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.

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