Wednesday, April 16, 2008


The other night I watched Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures Return to the Amazon” on PBS. I was amazed to hear about “Terra Preta de Indio (Amazonian Dark Earths)” currently called biochar or agrichar.

According to Dr. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University Assistant Professor, Soil Fertility Management, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences:
"Soils with biochar additions are typically more fertile, produce more and better crops for a longer period of time."
From Cornell ChronicleOnline by Susan Lang (Dr. Lehmann) “shows how reproducing the Amazon's black soil could increase fertility and reduce global warming."

If biochar is some sort of miracle soil amendment, why have I never even heard of it? Have you?

Originally, Terra Preto was made by pre-Columbian Indians in the Amazon River Basin. Most information points to a society that burned trees to make room for agriculture then added agricultural waste, human and animal waste, broken pots and refuse in a sort of an agricultural garbage dump.

As I understand it, biochar can reduce the need for fertilizers, reduce greenhouse gasses. “Char-amended soils have shown 50 - 80 percent reductions in nitrous oxide emissions, increase crop yield as well as supply a renewable energy source" (International Biochar Initiative [IBI]). According to IBI, “The bio-char process . . . produces a combination of both bio-energy and carbon-sequestering fertilizer from agricultural waste, which results in a net reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.”

Today, biochar is manufactured by slow pyrolysis. According to Best Energies in their work on clean energy production:

“Slow pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen. The feed material is dried and fed into a stirred, heated kiln. As the material passes through the kiln, a combustible synthesis gas (syngas) is evolved and is continuously removed from the kiln. Approximately 35% by weight of the dry feed material is converted to a high-carbon char material that is collected on the discharge of the kiln.”

An easier to understand article was published September 1, 2007 Environmental Science & Technology published by the American Chemical Society:

"Pyrolysis, a technologically advanced form of smoldering, involves burning biomass under controlled, low-oxygen conditions. Small- and large-scale facilities work in various ways and yield a variety of energy products, including bio-oils and gases, with biochar as a byproduct."

OK, let’s just say heating in the absence of air.

There is definite interest in biochar research and production worldwide. The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) was formed in 2006. In 2007, IBI held a conference in Australia. It attracted science & business professionals from around the world. The 2008 conference will be held September 8-10, 2008 in the UK.

Democratic Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado introduced S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007. A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884: Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative for the 2007 Farm Bill is published here The bill will boost funding for biochar research.

There are many unanswered questions:

Who will conduct research into the possible negative environmental effects?

Who will regulate or measure manufacturing methods and quality (how)?

Will modern biochar be able to reproduce the sustainability of benefits to the soil that was established in pre-Columbian soils?

What system is best to mass produce biochar?

Will biochar contain enough inorganic ions, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, essential to plant growth?

What is the best raw material to use? How will it be collected?

Who will develop distribution machinery for farmers to use to spread biochar on crop fields? Will it be affordable?

There is a lot of work to be done but I suspect we’ll be hearing more about biochar in the future.



Anonymous said...

I hope you become as passionate as I have to spreading the news of the multiple solutions Terra Preta (TP)soils provides and post it to your cite.
I'm sort of a TP cub reporter for the list, most of my post are on news and collaborative efforts caught in my Google filters., my lobbying efforts with writers, companies, academics, journals or governments.

If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP web site I've been drafted to co-administer.

It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of EPRIDA , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and many others

Below is my current TP posting of News & Links which I promiscuously post to anyone who has an iron in this fire .


This technology represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.Terra Preta Soils a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 10X Lower CH4 & N2O soil GHG emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.

UN Climate Change Conference: Biochar present at the Bali Conference

SCIAM Article May 15 07;

After many years of reviewing solutions to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) I believe this technology can manage Carbon for the greatest collective benefit at the lowest economic price, on vast scales.

S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:

Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

for the 2007 Farm Bill

BIG Terra Preta Soil news;

Biopact, a leading bioenergy web site, has announced the creation of a "Biochar Fund" to help poor farmers improve their quality of life without hurting the environment.

Glomalin, the recently discovered soil protien, may be the secret to to TP soils productivity;

The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) conference held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. The papers from this conference are posted at their home page;

All the Biochar Companies and equipment manufactures I've found:

Carbon Diversion

Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns

BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis - Biomass - Clean Energy - Renewable Ene

Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy

Ensyn - Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals

Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste

Advanced BioRefinery Inc.

Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash

Genesis Industries, licensee of Eprida technology, provides carbon-negative EPRIDA energy machines at the same cost as going direct to Eprida. Our technical support staff also provide information to obtain the best use of biochar produced by the machine. Recent research has shown that EPRIDA charcoal (biochar) increases plant productivity as it sequesters carbon in soil, thus reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Jan said...

i have a quick question about the plant you posted at the beginning of this entry. i have one exactly like it and don't know the name of it. it's got the dark purple flowers and they start to get greyish about this time. can you tell me the name of the plant? i enjoyed visiting your blog!

Anonymous said...

The picture at the beginning of the Biochar post is Lenten Rose, 'Royal Heritage' (Helleborus orientalis). It blooms in late winter/early spring here. I planted this plant in 2002 in part shade and has never disappointed.

Thanks for your kind words.