Creating a Biochar Brigade using the Master Gardener program model

Master Gardening Volunteer (MGV) programs have existed in many parts of the US for more than 40 years. They serve as a train the trainer program for gardening education where interested volunteers learn about many different aspects of horticulture including; how to plan gardens, growing fruits & vegetables, wildlife management, integrated pest management, lawn care, composting and more.  Each State’s Land grant University is responsible for developing and offering the training, and each county then helps to coordinate the activities of the certified volunteers.  While certain information is leveraged across different States, this model allows the curriculum to be customized for regionally specific plants, pests and practices.  Volunteers pay a subsidized amount for the 12 – 15 week training in exchange for committing to volunteering in the year(s) following the training (this varies by County from 50 – 150 volunteer hours). Volunteering opportunities vary by County and may include: giving presentations at schools, libraries, and to other interested groups; organizing workshops; writing articles; answering gardening related questions on hotlines; planning & helping to maintain demo gardens; tabling at farmers markets, festivals and fairs, judging 4-H Exhibits; conducting home diagnostic visits; organizing annual plant sales, and even in some places helping to conduct soil sampling.

Acknowledging the impossibility of providing in-depth training on the vast array of topics that falls under Horticulture, what they do instead is train people on how to access and assess quality information on different topics.  They also focus on critical thinking and communication skills, a must if you are out there speaking to gardeners. 

Each year more than 16K volunteers are trained with nearly 95K active volunteers across the country.  NYS alone has more than 2K volunteers that work roughly 106K hours per year to promote gardening, composting, soil building and so much more. This is an amazing accomplishment when you think about it. A volunteer army corps of gardeneers!

Could something similar to this be created to train and deploy a Biochar Brigade? To understand a bit more about how the program works I decided to ‘embed’ with the Finger Lakes MGV class of 2017. It has been fascinating so far and the reality is that I am learning as much if not more from my fellow classmates. The NYS MGV Director seems to understand this and has now built in to the course, a kind of micro-Capstone project where each student creates some kind of training activity or material to be shared with the class.  These activities are not just shared at the end, but are iteratively shared so that classmates can connect with each other before the end of the class to learn more from each other. This type of cross-pollination is ideally suited to the biochar world, where variations and nuances in crops, soils and other growing constraints is so vast.  No one can ever fully understand all the variations, but getting a group of interested parties together with disparate backgrounds can lead towards better information sharing and regional and crop-based best practices.

My activity for the class will, of course, be focused on biochar education – no surprise there.  But what I am coming to understand from this class is that one of the most important benefits for home or farm scale biochar production may be in mitigating the transmission of both disease and weeds.  The current recommendation for infected plants and trees and weeds seems to be merely to ‘get rid of it’ or ‘put it in the garbage’.  Carbonizing this type of biomass would not only eliminate the pathogens and keep it from the landfill, but it also creates long lasting carbon for the compost and garden.  That’s a home run in my book!

Biochar Industry SWOT: When a ban becomes a boon

Increasingly I am fielding calls from larger and larger companies expressing interest in diving into the biochar world.  What they all want to know ‘Is this the right time?’, which prompted me to put together my perspective of the biochar industry’s current SWOT.  This is based on frequent discussions with other biochar consultants, current producers, technology vendors, researchers and potential investors. It’s not meant to be exhaustive by any stretch, but rather it can serve as a high level view of those factors pushing and preventing the industry from growing. [Note: this is predominantly a US view, but is probably not too far off for other parts of the developing world.]

Although this chart makes it seem like the weaknesses outweigh the strengths, that is not how I see the current landscape.  The most interesting thing to observe these days is that there are certain policy initiatives, albeit mostly at the state level (or regional in the EC), that may be driving carbonization of biomass faster than the oft-dreamed of holy grail of biochar acceptance on the carbon markets might have.  Though many folks were, and in some cases still are, convinced that until or unless biochar becomes an accepted offset product, the industry would languish, I don’t subscribe to that particular philosophy. The carbon markets are still not all that huge, [though they are growing in some cases e.g. RGGI and CA], and the price of offset products is still rather pitiful (e.g. <$15/ton CO2e in CA and way less under RGGI). The reality is, for better or for worse, that biochar is still not an accepted offset (or better yet sequestration) product on any mandatory exchange. And yet the biochar market seems to be growing at a nice clip, though it is very hard to get solid numbers.

What could be better than carbon markets you ask? Bans! Barring organic waste from landfills may soon become a boon for the biochar production.  As landfills fill up, and NIMBY prevents new landfills from opening States are looking to restrict what gets sent to their existing landfills in an effort to extend their life expectancy. NY is considering joining a growing number of other states that have at least some type of requirements for organic waste diversion. Diversion options can be expensive depending on how far away a waste generator is to a food pantry, livestock farm, composting, AD or other facility which will accept them.  Certain types of organics (e.g. sewage sludge, yard waste) do not lend themselves to too many current diversion options.  In these scenarios pyrolysis (or gasification) is a scalable solution offering a variety of co-products (e.g. heat, electricity, biochar) which can offer an attractive option to increased tipping fees.

At some level this restriction of organics to landfills is in its own way an easier to administer carbon tax.  By eliminating the ability to choose what has traditionally been the lowest cost but highest emitting disposal option, it incentivizes waste producers to find alternative waste management processes which will also (likely) reduce their carbon footprint, at least the portion related to CH4 emissions from organics in landfills + transportation of waste. Done right the waste generators could also use the heat (or electricity) produced during carbonization, thereby reducing their reliance on fossil fuel energy.  In many cases, they might also be able use or sell the resulting biochar to further improve waste management economics.  A few examples might help elucidate this thinking: 1) coffee roaster: instead of landfilling the chaff, they can carbonize it and use the heat for the roasting process; 2) tofu manufacturer: instead of landfilling the wet okara byproduct they can carbonize it and use the heat to dry the okara then use the biochar to filter the whey effluent; 3) wastewater treatment facility: carbonize sludge or digested sludge and use biochar to filter effluent.  There are many such examples that could work, though those generators with a more homogeneous waste stream have a huge advantage over those that have a very heterogeneous one (e.g. supermarkets, etc.) since that kind of biomass doesn’t make for high quality, consistent biochar and can run havoc on production equipment.

For more info on the current state of the biochar industry, you may want to listen to a recording of  Webinar from earlier this week on the Past, Present & Future of IBI and the Biochar Industry given by myself and Tom Miles, the Chair of IBI’s Board of Directors.

The Meaning of Drawdown: Reduce & Replace or Rebalance & Remove?

Finally, finally, after what seemed like months, the recently debuted book ‘Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming’ became available on my library wish list.  I was eager to pick it up and dive in, especially after having heard the author speak on a recent ‘Wonder Women Webinar’.

So far, and I confess I’ve only spent a few hours perusing; the book is both fascinating and frustrating. It is hope-filled yet distinctly lacking in details and references.  Beautiful as any coffee table book could hope to be, yet strangely ordered for a logical thinker like me.  The world definitely needs more hopeful books like this that provide potential solutions. But for a book titled ‘Drawdown’, at first blush the book seems to conflate reducing or replacing current bad habits (i.e. drawing down current emissions by avoiding fossil fuel technologies), which is critical but not enough to avoid climate chaos, with rebalancing and removal strategies (i.e. drawing down atmospheric CO2 levels via photosynthesis, sequestration etc.). While both are obviously needed – a point which they admit, to compare avoidance and removal strategies as equals seems overly simplistic.  If drawdown is the goal and the book states that reversing global warming is the only goal that makes sense for humanity, than strategies capable of rebalancing and removing carbon (and other GHGs) ought to be weighed or at least categorized differently than those that can (only) avoid and reduce.

It is great that so much time and energy was spent explaining different technologies and strategies in a manner which nearly anyone can understand (even Grandma!) and providing some historical context for many of them was helpful. Yet the impact information – the most important criteria for rankings – is woefully insufficient; a single small paragraph amidst the one or two pages each solution was permitted, with no methodology, no assumptions, and for 20 – 25% of the solutions no cost or net savings information was provided.  Drawdown rankings are based only on the GHG emissions that can be avoided or removed, so in this simplistic scenario such information may not seem relevant.

However there are many critical adoption issues which must be factored into any realistic plan for reversing global warming as these are what will ultimately determine which strategies soar and which sour.  Some factors to consider include: current viability – are the solutions market ready or still on the drawing board; degree of difficulty in deploying quickly and broadly; financing availability and interest in various solutions; current or alternative options and the required infrastructure or operating costs and how those might prevent large scale adoption of more climate friendly options (e.g. natural gas versus heat pumps); regulatory helpfulness or hindrances for certain technologies; and which solutions offer other co-benefits (e.g. satisfying different UN SDGs) besides GHG mitigation which might make them more attractive in terms of funding as compared to options that only provide one primary benefit. No doubt there are many other considerations.

Since I normally blog about biochar, I would be remiss if I didn’t address their coverage of biochar, which they rank as #72 with a drawdown potential of .82 Gigatons of reduced CO2. The author of this section, like many people, conflates the meaning of Terra Preta with biochar. While the two are related,  they are not the same; the latter is but one element of the former. They also state “The preferred method is gasification, a higher temperature pyrolysis that results in more completely carbonized biomass.” Gasification and pyrolysis are not the same; the former involves limited oxygen while the later is a no oxygen thermochemical conversion process.  The two technologies can produce very different biochars, yields and co-products and both can be done using high temperatures. They also say “The slower the burn, the more biochar.” Generally speaking it is not the duration of the burn but rather the temperature of the burn that impacts yield the most (higher temps generate lower yield). There are other details that show a lack of deep understanding of the nuances of biochar, which could have easily been corrected had they reached out to one of many biochar experts. While they do a decent overall job describing biochar (albeit limiting it to a soils only perspective), what I think is really unfortunate is the carbon math.  As I’ve already said the book is light on details so it is impossible to understand the parameters for their calculation of biochar’s drawdown potential, but I would guess they’ve only looked at a limited type of biomass and then looked only at sequestration capability and excluded the off-setting impact of other co-products (e.g. renewable heat or electricity) or reduction of GHG impacts which varies depending on the end use of the char (e.g. reduction of soil GHG emissions, reduction of GHG related to fertilizer production, or CH4 from livestock emissions if used as a feed additive).

As a means of starting a productive dialogue for climate change mitigation, I think Drawdown is great.  As ‘the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming’ I can’t say the same.  Drawdown is a sumptuous buffet of hopeful possibilities, but it cannot accurately be called a plan. The ranking of potential solutions has more in common with Fortune’s 100 Best Companies listing – except Fortune’s methodology is broader and more transparent.  Perhaps Drawdown will evolve into something like this type of list, with annual updates and methodology refinements which not only show progress but serves to inspire the best kind of competition amongst those rising up to head off climate catastrophe.

NYS Methane Reduction Plan & Biochar

In May New York State announced a Methane Reduction Plan (MRP) aimed at reducing methane (CH4) by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.  Going beyond the Federal EPA’s MRP and even California’s plan which largely target only Oil & Gas, they have focused on the 3 primary anthropogenic sources of CH4 in the State: Landfills (58%), Agriculture (22%) and Oil & Gas production and storage (11%). To help achieve the targeted reductions 25 separate actions have been proposed; 11 for Oil & Gas, 9 related to Landfill emissions and 5 for Ag.

I blogged about biochar & CH4 reduction potential more than 3 years ago and fortunately the research on this topic has continued apace. While biochar could potentially help mitigate certain negative environmental impacts of fracking, most of the research has focused on filtering the toxic water that results and not on reducing emissions. I confess this is not an area that I’ve delved into with any enthusiasm so there may be additional benefits related to using biochar on the fracking front.

Landfills and agriculture, however, are another story.  Biochar could potentially play a role in four of the nine proposed landfill related activities which have been split into two separate categories: 1) diverting organics to help reduce future emissions (#12 – 14) and 2) reducing current emissions (#15 – 19). While there is a heavy emphasis on diverting to food banks and anaerobic digesters, this isn’t always a viable option given distances to facilities nor is all food waste viable for either human or AD consumption. Carbonizing food waste may be a much more attractive and CH4 (not to mention other GHGs) reducing option. The focus on reducing current emissions is largely on CH4 reporting & capture but #17 goes beyond that to ‘identify best practices, in conjunction with evaluations of potential revisions to regulations, to reduce CH4 emissions and diminish odors). Utilizing biochar on landfills, either for daily cover or during the capping process, has shown promising results both from a CH4 and odor reduction perspective.  Recent research has shown that blending char with soil, versus using layers of pure biochar, improved removal efficiency. Other research suggests that biochar pore sizes may not be small enough to remove CH4, so more research is definitely needed.

But it is the agricultural front that I believe holds the most promise for biochar mitigation strategies. The NYS plan has articulated mitigation strategies for manure management (#20), enteric emissions (#21), monitoring & reporting (#22 – 23) as well as soil carbon sequestration (#24 – 25). Claudia Kammann, a fantastic biochar researcher from Germany, and 14 others recently published an (open source) article on “Biochar as a tool to reduce the agricultural greenhouse-gas burden – knowns, unknowns and future research needs”. This paper looks at the current state of biochar research in terms of N2O and CH4 soil emission mitigation potential, the impact of using biochar as a composting additive on CH4 & N2O emissions, and its use in animal husbandry in terms of both its use as a feed additive and carbonizing manures via pyrolysis. While the mechanisms behind biochar’s ability to mitigate GHG emissions are still under review, the most relevant characteristics for biochars to optimize different end goals still needs significant research.  Overall though, there are enough promising indications to warrant more funding for this type of research, especially in light of the fact that GHG mitigation is only one of the potential benefits of using biochar.  Soil health, yield improvement, reduced water needs and other potential benefits can also be realized in many scenarios.

The research paper presented some ‘back of the envelope’ calculations for adding 1% biochar (see Table 1) to the daily feed intake of the global livestock population as a means of sequestering carbon. As the carbon does not biodegrade in the digestive track but is excreted in the manure, nearly 400 Mt/yr of CO2e could be sequestered in this manner – and that doesn’t even begin to address the potential CH4 mitigation potential from enteric emissions or N2O emissions from manure or the improved animal health or the accelerated feed conversion impacts!

I would encourage all five of the entities [Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Department of Public Service (DPS), Department of Agriculture & Markets (DAM), Soil & Water Conservation Committee (SWCC) and Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA)] tasked with working on further refinements and funding proposals to review the potential of biochar to not only help reduce emissions, but build a thriving biochar industry in NYS that can help resolve other issues that are contributing to environmental degradation.

Biochar From the Ground Up recap

Last week I visited a small slice of heaven; The Farm in Summertown, TN.  The Farm is the oldest intentional community in the country and has been home to Albert Bates, author of The Biochar Solution amongst other books, for decades.  Biochar experimentation at The Farm spans the gamut from soil amendment to building material to humanure additive which then moves over to worm bins for some final processing.  Just walking around the various natural buildings and permaculture filled ambiance was enough to inspire, but actually getting my hands dirty making biochar plasters, cement mixes, bricks, filtration devices with other like-minded folks was soul boosting.

We visited a nearby farmer that feeds his livestock (pigs, goats, poultry) an earthy blend of biochar mixed with lightly fermented whey and grains which they gobbled up greedily. We used rather grand outhouses that mitigated odors and reduced nutrient leaching with a blend of biochar and sawdust. And we shared stories of our mutual journeys, lessons learned and best practices along the biochar continuum.  What I really enjoyed about this experience, especially compared to attending biochar and other related conferences which tend to pack an enormous amount of information into back to back 15 – 20 minute sessions all day long for 3 days, was the more relaxed pace, the ability to get to know everyone there and hear about their own particular biochar experiences. The other fun part was leveraging everyone’s tools and backgrounds to take certain ideas further – such as the chardboard paper which I wrote about nearly 3 years ago.  Albert had a contraption that was able to measure the electromagnetic shielding of the chardboard which was pretty substantial, roughly 90% reduction! 

For those of you that have the time and desire to experience truly sustainable living, I highly recommend a visit to The Farm.  Staying in the Fairy House, a cozy earth bag building with a living roof provides the quietest sleep you could ever dream of…

Biochar Plaster

In preparation for an upcoming workshop on Biochar From the Ground Up to be held at The Farm in Summertown, TN this week I have been experimenting with the use of biochar and different materials. While I’ve been researching biochar and cement for a few years and have blended char with other synthetic and organic materials, I haven’t had much exposure to plaster.  Then I stumbled upon lots of different plaster and stone materials from my father’s former orthodontic offices and asked him to school me in the ways of making different plaster and stone composites. Once I had mastered that, adding in a bit of biochar was a no brainer.

To kick things off I made a 100% plaster sample and a 50/50 biochar plaster sample (see below) first blending the dry ingredients thoroughly before adding water.  (Biochar particle size was <1/20”.) A few things are already interesting to note.  The exothermic reaction that normally occurs with plaster during curing seemed completely absent with the biochar plaster which  didn’t heat up at all.  Also the volume of the blended model is smaller so the swelling which typically happens with plaster seems to have been minimized.  And finally the weight of two samples was significantly different.  When finished the all plaster sample weighed 5.2 ounces whereas the biochar plaster was 3.4 (it lost .2 ounces overnight), 34.6% lighter – not a bad thing when it is used in various building materials (e.g. gypsum drywall).

Water adsorption was pretty substantial in all biochar composites.  Using a silicon mold to make cups, this was fairly easy to test and observe! It would be interesting to test various other properties of this composite such as fire, mold and sound resistance, insulation, hardness as well as curing time. To be continued!

The 1G Mission

Late last year the Board of the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), of which I am honored to be a member, decided it was high time to get ambitious when it comes to biochar production.  We set a goal to help try to build an industry capable of producing 1 G [i.e. one billion metric tonnes] of biochar within the next 50 years.  This is what’s known in the business world as a BHAG – a big hairy audacious goal.  Given the recent alarming elevation of both temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels, we felt that it was time for the biochar industry to step up and show the world how and how much biochar can help rebalance carbon.

Since that time the notion of how to reach that goal has been on my mind a lot.  There is an ever increasing variety of new technologies coming on line that can carbonize all sorts of organic material including fast and slow pyrolysis, gasification, hydro-thermal carbonization, low tech kilns, and even micro-wave pyrolysis (just attended a ribbon cutting event on one of those today at RIT). From small, nearly free kilns, to multi-million dollar industrial furnaces, the industry finally seems poised to pyrolyze plenty of organics.  The ‘how’ is no longer the constraint to reaching 1G.

The ‘what’ still needs to be identified and quantified, at a global, country, state and local level.  After a very (and I stress VERY) preliminary look at just a few potential feedstocks, I’ve come to conclude that 1G is not going to be a problem based on available supplies of unloved biomass.   The world has more than enough organic matter that is currently being landfilled, burned or otherwise underutilized which, if carbonized, could bring many benefits beyond rebalancing carbon (as I’ve recently blogged about here).

Let’s look at the residues from just 2 of the world’s biggest crops: rice and corn. According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, preliminary reports show that global milled rice production in 2016/17 was 481.5M tonnes. Rice has two distinct residues: rice straw and rice husks. The amount of rice straw produced (by weight) as compared to the amount of milled rice produced is variable from 1.0 – 4.3 the weight of milled rice.  Much of this straw is burned in-situ so that farmers can get on with the business of planting their next crop, even if this practice is banned!  Nowadays, thanks to small, mobile kilns like the Kon-Tiki and Warm Hearts Trough, carbonizing rice straw can be done in fields which would not only reduce air pollution but would prevent enormous amounts of CO2 from becoming airborne. If, by some miracle, we were able to carbonize all of this straw it could produce from 157M – 675M tonnes based on a typical yield for this particular feedstock of 32.6%.  The rice husks could generate an additional 44M tonnes of char based on typical yields from this particular feedstock.

Corn is an even more ubiquitous crop with an estimated 1,065Mt produced per year.  As with rice, corn also has two residues; stover (stalks, leaves, etc. which weighs about the same as the harvest corn) and cobs which weigh about 15% of the corn.  Corn residues amount to 1,225Mt of underutilized biomass which could produce more than 350Mt of char.  Combined these two crop residues alone could potentially sequester more than 400Mt of carbon (or 2.776Mt of CO2e), and that is only looking at the carbon in the char and excludes the reduction in GHG that the production of biochar could provide if heat is harvested or electricity produced, or soil or manure-generated GHGs that could be lowered if biochar is sequestered in soils or added to manure compost or lagoons.

Obviously carbonizing 100% of these residues is a highly unlikely scenario, but this does show that the world produces enormous amounts of biomass every year that could be used to generate not just biochar but heat and/or electricity at the same time. Crop residues are but one big bucket of biomass.  Forestry by-products (thinnings, culling, branches, sawdust, papermill waste, etc.), excrement (both human and livestock), urban waste (e.g. municipal solid waste, industrial, etc.) and invasive species also provide enormous opportunities to help us reach and surpass 1 billion tonnes of biochar.  Imagine how far that could help countries (or apparently in the US it will be up to States, Cities and companies!)  reach their Paris Agreement goals.  Once the collective ‘we’ sharpen our pencils and calculate each of these available categories, I suspect biochar could be one of the best tools for not only reaching their climate mitigation targets, but also helping to improve soil resiliency, food security, while also providing renewable energy and boosting local economies.  

Carbon Farming & Biochar Workshop Recap

Last Saturday we had the first of what may, if there is sufficient help and interest, be an annual event for the region; a gathering of those interested in carbon farming and biochar.  Thanks to our gracious host Peter Arena, the event was held at the beautiful Boathouse Beer Garden which has spectacular views of Cayuga Lake.  On the agenda were folks representing government, academia, industry and consumers. The quadruple helix as I like to call it. Nearly 50 people gathered to hear about the status and strategy of the recently proposed NYS Assembly bill on carbon farming and learn all about biochar.  Technology vendors and newbies to biochar met and mingled with regional biochar ‘experts’.

NYS Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton kicked things off with a discussion on the NYS proposed legislation.  While there is not currently a twin bill in the Senate, she explained that at least this gets the conversation started.  Miranda Phillips from the Ithaca chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby spoke about the types of citizen advocacy needed to get bills such as this funded and forwarded.

Dr. Michael Hoffmann, Executive Director of the Cornell Institute of Climate Smart Solutions (CICSS) provided a great perspective on what NY farmers can expect in terms of climate change, both negative and positive, and described various adaptation tools and strategies that Cornell has been working on .  Dr. Johannes Lehmann, one of the world’s leading biochar researchers, spoke about how biochar can actually help mitigate climate change by way of rebalancing atmospheric carbon levels. Johannes is a tough act to follow but I did my best to provide what I call the layman, not Lehmann perspective on biochar.

Technical demos from Biomass Controls, Acorn Biochar, America Sequesters and my biochar buddy Dale Hendricks demo’d a small TLUD stove. I was supposed to demo a Kon-Tiki kiln but was juggling a bit too much to strike a match.  We also had GreenTree Nursery there to show some of there biochar enriched horticultural products and talk about soil matters.  Local organic farmers Gerard Dumphry and Jennine Huber who have been using biochar for nearly a decade showed how they are incorporating it into a soon to be planted organic hop yard.

After a rather unexpectedly long lunch period, which one kind soul said provided ample opportunity for people to meet many interesting attendees, we heard from one of my research buddies at RIT, Steve Barber, on using biochar for filtering food & beverage industry effluent.  Following this was a very interesting perspective on using biochar in a fixed bed biodigester.  This research was managed by Bruno Xavier in Brazil but Bruno is now working in the Finger Lakes – always good to have more people in the region!

Our workshop attracted a number of Canadians including Rasmus Kiehl who told us about the Open Source Biochar Wiki page that he has been curating since 2009!  This is a great resource which I encourage everyone to check out!

Wrapping it all up was a panel of carbon farming and biochar users: Gerard Dumphy of Danby Farms, Dale Hendricks from Green Light Plants who spoke about its use in the horticulture industry and Suzanne Hunt from Hunt Country Vineyards who spoke about building soil resiliency by boosting soil carbon.

We were fortunate to have 2 videographers shooting video for the day so at some point we will have more pictures and video available.

Overall I was very pleased with the variety and enthusiasm of attendees and presenters.  Mother Nature cooperated by providing perfect burn weather.  We even had an exceedingly rare on-site visit by a white deer which must have escaped the nearby shuttered Seneca Army Depot.  Although I’ve seen plenty of white deer within the Depot, I have NEVER seen one outside of the 24 miles of fenced in area.  I think it was a sign, so thanks white deer and thanks also to our host, Peter and all the others that helped make the event a success!

How Biochar supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations are focused on ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all by 2030.  These are what are sometimes called BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) in the business world. Big aspirational goals are exactly what is needed to reimagine, reinvent or in some cases retrofit our precariously unbalanced world.

Wide scale adoption of the production & use of biochar could materially help achieve at least 12 of these goals.  While I could (and may!) do a full blog post on each of the SDGs that biochar could influence, here is a brief overview of which goals biochar can impact with some examples of how it is already working:

Goal #1: No poverty – making biochar from crop waste & blending with animal urine & manure decreases the need for subsistence farmers to purchase off-farm fertilizers and boosts yields.  Farmers in Nepal improved yields by more than 100%

Goal#2: Zero hunger – growing more food, especially in poor soils with increasingly erratic climate, reduces hunger. (see Nepal example above)

 Goal #3: Good health & well-being – using biochar in soils can immobilize certain metals and toxins and reduce the need for chemicals in soils.  Using biochar to filter storm water can reduce E.coli and other bacteria. See the Warm Hearts example in Thailand on replacing chemicals in agriculture with biochar.

Goal #6: Clean Water & Sanitation – using biochar as a low cost water filtration medium can reduce negative impacts of unfiltered effluents.  Carbonizing sewage sludge is a way of reducing volume and immobilizing toxins.

Goal #7: Affordable & Clean Energy – a growing number of biochar production technologies can be used to produce heat and/or electricity and/or syngas.

Goal #8: Decent Work & Economic Growth – carbonizing underutilized biomass which is commonly burned in open fields creates economic opportunity for farmers and other rural inhabitants.

Goal #9: Industry Innovation & Infrastructure – new biochar uses include building materials (e.g. concrete, bricks, asphalt) and other composites. Incorporating biochar has been shown to improve various properties of both concrete and asphalt thereby extending the potential lifespan of the materials.

Goal #11: Sustainable Cities & Communities – biochar has been shown to benefit storm water management, green roofs and urban tree planting. It could also be used to remediate urban brownfields.

Goal #12: Responsible Consumption & Production – converting waste into biochar and using the char to displace high carbon footprint or non-renewable or expensive materials will lead us away from a linear economy to a more circular one.

Goal #13: Climate Action – this would be a long list starting off with the ability to stabilize carbon pulled out of the air via photosynthesis.  Biochar production can also displace fossil fuel based energy.  Fed to cows or added to landfills or manure slurries it can lower CH4 emissions. The list goes on…

 Goal #14: Life below Water – adding biochar to soils can reduce nutrient leaching which is responsible for significant eutrophication around the world. 

 Goal #15: Life on land – reclamation, remediation, restoration are all ways that biochar can improve life on land!

Char putty

DIY slime is all the rage these days.  It’s fun and funny and just plain weird. You can kneed it, bounce it and break it over and over yet it always returns to a gelatinous blob. My teenage daughter has made all sorts of variations of this easy-to-make polymer using just three simple ingredients: glue, borax and shaving cream.  It’s the XXI century version of silly putty which is made with just two ingredients: silicone oil and boric acid.  As I have an insatiable desire to add biochar to almost everything, I decided to fold in some char to my first attempt of DIY slime.  The pictures show the slime before and after adding char (I used particle size <1/20” and a lot more char than is shown in the picture).  It is rather beautiful especially compared to the bland, milky-white pre-char substance. 

But might it have any practical value?  The inventor of silly putty asked this question for years and the best they came up with was a toy; a multi-million dollar toy mind you, but still just a toy.  Might there be some benefit to adding carbon to this particular polymer?  After adding biochar to various materials, my next favorite thing to do is chat with Master Google about big questions such as this, so off I went on my cyber quest.  Lo and behold researchers in Dublin recently blended graphene, biochar’s more sophisticated and expensive carbon cousin, with homemade silly putty.  Alas my idea was not so crazy – nor original!  Dubbed ‘g-putty’, this polymer turns out to be a highly sensitive sensor which may just have bio-medical applications.  Researchers claim that g-putty could, amongst other possible uses, be used to track human vital signs.  Its ability to conduct electricity is what appears to be the basis for its high level of sensitivity.  Fascinating!

One thing I’ve pondered ever since a good friend battled chemo-induced neuropathy is whether biochar could somehow help expunge or pull out the toxins pumped into the body during chemotherapy.  Could char putty draped around the affected limbs help detoxify their systems once the chemo has done its duty? Would magnetized biochar, the new darling for sorbing heavy metals and other toxins, make this work?  Or are the pores clogged with the other substances in the char putty?

Therapy putty is already ‘a thing’.  Its prescribed for those with anxiety.  But perhaps char putty could reduce more than anxiety.  It’s worth considering.  Hears to hoping this not-so crazy idea might inspire a few researchers to put this putty through its paces!