Posts tagged biochar

Employing aliens to capture carbon

By Kobus Venter

(Extracted from a Green Times article published on 20 February, 2014: http://thegreentimes.co.za/employing-aliens-to-fight-carbon/)

Imagine turning thirsty alien invasive trees into biochar.  Biochar is charcoal created by pyrolysis of biomass. This differs from charcoal only in the sense that its primary use is not for fuel, but for biosequestration or atmospheric carbon capture. If created under specific conditions it can also be suitable as a soil amendment.

The beginnings of biochar

The first attempts at making large volumes of charcoal in ancient times had little to do with creating fuel and more with increasing the fertility of the soil. These soils are known as terra-preta soils, which are fertile, black charcoal-rich soil found in scattered tracts throughout the Amazon basin, dating back 450 to 8,000 B.C.

In the humid tropics most of the nutrients remain in the plant growth. The little organic matter that does reach the forest floor decomposes rapidly. Combined with high rainfall means that most nutrients leache away into the soil unutilised. The terra-preta charcoal, called biochar, attracts certain fungi and microorganisms and allow the charcoal to absorb and retain nutrients that keep the soil fertile for hundreds of years.

micropore structure charcoal biochar

The basis of all charcoal and biochar production is pyrolysis: essentially, breaking wood down into its chemical constituents by heat, with little or no oxygen. Today, popular methods of producing biochar include Top-down open burns, so-called TLUD (Top-lit updraft gasifiers) designs and Closed retorts (whereby feedstock is contained and heated within an enclosed chamber).

The quality of biochar can be informally determined by feel: Good biochar is light and rigid but easily crushed, finely grained, not greasy to the touch, washes off with plain water and lastly has a characteristic metallic ring to it when dropped.

Biochar has a high carbon content (typically over 80%) and adsorption capacity which is a function of the internal surface area. The greater the surface area the higher the absorption capacity and the better biochar will retain moisture and soluble organic matter. Activated carbon however does not make good biochar.

3-drum Biochar Retort

Vuthisa Technologies have developed a retort called the ‘3-drum Biochar Retort’ to make large quantities of biochar in batch type burns. The system comprises of an outer drum containing three 210 L oil drums, serving as the retorts, based on their Trans-Portable Kiln technology.

Lower quality feedstock is loaded into the outer drum and lit. This heat is transferred to the contents of the retorts until carbonised.

Click to play animation

Carbon capture

In a world dependent on fossil energy, it is easy to see the carbon capture benefits of biochar as offsets against current and future fossil fuel emissions. Many scientists believe there is already an unsafe excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this obligates the nations that caused the excess to abate it.

Charcoal has the potential to sequester gigatonnes of atmospheric carbon per annum, making it the most potent engine of atmospheric cleansing we possess. Approximately 8 percent of all atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by plants each year. If just a small proportion of the carbon captured by plants can be pyrolysed and transformed into charcoal, humanity’s prospects will be much brighter, for this will buy us time as we struggle to make the transition to a low emissions economy.

Anything from 3 to 9 tons per hectare of biochar (crushed into a powder form) can be mixed into the soil. Typically the biochar is first inoculated and conditioned with soil microbes and usually first mixed with compost before being placed into the soil.

Benefits of adding biochar to soil

As a soil additive, biochar ground down into powder form and mixed with compost offers numerous potential benefits:

  • Unlike fertilizers, biochar has an extremely long life in soils and is not susceptible to biological decay.
  • Biochar attracts microbes and beneficial fungi (such as mycorrhizae) and holds on to nutrients that are put into the soil.
  • Biochar helps conserve nutrients by storing them within its matrix, making the nutrients available when the crop needs them.
  • Clayey and poorly aggregated soils become less compacted and provide better aeration.
  • Sandy soils acquire additional bulk moisture storage capacity.

Feedstock

The first step in ensuring the successful implementation of the ‘Vuthisa Biochar Initiative’ was to secure the feedstock for the charcoal kilns. Vuthisa Technologies secured a tender from the Government’s Natural Resource Management Programme (NRM), Land User Incentive (LUI) initiative to eradicate Invasive Alien Plant Species (IAPs) within the Sisonke District Municipality, encompassing some 10,000 km2 from Underberg/Ixopo to Kokstad.

The harvesting contract commenced on 1 December 2013 and expires on 31 March, 2016 and in this time period 580 ha of invasive plant species will be harvested and the stumps treated to prevent re-emergence.

Aiming for 25% conversion efficiency

The first goal of the ‘Vuthisa Biochar Initiative’ is to achieve a minimum of 25% wood to biochar conversion efficiency. Current efficiencies of conventional charcoal producing kilns are less than 15%. Using more efficient methods to produce charcoal has the potential to save approximately 100 MtCO2 per year in Sub-Saharan Africa (see here for more information).

As the plant matter decomposes or ferments, predominantly methane gas is released. Venting un-burnt methane into the atmosphere contributes 26 more times to the Greenhouse effect than CO2 alone.  To avoid this Vuthisa will utilise this gas to provide the heat into the retorts and to maintain the biochar forming process within the retorts. They plan to produce 150 tons of Biochar in the next two years and envisage that 20% of this will be bought by fertiliser companies. This could result in at least 30 tons of carbon being sequestered back into the soil.

It is hoped that this project will show at demonstration level that it is profitable to make biochar from forest waste and that it is a viable product.  Other goals include securing additional funding to start biochar trials and fully investigate the agri-commercial development of biochar products for use by subsistence farmers.

A little help from our friends

Vuthisa Technologies secured funding from the Energy and Environment Partnership, Southern and East Africa (EEP-S&EA), sponsored by the Ministry of Finland to start their demonstration project using their internally developed biochar kilns. The project will be implemented over a 20-month period. Now the dilemma is that they have to raise 50% of the capital for the venture, which up to this point has been self-funded.

If you are keen to support, please go here.

Broadly stated the needs list includes:

  1. Hippo Water Rollers and Portable Toilets
  2. Cooking Stoves
  3. Protective Clothing
  4. Tools & Equipment
  5. Biochar Kilns (pictured below)
  6. Environmental Impact Assessment consultancy cost
  7. For the full list, please click here.

3-DrumRetort_inset

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The Vuthisa Biochar Initiative

By Kobus Venter

Welcome to the ‘Vuthisa Biochar Initiative’ blog page. On this page you will learn more about our project and what we hope to achieve. The project officially kicked off in December 2013.

The project actually has many outcomes, but the primary goals are:

Create Employment – Up to 30 workers will be employed in year one. Unemployment is rife (>50%) in the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal especially with a minimum wage now being introduced for farm workers. The feedstock for the Biochar project will be secured by ‘Vuthisa Charcoal Projects’ through a contract signed with the Department of Environmental Affairs, Natural Resource Management Programme, that pays the wages of our workers.
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Eradicate Invasive Alien Plant Species and restore the Natural Biodiversity of the land - We intend to clear over 300 hectares of Wattle in this area and restore the land back to virgin grassland. The main culprit being Acacia mearnsii (Black Wattle) and Acacia decurrens (Green Wattle). Unmanaged Wattles in KwaZulu-Natal has now reached more than 300,000 hectares in extent, according to the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) report commissioned by Water Affairs, 2010. Left untouched, this alien vegetation would spread at an average rate of one percent a year, threatening water and food security.  Concerted efforts are being made to prevent the further spread of these invasives especially in water catchment areas and it is estimated that R 34 Billion ($ 3.4 Billion) will have to be made available over the next 25 years to stop this spread.

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Increase streamflows and reduce erosion – The Wattle trees spreads vigorously through the seed it puts out and these typically germinate in or near river systems, reducing filtration into underground aquafirs and streamflows. At the onset of the infestation when the trees are young, only 500 mm of water is preserved within a typical annual rainfall area of 1200 mm. As the invasives spread, after 24 years only 25% of the entire potential water yield namely 300 mm of water will become part of water supply into the local catchment.

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Develop Emission Reducing Biochar Kilns and reduce greenhouse gas emissions -Acacia mearnsii is a hardwood species and makes excellent charcoal.  Conventional pyrolysing tecnologies in South Africa however are less than 20% efficient.  Our first goal is to achieve a minimum of 25% wood to biochar conversion efficiency. Using more efficient methods to produce charcoal (or Biochar) has the potential to save about 100 MtCO2 per year in Sub-Saharan Africa (See http://bit.ly/I0KIXl).  CO2 production from Emission Reducing kilns has not been quantified, but a 5 to 10% reduction in GHG’s is expected. We plan to produce 150 tons of Biochar in the next two years and we expect that 20% of this will be bought indirectly by fertiliser companies which could result in at least 30 tons of carbon being sequestered back into the soil.3-DrumRetort_inset_small

Develop Biochar Eco-fertilisersBiochar as a soil amendment will allow rural folk to improve their subsistence agriculture. Mixing biochar with soil or a good active organic compost before it goes in the soil will soak up its full compliment of water, nutrients and microbes so that it can make those available immediately to the plants as soon as it is added to the soil. Ultimate concentrations after some time of repeated applications of these eco-fertilisers (chemical free) will work up to about 8 to 10% biochar by weight of the soil content.

biochar trials

See this Google Earth map below of precise location of the clearing operation:

What is Biochar?Biochar is charcoal mixed with compost and applied to the soil as a soil amendment and has the same benefit to plants than chemical fertelizers. The act of burying the Biochar in the soil, removes carbon from the air (CO2) and sequesters carbon into the soil for thousands of years and prevents the release of Methane from harvested plant material into the atmosphere. Methane is a key fuel component to providing the heat into the retorts and in the Biochar forming process.  Venting un-burnt Methane into the atmosphere contributes 26 more times to the greenhouse effect than CO2 alone.  For more information on biochar, feel free to research the many references to Biochar on Google or read more on our Biochar web page: http://vuthisa.com/biochar/
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Harvested IAPs ready to be charred

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Biochar Retorts being primed for firing in Guatemala

Please donate to the project.

The Energy and Environment Partnership fund for Southern and East Africa (EEP-S&EA) have kindly stood up and agreed to fund 50% of the Project Management fees, Site Preparation, Tools and equipment and Administration fees. The EEP Programme in Southern and East Africa is jointly funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland (lead donor), The Austrian Development Agency (ADA) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). For further information: http://eepafrica.org/

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To donate to the project please get in touch with us.  We offer branding opportunities on Hippo Water Rollers, send out T-shirts and give shout outs on Social Media. Contact us here to find out more.

We accept SWIFT payments whereby money is wired into our project bank account.  Please approach your local bank’s FOREX department and request the appropriate procedure and instructions to follow to expedite this type of payment:

IBAN number (Branch code): 632005
Account name: Vuthisa Biochar Initiative
Account number: 9283826690
Bank: ABSA
Swift code: ABSAZAJJ

PayPal (pay with a credit card):

Please Donate

What will the money be used for?

Please indicate in your bank reference which activity you wish to sponsor.

We will have the following expenditures:

1 -  Water and Sanitation

Instead of purchasing large stationary water tanks to supply drinking water from rainwater harvesting, we thought it would be cool to use Hippo Water Rollers and collect water from the nearby fresh water vlei. Each water roller can hold 90 litres of water. This presents branding opportunities for companies out there, by having their name or logo printed on each Hippo Roller. Visit the website for Hippo Water Rollers here for more information: http://www.hipporoller.org/ The cost of each Hippo Roller is R 1,500 ($ 136) including delivery to the site. We require a minimum of 4 Rollers and a total of R 6000 (± $ 544).

The cost of purchasing and delivering 2 x Portable toilets to the site is R 14,000 (± $ 1,272), and we’ll pay for the fortnightly servicing of the units.

[0%] of “Water and Sanitation” funded to date.

Reviewed on: 23 May, 2014

2 – Cooking Stoves

The cooking stoves we require are special portable wood- and charcoal fuel saving stoves and because we are re-sellers of this product we can provide them at cost to our workers. We require 8 of these stoves to offer the staff with a means to cook their food safely or to boil water. More information here: http://vuthisa.com/news/stovetec/
The cost of delivering 8 stoves to the site is R 3,880 (± $ 352).

[0%] of “Cooking Stoves” funded to date.

Reviewed on: 23 May, 2014

3 – Protective Clothing

To ensure our workers are operating safely and are fully kitted out, we need to supply them with adequate protective clothing (PPE). These include Two-piece overalls, T-shirts, Rainsuits, Gloves, Chainsaw operator safety gear, Goggles and Masks. The most recent quotation revealed that we need R 22,560 (± $ 2,051).

[0%] of “Protective Clothing” funded to date.

Reviewed on: 23 May, 2014

4 – Tools & Equipment

The basic tools and equipment required for the project include Hatchets, Loppers, Knapsack sprayers, Combi-cans, First-aid kits, a Fire extinguisher and Spades. This will cost R 14,500 (± $ 1,318). We have already paid for 2 chainsaws worth R 11,300 (± $ 1,027).

[19%] of “Tools and Equipment” funded to date.

Reviewed on: 23 May, 2014

5 – Biochar Kilns

The specialized Biochar kilns have been developed over many years and are professionally constructed by a light engineering company in Mkondeni, Pietermaritzburg. The cost of each kiln ex-factory is R 9,000 (± $ 886) and we require 3 to start off with for a total of 27,000 ($ 2,658).

[0%] of “Biochar Kilns” funded to date.

Reviewed on: 23 May, 2014

6 – Environmental Impact Assessment consultancy cost

The planned activities for the biochar project and charcoal activities will require an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and an Atmospheric Emission License (AEL).  The entire process is expected to take 11 months to complete.  Cost: R 329,543.22 ($ 32,954) including VAT.

[50%] of “EIA” funded to date.

Reviewed on: 23 May, 2014

When everything is tallied up we need R 87,940 (± $ 7,995) PLUS R 164,771.61 (± $ 14,979) for the EIA and AEL.  The EIA and AEL will be funded from biochar sales, but any donation towards this cost would be very much appreciated.

[10%] of “Vuthisa Biochar Initiative” funded to date.

Reviewed on: 23 May, 2014

In conclusion we would like to thank everyone for their support and that we will do everything in our power to meet the goals of the project.

Or for more information contact us here: http://vuthisa.com/contact-us/

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Vuthisa Biochar Trials Ivory Coast – Part 1

By Kobus Venter

Here we have Ivoire Consommation from Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire) using the Vuthisa 3-Drum Biochar Retort. A concerted effort was made by Kouamé Bahfi (owner of Ivoire Consommation) to make Biochar and promote it as a soil amendment in his region. In this video Gmelina was carbonized (bought in), using twigs and bamboo as the fuel of choice to heat up the retorts. Later on however, it was found that bamboo placed inside the retorts made excellent Biochar and it worked out cheaper as well. I have it on good authority that he will be trying an Adam Retort, built from adobe bricks next. Watch this space…









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Vuthisa Biochar Trials Guatemala – Part 1

Herewith Part 1 of the trials and tribulations of starting a Biochar project in Guatemala. Emphasis is on manufacturing Biochar from invasive alien species in the forests of Guatemala, without creating excessive air pollution. Using a retort system means that gaseous products that are normally vented unburnt are in fact now utilised to provide the heat back into the retorts, creating exothermic conditions, providing its own heat for carbonisation. Efficiencies are higher and the final conversion to Biochar (as opposed to making charcoal conventionally) should be around the 25% mark. The ’3-Drum Retort’ system, whereby lower quality and smaller diameter feedstock is burned as fuel to provide the heat into the internal retorts is in the Beta phase and these types of testing will yield valuable lessons. There were many challenges in getting the kiln on to the farm in question. First it travelled by road on the back of a pickup truck and then by boat some 400 kilometres.

Transport

Then it had to be carried on foot to the burn site. Some innovative approaches are adopted, including the use of bamboo sticks to carry the pieces through the bush.

Other challenges we foresee would be to try to get hold of clay to seal the kiln off and this seems to be in short supply. The humidity is high and the first test burn resulted in creating torrefied wood only, so the burn will have to be extended to allow moisture to be driven off. We suggested placing wood piles close to the kiln to dry pre-dry the wood and to consider two subsequent burns: one burn to create the torrefied wood and a second to turn that into Biochar.

To be continued…








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Biochar as a soil amendment and carbon sequestering tool

Photo courtesy http://2.bp.blogspot.comBy Vuthisa

It is surprising how many people cart away their yard waste (renewable biomass) to landfill sites or dispose thereof in open burns until only ash remains.  I say: Make your own biochar instead.

What is biochar and what is the difference between biochar and charcoal?

They are identical in many respects, but the telling difference is in how they are used.  Charcoal is used as a fuel.  Crushed charcoal mixed into soil as a soil amendment is biochar.

As a soil additive, biochar offers numerous potential benefits

Unlike fertilizers, biochar has an extremely long life in soils. Charcoal is carbon-rich and gives it the ability to persist in the soil indefinitely by not being susceptible to biological decay.  Biochar also attracts microbes and beneficial fungi, holds on to nutrients that are put into the soil. i.e. biochar works better the second and third year than it does the first.  One of the major challenges in agriculture is to make the nutrients in the soil available to the plant when the plant can benefit from them.  Fertilizers can often only be applied early in the growing season, before the crop canopy closes and field operations are no longer feasible.  Unfortunately, between the time the fertilizer is applied and the crop takes it up, fertilizers can be leached out of the soil by excess rainfall, consumed by weeds, or metabolized by microbial activity in the soil.  Biochar helps conserve plant nutrients by storing them within its matrix and making the nutrients available when the crop needs them.  This happens because of a property in biochar, certain clays, and soil organic matter known as Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC).  CEC is a measure of the capacity of biochar to retain ions, such as ammonium and potassium cations, in an exchangeable form that is available to plants.  CEC not only helps conserve the fertilizers added to the crop during the growing season, but also improves the ability of the soil to capture and retain nutrients from other sources available at other times.  For example at the end of the growing season crop residues are often left in fields to decompose.  When this organic matter decomposes, biochar captures some of the nutrients released, leaving those nutrients for the next growing season.

Biochar in soil also has the ability to hold moisture and save on irrigation costs.  Biochar modifies the soil’s performance by retaining moisture and making it available during periods of low precipitation and hot, dry soil conditions.  This is possible because biochars have very large internal surface areas – typically over 100 square metres per gram.  This internal surface area adsorbs moisture when water availability within the soil is high and releases it back into the soil when water availability is depressed.  Some may think that biochar being black in color would heat up in the sun, but biochar helps the soil stay moist even in full sunlight.  Biochar also has significant impacts on soil drainage.  Clay soils which are typically poorly aggregated are too tight and do not drain effectively.  Ineffective drainage results in extended periods of inadequate soil aeration.  Other soils, especially sandy soils may drain too efficiently.  Overly efficient drainage can shorten the benefit of periodic wetting.  In both cases, the addition of biochar compensates for the native soil deficiency in the following ways:

Clayey and poorly aggregated soils become less compacted and provide better aeration

Sandy soil acquire additional bulk moisture storage capacity

Biochar also makes a significant contribution to mycorrhiza by promoting microbe populations.  Mycorrhiza is a fungi that has a symbiotic relationship with plant roots and contribute to a healthy soil-plant nutrient exchange.  Biochar increases the availability of mycorrhiza by:

Detoxifying soil water by adsorbing compounds that inhibit microbe growth

Providing a  protective habitat for microbes

Improving soil moisture management in which mycorrhiza thrives

 

Biochar can mitigate climate change

By reducing consumption of fossil fuel and

Capturing CO2 and sequestering carbon in the soil

In a world dependent on fossil energy, it is easy to see the carbon capture benefits of biochar as offsets against current and future fossil fuel emissions.  Many scientists believe there is already an unsafe excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this obligates the nations that caused the excess to abate it.  It is notable that from the year 1850 to 2000, 34% of carbon dioxide emissions have been attributed to land clearing.  Therefore, in a sense, the first goal of biochar is to restore the carbon lost from the soil due to the past 150 years of agricultural practice.  After that, the particular durability of biochar will enable the build-up of more carbon in soils, with further fertility benefits as the existence of Terra preta soils have shown us.  Terra preta soils are fertile, black biochar-rich soil found in scattered tracts throughout the Amazon basin, also, the pre-Columbian civilization responsible for creating that soil, dating back to 450 to 8,000 B.C.  Charcoal has the potential to sequester gigatonnes of atmospheric carbon per annum, making it the most potent engine of atmospheric cleansing we possess.  Approximately 8 percent of all atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by plants each year. If just a small proportion of the carbon captured by plants can be pyrolysed and transformed into charcoal, humanity’s prospects will be much brighter, for this will buy us time as we struggle to make the transition to a low emissions economy.

How do you make biochar?

The production of charcoal and biochar has a common root.  Before fossil coal emerged during the Industrial Revolution (18th Century) the word coal meant charcoal – the black fuel made from wood.  The basis for all charcoal and biochar production is pyrolysis: essentially, breaking wood down into its chemical constituents by heat, with little or no oxygen.  We do not use the same archaic methods of yesteryear, with the development of cylindrical metal vessels and high temperature refractories.  Good biochar has high porosity, extensive micro-structure, and adsorption capacity that enable beneficial interactions between microbes, nutrients, and water in the soil.  The so-called 55/30, a simple closed retort, is popular with biochar enthusiasts.  In a typical configuration, the “55/30″ consists of a 55-gallon (200 litre) outer drum containing the fire around a 30-gallon (100 litre) inner drum acting as the enclosed retort.  A 30-gallon barrel, open at one end standing with the open end down on flat surface, makes a simple and serviceable closed retort.  Click here for a collection of all types of biochar making kilns: http://www.carbon-negative.us/Burners.htm

Vuthisa opted for the Portable Metal Kiln Method for biochar production, which differs from conventional open burn methods in five ways:

The steel plate is very thick and not only lasts longer than 55 gallon drums, but allows the contents of the kiln to “cook” in the absence of charcoal by means of a tight sealing lid

The drum can be made oval to fit in two sealable 55-gallon drums, yet also allow burning material to be added to heat the drums

Small sized feedstock, typically found in yard waste, such as twigs and branches are ideal for this system as it will not turn to ash, as with larger horizontal type kilns that can take up to 3 days to cool down, reducing small diameter feedstock to ash

Large quantities of biochar can be produced as opposed to the 55/30 type closed retort that produces small quantities

The kiln can be rolled long distances to adjacent feedstock piles without any difficulty, yet can still fit on the back of pickup trucks.  More information can be found here: http://www.vuthisa.com/biochar

Resources

http://biochar-books.com/The_Biochar_Revolution The Biochar Revolution – Transforming Agriculture & Environment – Edited by Paul Taylor

http://vuthisa.com/2009/11/14/make-charcoal-in-your-own-backyard/ Make charcoal in your own backyard

http://www.scribd.com/document_downloads/16916390?extension=pdf Biochar for Environmental Management: Science and Technology Edited By Johannes Lehmann and Stephen Joseph

http://www.mycorrhizae.com/ Mycorrhiza

http://www.carbon-negative.us/Burners.htm Biochar producing kilns

http://biochar.bioenergylists.org/ Biochar discussion list website

http://bioenergylists.org/ Improved Biomass Cooking Stoves

To obtain access to more URLs relating to the above subject matter (not for public viewing) send your request through to: http://vuthisa.com/contact-us/

http://za.linkedin.com/in/vuthisa

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