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!


Biochar products are “bioUPgradable”


Biochar products are ‘bioUPgradable’!

The word ‘biodegradable’ is definitely pitched as a benefit which is just a little bit odd when you think about it since ‘to degrade’ means to impair, or weaken or diminish. When products are described as ‘biodegradable’ it generally means that they will break down in an environmentally harmless manner in the right environment. Compared to the overwhelming number of products that are non-biodegradable or even worse, toxic, this definitely seems like a step up. The reality though, is that most of these products end up in a landfill where they will not be able to biodegrade due to the lack of oxygen. Sigh…

In light of this rather dubious descriptor, I’ve been pondering how best to describe the end-of-life benefits of biochar products in a way that differentiates them from products labeled as ‘merely’ biodegradable. Perhaps it’s time to coin a new term to describe products that don’t just harmlessly decouple, but rather are beneficial no matter what environment they end up in. I think biochar products should be described as ‘BioUPgradable’!

Imagine the day when cups are made from a biochar polymer. You are picnicking near a lake and your biochar polymer cup goes flying into the lake. No worries. The fish will gobble it up and the biochar will help detox the mercury that the fish has ingested. Or imagine the day that you are tired of your biochar brick patio. Bring out a hammer, vent and till the remains of the bricks into the soil. Or imagine the day when supplies for your classroom that were 3D printed using biochar are no longer needed. No need to feel bad about tossing them in the garbage since they will help reduce toxic leaching and sequester carbon at the landfill.

When it comes to product design while benign may be better, beneficial is definitely best. BioUPgradable products are the wave of the future and biochar products will lead the pack!

The Biochar Decarbonization Roadmap

Biochar Decarbonization Roadmap

Biochar Decarbonization Roadmap

I tend to prefer carrots over sticks, not just because they taste better, but because I think as a motivational tool, carrots are more effective. Perhaps this is why the notion of a price on carbon doesn’t really make me (and a lot of others) want to jump up and cheer. Punitive measures seem to do a really excellent job of stirring up the opposition to any sort of regulation and a not-so-excellent job of getting anyone motivated to race down the decarbonization path, which is really what is needed. So when I read this article in Yale’s e360 saying that the key recommendation by leading scientists and economists to decarbonize the global economy is to mandate an increasing price on carbon, I was a bit dismayed (no disrespect, these folks all have IQs in the stratosphere). Where I do agree with the authors is when they describe the need for ‘detailed, realistic decarbonization plans’, a sort of Atkins (low carb) Diet for the planet if you will.

Normally I focus on biochar’s ability to recarbonize the soil, but recently I have come to realize that that is actually what happens at the end of the biochar cascade. Sustainable biochar production could actually be a hugely effective decarbonization path for a number of different industries. [It could even be used at a municipal or college campus level as I’ve mentioned previously.]

Let’s take food processing as a fairly straightforward example of how biochar can help decarbonize an industry. I’ll use the example of a cherry juice producer that landfills tons of cherry pits each week. Here’s how on-site biochar production could not only provide a Carbon detox but perhaps more importantly from a motivational perspective, save them beaucoup bucks!

  • Reduced fossil fuel energy – on-site pyrolysis can generate significant amounts of heat which can be turned in to electricity which is needed for the production and refrigeration process.  Supplying your own fuel source could translate into huge cost reductions.
  • Reduced waste management– paying a waste removal service to transport pits to a landfill is not something companies like doing. As this type of company grows, so does the waste management cost and the GHG emissions related to transportation and methane emissions once this type of waste is landfilled. Who would say no to no tipping fees!
  • Increased revenue potential – manufacturers could set up off-take agreements for the biochar produced.  Trash to cash – got to love that!

The biochar decarbonization roadmap can be applied to many, many different types of industries from farming to forestry to food processing. Appropriate scale pyrolysis equipment to serve this market is still in its infancy but the landscape is changing fast. Equipment will need to pass strict emissions regulations (rightly so) which may slow down the adaptation of these technologies, but the biochar decarb pathway is being built. This is one bandwagon I predict many industries will eagerly jump on once the economic benefits are quantified!

Biochar as a Disruptive Technology

Disruptive Technology

Biochar as a Disruptive Technology

The notion of disruptive technology or disruptive innovation is not new, in fact it’s been around for nearly 2 decades. I confess it wasn’t something I’d given much thought to until recently (thanks Kristi!) but now that it is on my radar I have, of course, been thinking of it in terms of whether it is applicable to biochar.

Clayton Cristensen, a Harvard professor, coined the term ‘disruptive technology’ back in the late ‘90’s to describe the ‘process by which a product or service transforms an existing market by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability’ (See more here). I would argue that in an era of increasing resource constraints and climate change disruptive technology 2.0 should add sustainability to their list of attributes (even though sustainability is an increasingly abused and misunderstood word these days!). McKinsey describes disruptive technology a bit more succinctly: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy.

One of my personal favorite disruptive technologies is the cell phone. Not only did it disrupt the quaint plug-in phone and the entire telecom industry, but it has displaced an increasing number of other products from watches to cameras to GPS equipment. I wasn’t all that convinced that biochar should be considered a disruptive technology until I read through some of Wikipedia’s examples and stumbled upon the concept of plastic being a disruptor for wood, metal and glass. This got me thinking that in a world where all sorts of non-renewable resources are becoming more and more scarce, that products made from renewable resources are increasingly likely to displace those made from non-renewables. [This is the notion of the ‘bio-based economy’ that you will start to hear more about soon from the Ithaka Institute for Carbon Intelligence.]

To be clear, I don’t see that biochar used as a soil amendment is particularly disruptive but rather as synergistic with other soil amendments and fertilizers. Biochar as a soil amendment is definitely not cheaper than many alternatives at the moment either. However biochar used in products that are currently made using either non-renewable materials or materials that have a large carbon footprint, that I can definitely see as a disruptive technology. The biochar building material is a great example (i.e. displaces the use of cement which is responsible for significant GHG emissions).  In addition, there are some exciting new biochar based products that are in the research pipeline showing promise (e.g. biochar used in microbial fuel cells, 3D printing, etc.). These bio-based products have the capacity to transform life at its most fundamental by sequestering carbon in long-lived products which will be necessary if we are to rebalance levels of atmospheric carbon. Biochar based products can also transform business and the global economy by supplanting non-renewable materials which are experiencing increased price volatility with a highly renewable, ubiquitous material made from what is often currently considered a waste.

Thermal conductivity, biochar & vineyards

Thermal conductivity & biochar

One of the properties of biochar that I never gave much thought to until recently is its low thermal conductivity. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what low thermal activity meant in terms of its usefulness for biochar. [Confessions of a non-scientist!] But in just the last week I read two different research papers focused on two completely different end uses for biochar that mentioned it, so I decided it was time to become a little less ignorant on the topic.

The first mention I came across was in a recently translated article on Biochar use as a building material from the Ithaka Institute (full disclosure: I am thrilled to now be working with this organization, but more on that in the future). In this context low thermal conductivity translates to high insulation which is a good thing in the construction industry. All those pockets of air, or pore space within biochar creates a kind of lattice structure that slows down the movement of heat. [Come to think of it slowing down hot air would be really helpful in our current political arena! I’ll have to think how biochar could creatively be used to do that …]

The second mention I found was in a paper called “Biochar in growing media: A sustainability and feasibility assessment” written by some of the gods of biochar research. This paper has some really great info comparing biochar to other growing media, but what caught my eye was this statement: Charcoal has a heat capacity similar to soil and peat but much lower thermal conductivity that could provide thermal buffering.“ The paper was hypothesizing that this could provide some protection to nursery stock. There has been some intriguing biochar related research on this topic, but not all that much from what I’ve found.

One of the reasons I found this so interesting is that the winter we just experienced in the Finger Lakes was a tad on the brutal side. Very long and very cold. Vineyards suffered and no one is quite sure yet how bad the long term damage will be. This got me wondering if biochar might be able to act as some type of frost buffer for NE vineyards. To be on the safe side many vineyards practice something called ‘hilling up’ in the fall which tills soil up above the graft zone of the vines as a means of protecting them from the cold – some vineyards use straw around the vines as well. In the spring the soil is then ‘hilled down’ to allow air flow around the vines. Given its low thermal conductivity, hilling up with biochar or a biochar + pomace compost could possibly provide a nice thermal blanket which would be tilled down into the soil in the spring. Sadly this year they may end up having to pull out quite a few acres of vines which are often burned to get rid of the biomass. Turning these vines into biochar and then using the char/pomace compost to hill up in the fall might be one way to turn a negative into a positive.

And for NE farmers with annual crops perhaps using biochar might allow seeds to be planted a bit earlier in spring if it helps buffer soil temperatures!

Coming up soon…frost protection techniques are in need of a biochar intervention!

‘Shrooms & char

Muschrooms & Biochar

Yesterday I visited Main Street Farms (MSF), a highly sustainable aquaponics operation that also includes high tunnels and mushroom production.  They are also hard at work learning how best to put worms & insects to work and have created an admirable agro-ecosystem which could provide a successful model for local food production in the Northeast and beyond.

What made the tour even more interesting were the folks there with me, two employees from a ‘combined heat & biochar’ (CHAB) equipment manufacturer and a very knowledgeable horticulturalist from Cornell. Our hosts graciously toured us around their facilities and showed us all of the different research projects they’ve been conducting over the past few years in an effort to become as sustainable as possible. Inspiring stuff to say the least. We are hoping to start a project using biochar production technology on-site which would enable them to become even more sustainable.

My role on the team is to uncover and quantify opportunities for possible biochar ‘interventions’, one of my favorite things to do! I had a number of different thoughts on how biochar could benefit this kind of operation but for today I’ll focus on the fungi! As I’m always on the hunt for underutilized biomass, I was delighted to see up close for the first time some spent mushroom substrate (SMS) from their oyster mushroom production. They had at least two different flavors; some made from sawdust & some from coffee grounds. I immediately asked for samples to test for biochar thinking I’d uncovered a novel new feedstock. When I had time for a quick tete-a-tete with Master Google I soon found out that my novel idea wasn’t so novel after all, others are on the case!

Turns out for every pound of delicious fungi produced, five pounds of substrate are needed, so there is a growing amount of this stuff around looking for appropriate end uses. The moisture content is pretty high (>60%) which can be a challenge for charring, but a CHAB unit could help with that.

After a mushroom flush (think harvest not toilet!) sometimes the substrate can be ‘dunked’ or rewetted to grow another flush. Apparently after dunking some growers ‘roll’ the substrate in vermiculite to increase water holding capacity. So another interesting possibility for biochar would be to roll the mushroom growing medium in biochar and get rid of the not very eco-friendly, vermiculite. Within an aquaponics system, I’m wondering if by dunking the substrate in the nutrient rich fish water, sufficient nutrients would be added back in to the substrate to provide for more flushes. Alas this is completely outside of my area of focus but still interesting to put out there for someone else to answer or research.

From a quick scan I also learned that SMS needs to be heat treated before it leaves the grow room to eliminate any pathogens before being added to compost or land applied. With a CHAB unit in the greenhouse, the heat could most likely be used for this purpose.

What I’m really wondering though, is whether biochar or a biochar blend could be used as a mushroom substrate. Surprisingly Master Google failed to deliver any interesting research or projects on this topic. If anyone has knowledge on this, I’d love to know!

Next up I’ll be casting about for biochar synergies for aquaculture!

CHARvest the Invaders!

Char the Invaders!

Make biochar out of invasive species

Today I read about how the NY DEC will be doing a controlled burn of 14.5 acres at a wetland to rid the area of phragmites australis (aka the common reed). Apparently this kind of controlled burn, also called a prescribed fire, is pretty common.   Little did I know (till this morning actually) that every year hundreds of thousands of acres are deliberately torched for a variety of reasons, from habitat management to wildfire control.   That’s a whole lotta CO2 going up in smoke, not to mention fine particulate matter which is no doubt aiding & abetting asthma!

I totally get the reasons for doing this, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity.  Time for another biochar intervention me thinks!  Yes, charring would be far more labor intensive (read: expensive), but it would also be safer, less polluting in terms of air quality,  AND provide a by-product that could potentially enable increased bio-diversity and improved water quality. Heck maybe they could even sell the standing invading or diseased biomass to a biochar producer for a few bucks and have the biochar companies come in to ‘CHARvest’ the lot.  Seems like a fair trade to me.

There are already a few ways to convert invasive species or forestry slash  into biochar.  One interesting model is from Carbon Cultures, which looks something like a tent but acts like a mobile kiln.  Another option from down under is the CharMaker, made by Earth Systems Bioenergy. The char produced could be used strategically within the area charred to help rejuvenate soils or remediate any toxins.

A third option which offers interesting possibilities for areas that drain down into a body of water, might be do dig a ditch and burn the biomass in the ditch (see great ‘how-to’ post here).  Leaving the char in situ would help keep excess nutrients or toxins from polluting wet lands and other water bodies.

That food versus fuel argument sometimes bandied about to quench the hope for biochar is looking sillier and sillier…