoal made from other than plant materials, won't produce some, and even most, of the same benefits.  It is normally adviseable to avoid charcoal briquetttes because the binders used during manufacture can add undesireable constituents.

1.04 Is biochar made from hardwood best?

Maybe. Up to a year or two ago,  the community of Terra Preta enthusiasts seemed convinced that hardwood charcoal was the best, even necessary.  Not so much anymore.

1.05 Where can I join with this community of Terra Preta enthusiasts?

  1. Bioenergy lists: Terra Preta: the intentional use of charcoal in soils.
  2. Hypography Science Forums: Terra Preta

1.06

2.0 How do I Get Biochar?

You can purchase biochar, purchase a charcoal substitute, or you can make it yourself.

2.1 Where can I purchase Biochar?

Currently manufactured biochar is in short supply and is needed for research projects. The alternative is to purchase charcoal and use it as a biochar substitute.  Cowboy brand hardwood charcoal is available in the United States in 8.8 and 20 pound bags by the pallet, about 400 pounds, Cowboy brand hardwood charcoal is available in the United States for about 70 cents per pound.  For larger amounts, as in a shipping container, consider coconut shell charcoal. Worth repeating: It is normally advisable to avoid charcoal briquettes because the binders used during manufacture can add undesirable constituents.

 

2.2 How do I make Biochar...?

Home pyrolysis is pretty easy to accomplish.  You can use either a kiln approach, whereby the air is restricted at the end of the burn, or in a retort process, whereby air supply is restricted to the target feed stock for the duration of the burn. In neighborhoods where smoke generation is a no-no, it is critically important to use dry materials to minimize smoke and a kiln/retort configuration that allows for complete combustion of the flue gases.

2.2.01 ... on a small scale?

2.2.02 ... on  moderate scale?

2.2.03 ... on a large scale?

2.2.04 What can I burn to make biochar?

Any reasonably dry and clean burnable feedstock will work.  Woody plant material is the primary candidate.  Bones are also a traditional component in Terra Preta, but one we don't know as much about.  Other materials can be used conditionally.

2.2.05 What do I need to consider in making biochar from other than woody plant materials?

The two considerations are, what additional contaminants are being carried off as pyrolysis gas during the burn, and what contaminants are present in the ash component of the charcoal produced.

2.2.06 How much yield can I expect?

About 20 to 60 percent yield is a normal range.

2.2.07 What refractory materials can I use to make a kiln? a retort?

2.2.08 What gases does pyrolysis produce?

2.2.09 How much heat does pyrolysis produce?

2.2.10

2.3 What do I do if I make more biochar than I can use?

Craigslist.

3.0 How do I prepare the biochar once I've made it?

You can use it as is, especially if it is a small amount. For larger amounts, the chaices are to crush, screen, add liquids, add dry materials, and to compost it.

3.01 Why would I need to prepare the biochar, as opposed to applying it as is?

3.02 Do I need to crush and screen the biochar?

Maybe.

3.03 What are some ways to crush and screen Biochar?

For crushing, I am leaning to a mortor and pestle approach: a 5 cm dia hardwood trunk 2 m long and a 20 liter bucket with a plywood insert in the bottom.

For screening, I think a sloped screen works better than a horizontal screen for higher volumes.

3.04 What can I do to make the biochar easier to crush?

Wetting and drying it seems to help.  Crushing it with a little moisture in it helps to control dust.

3.05 Besides water, what eelse can I soak the biochar in?

Yes.  Compost tea, MiracleGro (TM), urine,  ....

3.06 Can I add biochar to compost?

Yes. This will help temper the biochar. For the added benefit of odor control, consider topping off each additin to the household kitchen scrap collector with a healthy layer of biochar.

3.07 Will biochar affect the compost process?

Anecdotal accounts indicate that it will accelerate the composting process.

3.05  Will biochar harm the worms in my compost?

Anecdotal accounts indicate that worms tolerate up to xx% charcoal, above which reduced worm activity can occur.

3.08  Can I use biochar in my composting toilet?

Yes. Again, the added benefit of odor control is compelling.

3.09 

4.0 How do I apply Biochar?

4.01 What materials combine well with biochar for application?

4.02 Can I bury it deep?

4.03 Can I mix it within the root zone?

4.04 Can I use it for mulch?

4.05

5.0 What happens after I apply biochar?

5.02 Does biochar affect soil pH?

5.03 Does biochar improve plant growth?

5.04 Does biochar affect soil vitality?

5.05 How much improved plant growth can I expect?

5.06 How much carbon dioxide does sequestered biochar offset?

5.07 How much nitrous oxide formation does biochar prevent?

Soil scientist Lucas Van Zweiten has observed a 5 to 10 fold reduction in nitrous oxide emmissions with some of the biochars he is working with in an agricultural setting. Generally, soil with elevated soil nitrate levels in the presence of sufficient moisture and robust soil organic matter will have higher nitrous oxide production, and thus will be more likely to benefit at the levels observed by Van Zweiten.

5.08

 

 

 

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