the Biochar Journal – topics for 2014/15

With the following list we want to introduce you to a selection of our upcoming articles. Please tell us what topics would have priority for you. There will be more topics depending on propositions of our authors.

 1. Biochar & compost: How to produce Terra Preta-like substrates

Biochar is not a fertilizer but rather a nutrient carrier and a potent matrix for energetic exchange between microorganisms and between microorganisms and plants. If production fresh biochar is incorporated without activation into the soil, its high adsorption capacity will result in the absorption and fixing of available nutrients. This may lead to inhibition of plant growth, at least in the beginning, depending on the soil’s nutrient, water, oxygen and clay content. To efficiently utilize its soil-enhancing properties, biochar needs to be charged with nutrients and with substances providing high redox potentials. There are numerous methods of activating and producing substrates similar to Terra Preta or carbon based fertilizers.
There are many different viable processes in charging and aging biochar. These methods have to be adjusted and customized depending on location, culture, climate, available nutrients and existing techniques. Many of these procedures have evolved over time or in accordance with good agricultural practice.

2. Cow Tonics and Colitus: A history of charcoal consumption by animals and people.

Biochar or charcoal has a long history of medical use in both people and animals, primarily as a poison control and to cure a variety of digestive upsets. The first written accounts of charcoal as medicine are found in Egyptian papyri dating to around 1500 BC.  Closer to the present, 19th century and early 20th century agricultural journals discuss the benefits of various "cow tonics," mostly composed of charcoal and a variety of other ingredients that could be called spices, such as cayenne pepper, but also including digestive bitters like gentian. Manufacturers of these charcoal containing tonics claimed they would reduce digestive disorders, increase appetite and improve milk production. This article documents many historical examples of charcoal in food and feed. It also briefly examines the potential for solving modern livestock raising problems through the use of charcoal feed.

3. The cascading use of biochar in animal farming

At present some 90% of the biochar used in Europe goes first into animal farming and only post-consumption does it become a soil amendment. Whether used in feeding, litter or in slurry treatment, a farmer will quickly notice less smell. Used as a feed supplement, the incidence of diarrhea rapidly decreases, feed intake is improved, allergies disappear, and animals become calmer. While passing through the digestion system the biochar gets charged with plant nutrients. Bound to the biochar surfaces and pores, these nutrients tend less to be lost through leaching or by gaseous emissions helping thus to improve agronomic nutrient cycles and reduce the pressure on the ecosystem.
Exciting new results and practical experience from using biochar in animal farming all over the world will be presented and discussed. Feeding livestock with biochar at rates of 1% of their daily feed intake could reduce 1 to 5% of the GHG-emissions worldwide, reduce contamination of soil with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory, pesticides and other toxic substances found in animal manure.

4. Latest advances in TLUD technology for combined heat and biochar

The Top Lit Up Draft (TLUD) stove is undergoing rapid development on several fronts as an accessible technology for combined heat and biochar production for resource poor farmers in all economies. TLUD cookstoves that make biochar are also being developed for urban and peri-urban dwellers in less developed countries. This article gives an overview of the topic and an update from the Aprovecho Research Center in Oregon, USA, where a number of stove developers recently came together to test stove performance and emissions. In addition to small stoves for cooking, we also look at TLUDs that are oil drum size and larger for volume biochar production on small farms, and summarize important design principles for efficiency and low emissions. We also look at feedstocks and feedstock preparation.

5. Biochar Feed Additives

Charcoal is probably the oldest and most efficient remedy in the history of animal farming. Somewhat forgotten over the last 50 years, it has been rediscovered thanks to modern biochar research. The use of biochar as a feed additive has a number of beneficial effects for both animals and the entire livestock eco-system: improved animal health, nutrient management and feed efficiency as well as the reduction of manure related odors.  Learn how these positive impacts can improve the triple bottom line for dairy, beef, hog and poultry farmers.

6. Biochar application in Vineyards

Viticulture became the pioneering type of agriculture for biochar research in Europe with first field trials dating back to 2007. Since then biochar has been applied to several large-scale vineyards across Europe, California and Australia. After the first field experiments at the Ithaka Institute expectations were high. Latest results may confirm these expectations in part but also show that the right application technique, the use of properly designed biochar and nutrient enhancement aimed at the particular conditions of a given vineyard are of paramount importance. Especially in extremely dry, irrigated vineyards or in vineyards with long periods of drought alternating with strong rain events, enhanced biochar substrates can provide substantial benefits to wine quality.

7. How does biochar function in compost?

This article reviews recent scientific literature on the impact of biochar on compost physicochemical and biological processes. When used as a bulking agent, biochar can impact pH, aeration, moisture content, temperature, bulk density, pile volume, adsorptivity and surface area. Changes in these parameters in turn affect the proliferation and composition of microbial communities and the quality of the finished compost as well as emissions of greenhouse gases and offensive odors. Compost emissions are not only problematic from an environmental point of view; they result in nutrient losses and poor compost quality. Composting also changes the properties of biochar, increasing surface activity and charging it with nutrients and biology. Results from several studies show that composting with biochar produces better, more mature compost that boosts plant growth as compared to biochar mixed with finished compost.

8. Characterization & special chars for special uses

Biochar is a highly heterogeneous material. Due to the natural diversity in the structure and composition of the feedstock used to produce it and due to the extremely high reactivity in the pyrolysis chamber at high temperature under reduced oxygen, every biochar is unique. The more heterogeneous the material, the more challenging is its analytical characterization and subsequent classification according to its properties.
The cheapest and most widespread characterization technique is to test by smelling, tasting and crushing biochar between two fingers. At a minimum this is quite a reliable test for possible toxicity on plant-soil systems. Much more sophisticated are biochar certification systems like those from the EBC and IBI where some 25 analytical parameters and general regulations of its production are analyzed. These analytical parameters provide definitions for general properties of a given biochar and help determine the most appropriate end uses for specific biochars. Highly scientific analyses investigating biochar nanostructure help to understand the general function of biochar. However, this level of understanding is only in the beginning stages and still very tentative.
The improved understanding of analytical parameters of biochar and their link to biochar classification-categories opens more and more possibilities to produce special biochars for special purposes. To select the feedstock and especially to blend it with different biomass and minerals in form of clay, rock powder or special mineral constituents can provide to biochar a wide spectrum of properties and thus of uses for varying objectives be it for animal feed, as carrier for fertilizers and/or microbes, as building material or as semi conductor for the electronic industry. A wide range of activation technologies like acid or hot water vapor activation, pre-pyrolysis treatments like coating or acidification, post-pyrolysis treatments like nutrient charging or inoculation are available to further design properties of biochar. All these biochar techniques make plain use of biochar properties to profit the best from the heterogeneity of this natural material rich in functionality and key to the development of the new bio based economy.     

9. Biochar and Biostimulants: Two emerging industries intersect

Biostimulants are defined as substances, including microorganisms, that are applied to plant, seed, soil or other growing media that may enhance the plant's ability to assimilate applied nutrients, or provide benefits to plant development. An emerging industry is developing and marketing biostimulants such as humic acid and microbial inoculants. Is biochar a biostimulant? Biochar certainly enhances the action of biostimulants, so it could make sense to explore synergies between the biochar and biostimulants industries.  We examine the marketing strategies, policy objectives and regulatory initiatives that the industries have in common. We interview industry leaders in both biostimulants and biochar to get their ideas about the important intersections that could help both industries realize the ambition of making agriculture more sustainable and resilient.

10. Photosynthesize – Carbonize: The Reforestation of Deserts

Biochar can store carbon for centuries but to extract the CO2 from the atmosphere, plants are needed. To produce sufficient biochar to eventually replace fossil carbon, the planet needs more biomass to transform solar energy into molecular energy. To produce more biomass, biochar substrates will help to make degraded land more fertile and to effectively kickstart the planet’s photosynthetic motor. Only the reforestation of deserts, prairies and contaminated land will bring the necessary change to increase the natural productivity of the biosphere, to store the energy of the sunlight, to reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, to temper the climate, to store and circulate green water and to foster the resilience of ecosystems through increased biodiversity.
Biochar is one part of a global systemic solution to increase the energy flow and efficiency of the terrestrial eco system. Water, biomass, humus, biochar and biodiversity are the intrinsically connected key agents of the living system and have to be addressed together for the sustainable future of the civilization and the future bio based economy.
Harvesting dew and rain to irrigate new trees planted on biochar substrates in the desert, inducing via the trees' evaporation, fresh humid air from the oceans, stimulating more dew and new rain events, producing more water for irrigation of more trees planted on substrates made from the grown biomass, and eventually growing wood for construction, producing biochar for consumer goods, creating wild life habitats, replenishing ground water, storing carbon in the soil, protecting the land from climate extremes.
Biochar can serve to catalyze this process if the whole strategy is properly guided and realized by a thoughtful, holistic vision based on the understanding and respect of natural processes. 

11. Biochar compost in Ghana from 0 to 300% yield increase in 3 years

Ghana is one of the African countries where charcoal is still part of daily life. It was easy therefore for Felix Jenny in 2010 to get enough good biochar to set-up the first field trials in different places around the country. Interestingly the results were decidedly good in poorer interior soils (+ 50%), while they were disappointing in the more fertile coastal areas where yields decreased by more than 10%. Undeterred in his hopes to build-up fertility in African soils, Felix started in 2011 to mix biochar with organics and to co-compost it. That same year he doubled yield in poorer soils of the South and even more importantly, he increased yields in fertile soils of the North by 80%. Since then Felix and his team have optimized the recipe of the compost and its technique of preparation improving the yields of 2013 by 300% compared to the control. The message is spreading and biochar-compost is becoming a highly valued business in Ghana.
Critics used to say that even at 300% yield increase, yields are lower than in American intensive agriculture. While that may be true, a 300% increase means three times more people will stop suffering from hunger.

12. Biochar and sanitation - a survey of techniques from buckets to public toilets

An estimated 40% of the world’s population has no access to appropriate sanitation. And in modern economies, sewage treatment systems, while sanitary, are wasteful of nutrients and resources. Several institutions have gotten involved in developing toilets and urinals that utilize biochar for odor and pathogen control, while producing a valuable fertilizer for agriculture. Some have found that lactic acid fermentation is a useful addition that can kill most bacterial pathogens, and vermicomposting can kill eggs and cysts. This article is a summary of these development efforts with a discussion of practical systems at small and large scale that could work in developing countries or in modern economies.

13. A Systems Thinking Approach to Disaster Recovery with Biochar

Like it or not natural disasters are happening with increased frequency and ferocity, leading to enormous amounts of debris.  Biochar made from disaster debris provides a holistic debris management plan that can reduce costs and improve resiliency after natural disasters.  In addition to the ability to provide heat for cooking and in some cases, electricity generation during biochar production, the biochar can be used to create a variety of products which will help get communities back on their feet, including: water filtration & waste treatment devices, emergency medical treatments, soil remediation amendments, and even building materials which could stave off mold growth on buildings which have suffered water damage. 
COMMENT: The subject will be developed in a series of articles covering: debris management, potential uses for biochar post-disaster, developing world scenarios, urban vs. rural scenarios, and appropriate technologies.

14. Odor Control & Biochar (industry, animal farming, household, smoking lounges)

Managing odors often comes with high costs and lots of chemicals.  Biochar offers a healthier and potentially less costly alternative.  Large scale farming, waste water treatment and landfills are often the biggest culprits, but homes, restaurants and other small scale odor offenders abound. Odors from off-gassing, decomposition and biological activity often go beyond being a nuisance to local communities and can cause potential health & wellness risks.
The specific application of biochar could not only reduce odors in most cases, but can help turn odor-causing wastes into valuable resources. When used to prevent putrefaction and to adsorb odor causing volatiles like ammonia, biochar is transformed into a highly effective organic fertilizer.

15. Can we manage forest fire with biochar?

Biochar is a natural component of forest soils that supports mycorrhizal fungi and helps with nutrient cycling. In the forests of western North America, we find that past forest fires deposited charcoal in the soil, but in the modern era of fire suppression, these inputs have been reduced and forest soils are now becoming depleted of this carbon source. As forests regrow, they must be thinned to reduce fire danger from fuel buildup. Standard practice is to cut, pile and burn this material. A new initiative is experimenting with open burn techniques that reduce smoke emissions and produce biochar that can be left in place for soil regeneration, or removed and sold, enhancing community economic development. This article describes the technique and how it can be used for ecological and economic benefit. We also look at traditional “cool burning,” as was historically practiced by Native Americans, as another way to maximize the creation of soil charcoal.

16. Biochar and vermiculture - What happens with biochar inside a worm?

Very little research has been done with worms and biochar, yet the “worm avoidance test” has been proposed as a way to distinguish clean biochar from material that may be contaminated with toxic substances. This article reviews the existing research literature on worms and biochar, and interviews small farmers who incorporate both biochar and vermicompost in their practices. Questions that need to be answered include:  Do worms ingest biochar? If so, how does it affect them? How does biochar change the vermicompost environment? How much biochar is useful to add? How does particle size affect worms? Which biochar characteristics have the greatest impact on worms? What can we learn from the worm avoidance test?

17. Biochar contaminants – dangerous or not? (PAH, dioxins, heavy metals)

Biochar is a highly heterogeneous material that contains more than 2000 compounds.  To date no one has analyzed all of the compounds that can be found in or on biochar. By millennial experience we know that most if not nearly all of these organic compounds are not hazardous, are biodegradable and in most cases beneficial for living systems like soils or digestive organs. However, there are some substances produced during pyrolysis of certain feedstocks that are known to be toxic for humans, for plants, and microbes at least when available in considerable amounts and concentrations. Most importantly these are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), dioxins, furans, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and a whole range of heavy metals. Just the names seems scary and it is worth looking a bit closer at how the are produced during pyrolysis and in what quantities, how dangerous they are, what are reasonable thresholds, how it can be controlled and what can be done to reduce concentration in biochar to levels that are considered harmless.
Biochar is the world’s best performing adsorbent for a wide variety of organic compounds. It is hard to imagine anything better than biochar being used to decontaminate soils, liquids or gases containing the above mentioned organic toxins and the risk of contaminating any substance with biochar is extremely low. However, it is possible today to produce biochar with clean pyrolysis technologies (low and high tech!) that can guarantee contaminant free biochar, and it’s our duty to do so.      

18. How to improve anaerobic digestion with biochar amendments and pyrolytic oils

To complement solar and wind energy, anaerobic digestion of biomass producing storable methane is an increasingly interesting technology. However, the carbon efficiency of anaerobic digestion is only 60%. Even if the digestate containing the carbon leftovers is brought back to the fields, a huge portion of the carbon is simply lost to the atmosphere.
Combining anaerobic digestion with pyrolysis and using biochar to optimize the different phases of digestion could improve the carbon efficiency to up to 95%.
Following a liquid-solid separation of the digestate and the blending with some dryer biomass such as wheat husks, the lignin rich digestate can be pyrolyzed producing high quality biochar, pyrolytic oil and syngas. The syngas can be used to maintain the pyrolytic process, the pyrolytic oil can be injected into the digester and be very efficiently digested into biogas while biochar becomes a highly appreciated raw product.
Using the biochar further as a silage additive and as an additive for the digestion process, both gas quality and gas yield can be improved. With biochar in the slurry storage tank, methane and ammonia losses can be reduced while improving the fertilizing quality of the liquid slurry. The overall climate balance of the anaerobic digestion with pyrolysis becomes thus highly positive and economically viable (without subsidies).

19. Filtration & Waste Water Treatment

The need to produce clean water economically is increasingly challenging.  Biochar is one of the few low-tech options that can effectively filter water at a reasonable cost.  It can also be locally made from renewable materials which is critical to communities in the developing world.  Farmers and food & beverage manufacturers could also create their own biochar and use it in their filtration processes.  Unlike current processes, using biochar in these environments would provide an enriched byproduct which could be sold versus having a waste stream which often can involve disposal costs.

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