Holistic Thinking for Frost Protection

Frost Protection

Current and old fashioned Frost Protection Technologies

It appears I may be meeting someone on my upcoming trip to Tasmania (less than 2 weeks – so excited) that is in to big Wind Development and has a growing interest in biochar. This reminded me of a novel idea I had about possibly combining these two for some low tech frost protection for orchards and vineyards.

First a bit about frost protection, which was sorely needed in the North East last Winter given the Polar Vortex and all. Across the Lake in Canada they seem to use large windmills (powered by fossil fuels) a lot more frequently than we do in the Finger Lakes. Heaters, fans and sprinkler systems are used in orchards, vineyards and other perennial crops, each having their pros and cons. Some places even use helicopters as a high tech and high cost solution to high damage. Low tech yet high pollution solutions such as smudge pots are still used in some places in a desperate attempt to keep Jack Frost from wreaking havoc on perennial crops.

So what makes me think that a combo of biochar & wind could be added to the list of Frost Avengers? Why my Eco-Fan of course! I bought this nifty little gadget last year not totally convinced it would work but in fact it is more effective at blowing hot air than some politicians I know! And it works completely on the thermal energy produced by my wood burning stove. This led me to thinking that perhaps a supersized version of this contraption could be put on top of a TLUD or  built atop continuous feed Combined Heat and Biochar (CHAB) units to stave off the frost monster. The cost of the fuel for running these machines would be exactly nada since orchards and vineyards generally have lots of biomass from pruning. And the really good news is that those frosty nights would generate lots of biochar which could then be used on the orchard come spring time. Heck I have even heard that in Japan they use charcoal to help melt snow and the darker color on the soil could help heat up the soil sooner in the spring.


Can this eco-fan be super sized to protect perennials?


I confess I really have no idea if this is technically feasible at larger scales than my little Eco-Fan, so I challenge all you Susty engineers to turn FAN-tasy into reality…

Algae Blooms, Invasive Species and Drinking Water


Lake Erie looks more like a smoothie than a lake this year!

Holy Toledo! Who would have thought that a city on the Great Lakes would suffer from a lack of potable drinking water? But that is exactly what happened over the weekend in Toledo, OH (population 400,000). The cause? Algae blooms. The cause of the algae blooms? Excess nutrients. The source of the excess nutrients? Fertilizers and manure from farms and lawns (just to be clear, the manure is from the farms!).

Sadly this nightmare scenario seems to be more and more common with some estimates claiming that up to 30% of larger water bodies in the US being impacted. The heavy rains we’ve experienced this summer are definitely a contributing factor too.

So how exactly might biochar help reduce this from happening around watersheds? It’s not really all that complicated. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that biochar is great at holding onto nutrients and other substances. Specifically though, farmers could mix biochar into their manure spreaders which will not only hold on to the nutrients longer, but it will probably make the neighbors happy by minimizing ‘l’odeur du poo’. Established lawns are a bit trickier. It’s not really advisable to top dress biochar as it is likely to be carried away in the next down pour. For farms and lawns that boarder water bodies, constructing a trench close to the water and filling it with biochar would go a long way towards keeping excess phosphorous from damaging water bodies.

But there may be an even better way to actually reuse the nutrients instead of having it merely accumulate at the water’s edge. A few years ago Charchimedes and I dreamed up a type of permeable sock filled with biochar which could be used in a trench. The filling could be replaced every so often once the biochar has reach capacity for nutrient holding. It could then be put to better use as a fertilizer elsewhere on the farm.

Algae blooms are not the only problem wreaking havoc on lakes. Aquatic weeds such as Milfoil or Water Chestnut are the bane of a growing number of lake communities, not to mention the fish whose oxygen is being stolen by them. Various methods of control are being used with varying stages of success. Herbicides can kill it off but the N & P decomposes into the water and available oxygen is taken up during decomposition. Mechanical control is in the form of a kind of aquatic lawn mower that looks more like a steamboat. I visited the shores of Lake Ontario to watch one of the mechanical harvesters in action and its pretty amazing to see. Once the boat is fully loaded down with its catch of noxious weeds, it converts from an aqua creature into a terra bound one and then dumps its load of wet weeds onto the nearest farmer’s field. That might be a welcome addition during drought periods but I have to believe it’not the ideal scenario. Converting that biomass into biochar seems a much smarter use of it. Not only will this prevent any further nutrients from seeping back into the ground water, but it will convert the carbon into something that could be used around the lake to adsorb excess nutrients and toxins thereby preventing further infestations. An all-around better ‘soilution’, don’t you think?

Striving towards Char-biquity


The biochar moonshot: Char-biquity

The biggest little town in Australia, Mulumbimby, located in New South Wales, is hosting their 2nd annual Bio-CharFest on Sept 5 – 7 and I am very excited to be attending. One of the big reasons I am really looking forward to attending and speaking at this event is that the organizers are very forward thinking when it comes to connecting the carbonized dots. Much as I am interested in biochar use in agricultural scenarios, I am fascinated by the prospect and implications of using biochar in things such as 3D printers. One of the world’s biggest, and I mean that quite literally, 3D printing guru’s will be speaking at the event. None other than Behrokh Khoshnevis, the inventor of a machine that can 3D print a house in less than 24 hours, will be talking about how homes of the future are likely to be built. Imagine if we start 3D printing those dwellings using biochar, then we could really start moving the carbon needle back down below levels that are already playing havoc with global climate. I suspect that kind of house would qualify for LEED, Passiv Haus, Living Building Challenge and Cradle to Cradle with ease and maybe even set a new standard for carbon negative housing!  Or imagine post natural disaster scenarios where downed biomass can be converted into biochar and then converted into housing.

I’ve dubbed my own presentation ‘Striving towards Char-biquity’ (i.e. the vision of a time and a place where carbonized biomass and the process of carbonizing every bit of ‘unloved’ biomass and turning it into long-lived ‘bioUPgradable’ products is the norm). Now that might sound a tad grandiose but I am a big believer in BHAGs as motivators. The planet could surely use a few right now to get where we need to be. So Char-biquity is my rallying cry, my call to arms, my motto.

To get the full presentation you will just have to join me down in Mulumbimby. However I can share a few tidbits with my favorite readers. Obviously agricultural scenarios where biochar makes both economic and environmental sense are a big part of the Char-biquity future so I plan to talk about the current agro-economics of biochar for certain Ag systems. I may even be able to share some of the plans for a great greenhouse & biochar project I am working on if I get all the right people to allow me to lift the veil a little bit. But I will also be talking about the increasing number of biochar based products that will first enjoy life above the soil before finding their way below it. I’ve blogged about a few of these ideas before but there are some products and projects that are still in stealth mode which will be talked about as well, in hushed tones of course.

So if you have a visit Down Under on your bucket list, this September just might be a great time to join me/us in creating this brave new carbonized world. As an added incentive, not only will all things biochar be covered, but many attendees will be staying at the fabulous Byron Eco Park, a 100% ecologically sustainable village and eco-tourism resort where they have been making biochar and 3D printing with minerals for a long while.  I don’t think I’ll ever want to leave…

Biochar v Microbeads

biochar vs microbeads

I’ll take biochar over nasty plastic beads in my cosmetics any day!

Have you heard of microbeads? Tiny bits of plastic used in cosmetics. Loved for their exfoliating abilities. Hated for their environmental impact. Their negative impact has gotten so bad (read costly), that states are now beginning to ban them (yeah Ilinois, come on New York!). The properties of the microbeads that the cosmetic industry like include 1) cheap and 2) large surface area.

Not surprisingly there seems to be some collective industry moaning about how hard it is to find something to replace the miracle microbeads. Yet even scientists warn that substituting them with certain natural and biodegradable ingredients such as sugar or walnut shells, which take up oxygen during decomposition, will cause unwanted environmental problems.

Enter biochar (bet you could see that was coming, right?). Biochar can easily be milled down to the required size (~1mm) and it has plenty of surface area. If it does make its way into the Great Lakes and beyond, all the better! Some very interesting research out of Taiwan actually shows that feeding biochar to fish is pretty beneficial (see pages 7 – 8 …hat tip to fellow biocharista Frank in Taz for sharing this). Even if the fish don’t eat it though, the char should sink to the bottom harmlessly, or maybe it will take some nasty chemicals with it! Regardless it will safely sequester carbon all the while.

But back to its use in cosmetics, for a moment. Biochar or charcoal has been used in soap for quite some time. I had a local soap maker make me up a batch of “Char Wash” which I have used for years. It’s great stuff. Other products that you can find microbeads in include facial and body scrubs & peels, and toothpaste. I’ve even seen it used in nail polish. Can biochar be used in these products too? I would answer with a resounding yes. (Well maybe not the nail polish.)

If any of the big cosmetic companies would like a few samples of different types of biochar to test in their products, just give me (or any of the biochar makers out there) a shout! I’d be happy to send them a selection…

Triple Win

triple win

Small scale, closed loop biochar & electricity production!

I just received my much anticipated Power Pot X thermo-electric generator which I was very happy to support on Kickstarter several months ago. I knew as soon as I saw this technology that it would be synergistic with biochar making. Even though the weather didn’t want to cooperate today, I couldn’t wait to try this out to see how well it works.

I loaded up my little Champion Stove with about a gallon’s worth of walnuts that the squirrels had dined on over the winter. Walnuts, being fairly dense, burn for quite a while which is better for this situation. The Champion Stove does better with a fan blowing air up through the bottom, especially if you are charring something dense. Recently I’d stumbled upon a USB powered fan which I had been plugging in to my laptop, but it would be perfect for this scenario. Once the walnuts caught fire, I added the other 3 elements of the Champion stove and set the Power Pot filled with water on top. In less than a minute, the green light turned on indicating it was ok to plug in any devices. The fan worked instantly and helped to boost the flame. The Power Pot comes with a multi-plug option so you can charge up to three different devices at once but they all have different types of chargers: an iPad charger, a universal charger and one other one (not sure what I have that fits that yet but it’ll be fun to explore).

The walnut burn lasted about 30 minutes and about half the water was used to quench the burn (you aren’t supposed to empty all of the water until the pot cools down so as not to ruin the thermo-electric burner). Then I added some colder water and the fan kept running for another minute or two. Overall this is one fantastic little machine.

Although apparently this is targeted towards the camping crowd, this micro-scale closed loop system has tons of possibilities around the world, especially in places where electricity is scarce, expensive or intermittent. Used after natural disasters you could charge phones, USB compatible lights, or water purifiers like the Steripen, plus a growing list of other electrically charged gadgets all the while making more biochar which will help rebalance carbon.  This is definitely one small but promising way to help get the planet out of hot water!  CHARpe Diem!!

Biochar as a substitute for salt?

Eat more biochar!

Biochar as a substitute for….salt?

As time goes on the number of different materials that biochar is being used as a substitute for is definitely on the increase.  This is absolutely necessary if we are to build a healthier, more sustainable bio-based economy. Originally the focus for biochar was on soils where it can be used as a substitute for lime, vermiculite, perlite and other soil amendments (e.g. coir, peat moss, etc.). The next big thing was activated charcoal (AC), also called activated carbon. Since biochar is basically in the same carbon family and generally less expensive to produce than AC, focusing on the many uses of activated charcoal, from remediation to water filtration, seemed a logical market to target for biochar.

More recently biochar has been tested in livestock feed where it could possibly replace relatively harmless materials such as diatomaceous earth (DE) which acts as a binding agent for toxins, or it could replace environmentally harmful materials such as anti-biotics which are used to boost feed conversion ratios and prevent illness (see more on that here). Reading up on other uses for DE, I learned that it can be found in tooth paste, anti-caking agents in feed, cat litter, and paint.  It can also help reduce food intolerances. Biochar can, and in some cases is already utilized for all of those. However as the price of food grade DE is pretty much on a par with biochar, the price advantage argument isn’t necessarily going to propel biochar forward in these markets just yet. As organic as DE is purported to be though, it is still a mined product which brings with it all the unavoidable negative environmental impacts that mining operations imply, not to mention the carbon footprint of shipping it to the manufacturer, then consumer, then landfill. Biochar has definite advantages over DE when it comes to environmental benefits and impacts.

Let’s go back to food for a moment though and see where else biochar just might be used as a substitute. Recently I was reading up on recipes for homemade play dough (like many of you I’m sure!) and found a salt dough recipe. [I promptly made some which looks well, horrible…more work needed on that.] Anyway this got me curious as to the role of the salt in dough, something which wasn’t all that easy to discover I will tell you. However I did find one bread blog which described salt’s impact on bread:

  • Salt affects dough texture, making it stronger and less sticky.
  • Salt reduces oxidation of the dough during mixing. Oxidation causes the degradation of carotenoid pigments in the flour that contribute to flavor and crumb color.
  • Salt regulates yeast activity, causing fermentation to progress at a more consistent rate.
  • Salt affects shelf life. Because it attracts water, it can help keep bread from staling too quickly in a dry environment.

The blogger goes on to say that the most noticeable impact is on taste (color me not surprised on that one). Based on my small experiments with tasting biochar, I seriously doubt it will be able to compete with salt in the taste arena. However I think biochar could give salt a run for its money on some of the other functions. And if it could also help with reducing food intolerances, perhaps it could alleviate some of the issues an increasing number of people have with wheat or other grains. Heck people add all sorts of ingredients to breads and brownies, both legal and illegal, so why not try adding biochar – it could very well be better for your body than salt. [If you do try this, keep well hydrated as charcoal can adsorb a lot of water and cause unintended stoppages…]

How many of these other 46 uses of salt could biochar be used for?

50 Shades of Black…Biochar Paint?

Biochar Paint

Ta da – Biochar Paint!

For those that read my blog with any kind of regularity, you know that I sometimes venture rather far afield from the normal thinking when it comes to potential biochar applications. This weekend another one of ‘those’ ideas snuck into my brain.

I blame this latest rabbit hole that I fell into on my daughter’s 4-H group’s recent DIY solar charger project which got me interested in other DIY solar ideas. Not only did I invest considerable time this past weekend checking out various Instructables, Pins, & YouTube videos on how to convert soda cans into solar heating panels but I also learned that soda cans aren’t really the Holy Grail for solar optimization (no surprise there I suppose). Interestingly one series of videos showed how simply spray painting plywood first with shiny, then with matte spray paint would do a better job colleting solar heat than the aluminum cans. Then the guy threw in some steel wool which he proceeded to spray painted black to increase surface area for solar absorption. So really what is needed is something black with a lot surface area.

Hmmm now let me see, do I know something that fits that description? Why yes, yes I do. A little something called biochar! Which of course got me wondering if biochar paint might be a possibility. Well thanks to Master Google and Mother Earth News, I have learned about the basic elements of paint and thought I’d give biochar paint a whirl.

Wanting something easy to start, I discovered flour paint which uses flour as the binder and clay as the pigment and filler. I simply substituted char for both the clay filler and the additional filler listed on the recipe. (I do wonder if the char might act as some type of mold deterrent if the flour doesn’t clog up all the pore spaces). The key quality for the char, or any coloring agent for that matter, is that it has to be really, and I mean really finely ground which can be a challenge for certain kinds of char. My first batch used coffee chaff char which turned out to look a bit like black stucco or perhaps asphalt. Not terribly pretty but still interesting properties nonetheless. The picture shows a plain piece of wood painted twice with the char flour paint.  It definitely has a lot more surface area than mere spray paint and seems to absorb heat rather efficiently for such a low tech object.

I also tested a much finer grained biochar made from grape seed extract which produced a much darker shade of black paint.  As I am suffering from poison ivy for the 2nd time in a month, I decided to paint some on the affected area.  I have to say it helps stop the itch but it looks like I rubbed my arm in black grout. Anyway this got me thinking that this stuff might eventually find a use as post-pruning or wound care technique for trees too.

biochar paint remedy

Next I may try making a char-based tempera paint and then perhaps graduate to more complicated oil based recipes to see how those work. One thing is for sure, char pigments are to dye for! 😉

Biochar in the Tropics

Biochar in Costa Rica

I’ve just returned from an amazing trip to Costa Rica where I met more people working with biochar than I know working with biochar in the entire state of New York (outside of researchers of course!). This shouldn’t really surprise me as Costa Rica is known as being very eco-centric (though some of the natives I met said that attitude doesn’t necessarily extend to agriculture) and they have been making biochar in one form or another for more than 20 years as I wrote about previously.

The Estufa Finca project has been hard at work providing grass roots education to rural farmers, immigrant laborers and others on how to make biochar using clean cook stoves (see picture). I was lucky enough to meet some of the folks they’ve trained and work with including an Agroforester that chars much of the debris from his permaculture forest and uses is around a wide variety of trees. He also makes biochar soap and toothpaste from it which of course I had to purchase to add to my collection (who knows, perhaps I’ll even try the toothpaste one of these days!). I also met an organic cacao/chocolate producer that converts forest and cacao debris into biochar and uses it around their ‘finca’. I didn’t find any ‘Charcolate’ there, but who knows, maybe someone has tried making this somewhere (anyone?)! I even found jewelry made from biochar (see ‘joyas de biocarbon’ pic) which was a first for me.

The sheer amount and diversity of underutilized biomass in the country is mindboggling. The other thing that boggles the mind is the craziness of the weather and its impact on soils and plant life. Visiting during wet season was perhaps a bit ‘deluge-ional’ in retrospect but it also opens your eyes to the vast amount of soil that washes down their streets, rivers and mountainsides with every heavy rain. [I swear they use snowplows to remove some of it since you would see a steep cut-off of soil all along sidewalks.] What really surprised me though is that for the first time in recent memory, Costa Rica has been suffering fairly substantial droughts during the dry season to such an extent that all water was shut off for 2 days at a time in one part of the country.  Such is the face of climate change in the tropics.

With all that soil eroding goes an awful lot of chemicals. I learned that per hectare of crop land Costa Rica uses more pesticides than any other country on earth (can I get a ‘yikes’?)! We even had a crop duster fly over our car and dump its load of god knows what right over our heads. I held my breath, rolled up the windows and then laughed at my own naiveté. As if that would help!

Not surprisingly, this scenario seems to me to be a prime opportunity for biochar. All that vegetation converted into biochar could help reverse the impacts of soil erosion and adsorb some of the pesticides to prevent them from contaminating ground water.  If and when biochar is accepted as an official carbon offset product, it could also provide substantial help to Costa Rica in achieving their 2021 target of becoming the first carbon neutral country in the world!

Biochar in the land of Pura Vida

I have been down in the land of ‘Pura Vida’ (i.e. Costa Rica) for a combination of fun and biochar [wait that is redundant for me!] for about a week. One of the highlights so far was stopping at the Hacienda Juan Vina (HJV) sugar mill processing plant. This was an unplanned stop on our way to CATIE and Earth University to talk about the possibility of the first Central American Biochar Conference.  I was thrilled when I learned that HJV has a very efficient closed loop biochar production process that has been working for years.

Hacienda Juan Vina grows and processes sugar, as well as coffee and macadamia nuts in their own mill. To generate heat for the distillation process (i.e. evaporating the water out of the sugar water) they cook the sugar cane waste (i.e. bagasse). Instead of burning the bagasse to ash, they have a process that creates biochar. And not just a little biochar either. They churn out 200 tons of biochar PER DAY during harvest season. [I was smiling from ear to ear when I saw this whole operation and of course I asked for a sample to add to my collection!] Since they are really focused on the heat energy, the temperatures are really high, much higher than would normally be used for biochar destined for the soil. Having said that though, they seem to be producing a product that does wonders for the composting process they have set up with the town. Amazingly all of the food waste from the town is collected and composted with the HJV biochar. Ninety percent of the biochar is used by HJV on their own fields to improve overall soil fertility. It is incredible to think how much carbon HJV is sequestering through this process. HJV is the biggest sugar supplier in Costa Rica and they have got to be one of the few carbon negative sugar mills in the world (I didn’t do the carbon math, but given the massive amount of char they are making and the fact that they are using it so close to production, I would think they are). Sweet! And they aren’t getting any carbon credits or even carbon kudos for doing it either. They are doing it because it makes great economic and environmental sense. The additional 10% is sold to plant nurseries in nearby towns that use it rather successfully for plant starts.

Although I wished I’d had more time to delve into some more details of this operation, I was so delighted to see this type of large scale closed loop biochar system. This is the best way to maximize carbon sequestration and the best way to keep the cost of biochar at a level where farmers can afford and benefit from it.

The Biochar Optimization Framework

Biochar optimization framework

Biochar Optimization Framework


Later this month I’ll be visiting one of my favorite places on earth: Costa Rica, a nation highly focused on sustainability. Not surprisingly Costa Rica has some very interesting biochar initiatives that have been going on for several years which I am hoping to check out while I am there.

I am also excited to be talking to some AgroEcology students about biochar during my trip as well as visiting coffee, cacao and banana plantations. I was pondering how best to talk about biochar to an audience that most definitely understands their local crops, climates and challenges far better than I ever will, but may not know much about biochar and its potential benefits. And thus the Biochar Optimization Framework was born. The basic idea is to understand constraints and then determine if and how biochar might be able to mitigate those constraints.

Much of the research and promotional focus for biochar often seems to be on its ability to impact yield. With a growing population, this is obviously critical for food security. But the reality is that there are a lot of different growing constraints which biochar can potentially impact. In some cases these constraints may be more pressing than improving yield especially in those cropping systems where yield is deliberately constrained to ensure higher quality harvests. Given that I thought I’d try to figure out a way to understand the various things that growers are dealing with and also provide a framework for figuring out where biochar might be able to provide benefits.

Understand Constraints

Growing Constraints

Using this framework I’ve sketched out how this could be applied to vineyards in the Finger Lakes but what I think would be really interesting and useful is to create similar biochar optimization frameworks for different crops in different soils and different climate conditions. So that’s my self imposed mission for the Costa Rica trip: see how well this little tool works in getting a solid understanding of how the right kind of biochar might be able to benefit different types of agriculture.  I’ll blog about my findings from the land of chocolate, coffee and bananas.  Can’t wait!

Pura Vida!