From Sink Holes to Carbon Sinks

Sinkholes to Carbon Sinks

For no apparent reason, I seem to have a perverse fascination with sink holes.  I’ve never seen one up close nor do I live in an area of the world where they are common.  But it seems to me that both the frequency and the parts of the world where they are occurring are on the increase.

Every time I see a new story on the latest sink hole, I spend a few minutes flirting with Master Google to learn more about them.  Regions with cavities in the earth’s surface are usually where sinkholes are most likely to occur, be they from Mother Nature (e.g. caves or aquifers) or from mankind (e.g. abandoned mines or sewage lines).  Changes to these cavities resulting from downpours, droughts and fracking are often the cause and there seems to be a lot more of all three of those these days!

What to do with a giant hole in the ground?  In ancient times sinkholes were often used as a sort of landfill which could lead to polluting of groundwater.  Nowadays there are different solutions to sinkholes from converting them into lakes, to filling them with cement or grout.  In extreme cases, communities have been forced to flee the area or risk being swallowed up!

How to go from sinkhole to carbon sink – to turn the abyss into something better if not quite bliss? With biochar of course!  I’m really treading on shaky ground here from a science perspective, but it seems to me that instead of drilling & filling with grout or concrete, a better solution might be filling up the nooks & crannies with biochar.  Not only would this probably allow water to filter down to recharge aquifers more quickly, it would likely help filter toxins and thus keep them out of the groundwater or in the case of the ever expanding Louisiana sinkhole, it might help mitigate some of the H2S or methane that seems to be percolating up from the ground.  And the silver lining?  LOTS of carbon sequestered!

Just how much CO2 could be sequestered in this manner is a little hard to calculate.  But considering just this one hole in Guatemala was 100’ deep and gobbled up 6,500 square feet of concrete in an attempt to put a band-aide on the gash, there seems to be a plenty of room to bury this highly stable form of carbon in the ever growing number of sinkholes.

It might be interesting to explore this idea with old oil wells too.  Texas sure needs some help recharging their aquifers these days and they have a heck of a lot of old oil wells dotting their landscape.

Such are my latest musings from the latest rabbit hole I stumbled down…

Terra Pee Pads

Terra Pee Pad v2

A few days ago, I took my sleepless night idea, the Terra Pee Pad for puppies with small bladders, to the next level and made a V1 prototype pictured above.

Making it was fairly simple.  I purchased a roll of biodegradable landscaping fabric (could not believe I’d find that in January) and sewed up the sides.  Inside I added a few pounds of a biochar + vermicompost mix that I had sitting around and then sewed up the top.  As some of the finer particles of char can escape this kind of fabric, I put the Pad in a low box so it wouldn’t make a mess on the floor.

The results have been interesting.  While I would love to claim that puppy trotted right over to it for a quick pee on the pad, she has taken awhile to figure out that there is a preferred spot for doing her business, at least in my humble opinion.  Having said that, she has now started to use the TP pad for its intended use and more.  I am happy to report my human nose could detect ZERO odors after several deposits.  I shouldn’t be too surprised with that, but what did surprise me is that the canine nose apparently has no issues with it either.  How do I know this?  Well puppy doesn’t just pee on the Pad, she has slept on it too.  Kind of gross, but kind of interesting too.  I have some ideas for v2 of the TP pad but I have to say I’m liking the concept a lot so far!

In reading up on the contents of dog urine, ever a fascinating subject, and how destructive it can be to lawns (unless of course you like the polka dot look) and urban trees, it occurred to me that homeowners might want to create a little Terra Pee sandbox for dogs to conduct their business in with a similar TP pad which could eventually be used in gardens.  And for those poor peed upon urban trees, how about a TP skirt around the trunk so that the trees don’t OD on nitrogen and fall to an early demise?  I know Chicago is testing char on urban trees but they are drilling the char into the soil.  Perhaps layering it on top in a contained package like the TP pad might be another solution, at least for those trees that doggies tend to favor.  Now if I could only convince some urban landscapers to give this a shot…

Potty Training Puppies with Terra Preta?

Potty Training

Few things are as exciting or exhausting as a new puppy.   In my life I can only think of two: raising children and being on the ground floor of the nascent biochar industry.  Not satisfied with only two of these in my life, I’ve decided that three exciting, exhausting outlets is really what I need to make my life complete(ly crazy).

Enter a 2.5 lb Pugzu puppy who has yet to be named (I’m a pushing for Preta but my daughter is not yet convinced).  In an effort to housebreak (interesting word for it) the puplette I’ve been researching all sorts of ridiculous inventions such as the elegantly named ‘wee wee pads’.  It’s bad enough that we send zillions of tons of baby diapers to landfills but the thought of adding doggie diapers to garbage mountains was keeping me up at night (of course that could have just been the puppy).

Then this morning at 3am, the solution hit me.  I really need to make a reusable or recyclable version of a wee wee pad with biochar inside.  I’ve dubbed this world-changing idea the ‘Terra Pee’ Pad.  While you might think this is a tad crazy, there are already variations on this theme.  The CH’artist has a biochar pillow and he tells me it brings quite the peaceful slumber.  And the notion of using charcoal inserts in diapers is apparently gaining steam and hiding odors! Although the current inserts use an actual fabric made out of charcoal, I figure why not try loose char in some kind of pillowcase?  Once a certain amount of ‘business’ has been conducted on the Terra Pee pads, I can just empty the nitrogen filled char into the compost bin or the garden (which is under a foot of snow at the moment).  I am sure I will sleep much better tonight after having figured out how to combine two of the three exciting yet exhausting things in my life.  The hunt for washable, biodegradable fabric is on! (Recommendations welcome.)


Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

Oh Christmas Tree

It’s that time of year again when Christmas Trees by the millions have been weaned from their stumps to spruce up  homes around the world.  Last year in the US alone 24 million trees were sold that were grown on 174,000 acres of often marginal land, down from a peak of 446,996 acres in 2002.  Did you know that an acre of living Christmas trees can soak up to ~11,000 pounds of CO2  per year all the while providing enough oxygen for 18 people? Talk about a Giving Tree!

The good news is that an increasing number of communities host tree recycling programs where trees are chipped and the resulting mulch is used by residents or the local parks & recreation departments for a variety of different uses (e.g. mulch, erosion control, habitat creation, etc.).

Perhaps there is an even better use for all of those trees once they have decked the halls.  Consider this: by my back of the envelop calculations 24M trees contain the equivalent of at least 600 MILLION pounds of CO2.  In the current best case scenario (i.e. trees recycled into mulch) all of that CO2 goes back into the Carbon cycle within a few short years.  If, however, communities were to convert trees into biochar, up to half of the CO2 could then be prevented from re-entering the Carbon Cycle.  Communities looking to reduce their GHG emissions might be able to use this as a carbon offset product.  The heat generated during production could be used in the local Recycling Center and municipalities could sell the biochar to residents or to a third party as a revenue generating opportunity.

That could add up to a Ho Ho Ho Lotta savings and CO2 reductions!


A holiday song for my fellow Charistas:

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree!
Oh what I’d give to char thee!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,
Oh what I’d give to char thee!

 At first you’re green when summer’s here,
But then you’re dead after the New Year
Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,
Oh what I’d give to char thee!

 Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,
Much carbon could you bury!
Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,
Much carbon could you bury!

For every year the Christmas tree,
Could help the soil eternally.
Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,
Much carbon could you bury!


The Case for Waste Making Haste toward More Sustainable Cities

waste makes hasteThe notion of ‘waste’ is so last century.  In the new century this stuff is pure gold and I believe it could be the cornerstone for making urban areas more sustainable and even regenerative.  Waste optimization could also spur innumerable entrepreneurial ventures.

Waste conversion technologies are not new but next generation variants are gaining steam – some are even producing steam!  Historically many have focused on how to convert waste into some type of energy which is obviously better than shipping it off to landfills.  However newer versions of older technologies, such as thermochemical conversion (TC) create multiple end products including: heat, liquid biofuels and biochar, a highly stable form of carbon used as a soil amendment (also referred to as ‘char’ when not used in the soil). Multiple end-products allow for a more holistic approach to optimizing organic ‘waste’.

Here is a view on how cities can more closely mimic nature when it comes to managing their organics using TC technology.

Large scale TC equipment could be utilized at recycling centers where landscapers drop off tree debris which then generates heat & electricity for the recycling center, biogas to run the equipment, and biochar which could be added to compost to speed decomposition or used to reduce odors and control toxic leachate at local landfills or sold to generate income.

Smaller scale TC equipment could be used directly at the source of ‘waste’ generation such as food processors, restaurants, etc. where the heat & electricity could be used on-site to reduce costs and carbon footprints.  Char could be sold to a third party where, depending on the characteristics of the char and the needs & priorities of the region, it could be made into a wide variety of locally made products including:

Building materials: Char-clay plaster could be sprayed over walls to retrofit buildings with poor insulation, humidity issues (possibly after floods to prevent mold) or lead paint concerns.  Replacing cement with this highly sustainable product in new construction would materially improve the building’s carbon footprint.

Water filtration devices: Char filters could be used in food processing plants where organics are filtered out of the effluent.  Once absorbed in char filters these nutrients could be recycled back to the soil.

Remediation: Urban brownfields render otherwise valuable land useless. Biochar can be used to economically revitalize these areas.  Other cities ban growing food within city limits due to lead paint concerns in their soils.  As some biochars can neutralize lead, this would allow more urban gardening and improve local food security.

Growing medium: Roof gardens, greenhouses, garden walls could all benefit from a lightweight, locally produced soil amendment, especially if it were boosted with nutrients from the food processing plant’s effluent!  Biochar can also reduce the amount of water needed for growing plants.

Battery Storage: Early research shows potential for certain chars to be able to effectively replace rare earth metals in super capacitors & microbial fuel cell batteries.

Pet Products: Adding char to pet food improves health by removing pesticides used to grow much of the food found in animal feed. [Humans have ingested charcoal since ancient times as a means of detoxification!]  Kitty litter char would be highly sustainable and would actually be beneficial when sent to a landfill.

If cities take a more holistic approach to waste optimization they can create a more vibrant entrepreneurial environment while simultaneously improving clean water availability, producing renewable energy and creating green jobs. The added bonus is that biochar can safely help rebalance atmospheric carbon levels.

[This blog post is part of Masdar’s 2014 Engage Blogging Contest.]

Bovine Bedding & Biochar

bovine bedding

Outside of farmers, I suspect few people stay up at night pondering what cows actually sleep on.  But in the unlikely event that you are one of them, allow me to shed a little bit of light on this topic.  There is actually quite a variety of inorganic and organic bedding materials used nowadays.  The main criteria for selecting stuff to feather the bovine nest is a combination of health related concerns (e.g. needs to be comfy, dry, absorptive and should inhibit bacterial growth) and economic necessity (i.e. cheap, plentiful and the lower the labor required to get it in and out the better).

Common inorganic bedding products include sand (good, cheap but can be a nuisance to handle), limestone screenings, and gypsum (from recycled drywall; comes with hazard warnings!).  Inorganic products seem to be better at managing pathogens than the organic stuff which includes sawdust, straw, and shavings (from wood, not men’s chins).  Dried manure solids are apparently popular in some parlors (I have a hard time getting beyond the ick factor with that) although pathogens proliferate in dried dung. And now some cows are even enjoying waterbeds – talk about having to keep up with the Jerseys (cue the farm girl humor)!

While mucking stalls could never be classified as glamorous, it certainly never seemed to be considered hazard duty way back when I used to be relegated to barn clean up duties.  But some of the stuff being used as cow bedding can apparently be downright dangerous according to recent articles out of Cornell and Penn State.

Some farms use a bedding additive to reduce odors, absorb ammonia and suppress pathogens which can lead to mastitis and other nasty ailments.  I haven’t seen any solid research published specifically on using biochar as a bedding additive but I do know that most biochars are good at moisture control, can help with odor control and some studies have shown that it is helpful in disease suppression. Added to that is the ability of biochar to hold on to some of the valuable nutrients in manure which often get lost to the environment either through leaching or through volatilization.  [Did you know that in some experiments up to 99% can be lost?  What a waste!]  This type of multiple use strategy for biochar (or ‘cascading uses’ as the CH’artist calls it) where various triple bottom line benefits are derived makes for a very compelling ‘soilution’.

To recap, in the bovine bedding & biochar scenario the likely benefits are: odor control, improved pathogen control, reduced nutrient leaching, reduced volatilization, improved carbon content to soils, as well as, and this can’t be emphasized enough, no dangerous crap!  So farmers and researchers, isn’t it time to dive deep into bovine bedding & biochar research?

For any of you that have mucking stalls on your bucket list and might be passing through the Finger Lakes, I can definitely hook you up with the mucking experience of a lifetime!

Going with the flow: Biochar & Hydroponics


I am a complete and udder (cows roaming around in my brain!) utter newbie to the world of hydroponics so when I toured a hydroponics facility in Western New York this week I was like a kid in a candy store: all new stuff to learn and touch and taste (including the yummiest arugula I have ever tasted!).

My naïve assumption was that the biggest opportunity for biochar in the greenhouse world might be as a growing medium.  It still might be, but I learned that the ideal pH for plants in this particular greenhouse is between 5.5 – 5.8 which is lower than the average pH for most chars so we’ll have to figure out a process for lowering it.  However the farm manager actually pointed out a much more interesting opportunity for biochar within the context of hydroponics that has to do with the greenhouse effluent.  Apparently this stuff is loaded with phosphorous and nitrates.  In excess these nutrients can harm local ecosystems and even lead to eutrophication (which can turn lovely blue water into nasty green algae laden, oxygen starved cesspools).

Now I’m thinking that we need to first use the biochar as a filtration medium for the effluent.  Not only would this mitigate the damage to the local ecosystems but most likely the biochar will adsorb the nutrients and effectively charge the biochar with valuable macronutrients.  Then the grower will probably have a great little fertilizer that can be used in the hoop houses where they grow directly in the soil.

In search of a remedy for (unnecessary) antibiotics: oh, look Biochar!

mad cow1


Having grown up on a beef farm, I am no stranger to the need to medicate cows but honestly, do we need to sprinkle this stuff into their daily feed rations?   A recent study by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, called  ‘Industrial Food Animal Production in America”, highlights concerns that make my stomach feel like I might need antibiotics!  Their number one recommendation calls for phasing out and banning non-therapeutic use (i.e. weight gain and prevention of disease) of antimicrobials. They are definitely not happy with the FDA’s (rather toothless) ‘voluntary plan’ that would promote the suggestion that Big Pharma should phase out the use of 200+ antibiotics used for animals over three years (there are over 600 antibiotics in use).

But let’s be pragmatic for a moment, shall we?   The reality is that the owners of large feedlots (aka CAFOs) are capitalists at heart.  Most are focused on producing the most meat at the least cost and since the cost of feed can vary with the wind (well more accurately with the rain), any way to minimize feed costs is given more than a once over.  Enter the ‘miracle’ of antibiotic feed additives.  Not only do they act as a prophylactic and stave off illnesses which the crowded conditions often promote but they also improve feed efficiency!  Needless to say the longer term consequences of daily antibiotic intake such as the impact on the environment (i.e. contamination of air, water & soils) as well as on humans (i.e. increased resistance to antibiotics) are largely being ignored or blurred by the suggestion that the jury is still out on these long term impacts (sounds a lot like climate change in general!)

OK enough depressing news.  The GOOD news is that there are some tantalizing studies that show that biochar could be a more natural substitute.  These studies suggest that biochar could provide similar benefits AND more, not least of which is that biochar is not only not damaging to the environment but is restorative, nor does it have a negative impact on human health.

Last week I wrote about the study that indicates improved feed efficiency has been found as a result of feeding char to cows, but this study from the Ithaka Institute has shown significant health related improvements when biochar is added to livestock feed.  So with a healthier alternative available and an increasingly savvy and vocal consumer base, perhaps the ‘hay day’ of feeding antibiotics to cows may soon come to an end and Char-gain (or whatever names the producers come up with) may soon be found in every cow’s trough!


Ruminations on ruminants ruminating on biochar…

Char Cows

Recently I spoke with a local organic dairy farmer that is interested in testing biochar as a component of the total mixed rations (TMR) that she feeds her lactating ladies.  I learned a lot in speaking with her and this got me started ruminating about some recent biochar research that has caused quite a stir in the biochar community (check it out here)

According to this study adding small amounts of biochar to livestock feed can lead to increased feed conversion rates (cows get fatter on less food), but it can also lead to substantial methane (CH4) emission reductions.  Bovines are notorious sources for CH4 which has recently been found to be even MORE lethal to climate change than had been previously thought.  (When this topic comes up at your next dinner party, make sure to make everyone aware that you know that these bovine emissions mostly come the front end of the cow and not the other end, as is commonly believed!)  Since CH4 only hangs out in the atmosphere for a few decades, reducing it could really help mitigate global warming potential.  While I would think most of us would like to see these cow related emission rates reduced, an entrepreneurial bunch of Argentine scientists have figured out an ingenious, if rather unwieldy way to convert the CH4 into something useful.  I can’t quite picture cows sporting these gadgets …but I think I may be digressing.

The main point here is that cows emit methane.  Lots of methane.  Up to 300 liters every day per cow!  Some of that is attributable to the diet that we humans make them eat which is often a far cry from their traditional diet.  This has the unfortunate side effect of upsetting all four of their delicate tummies and so they have gas which needs to be gotten rid of!  And according to this study biochar, kind of like an antacid, helps calm the tummies and reduce the gas (that is my non-scientific interpretation!).

All of this is all well and good EXCEPT that that benefit on its own, is not going to get farmers to dash out and buy biochar since we don’t currently have any kind of incentive to reduce methane no matter the source (i.e. fracking is another BIG source). The other benefit, more efficient weight gain, is far more compelling at least for certain livestock populations (I can’t say too many women would want to take it for that reason though!).

Weight gain for a dairy herd is really only important for the first two years of life for replacement heifers (young lady cows).  After that, they try to maintain their girlish figures for the most part.  So for dairy cows and brood cows in the beef world, the efficient weight gain angle probably won’t work.  There are indications of other positive impacts that I’ll get into in future posts which could still make adding biochar to feed for dairy worthwhile from an economic perspective.  I would imagine those livestock farmers that would be most interested in the improved feed conversion aspect would be  those that are finishing steers into burgers, those raising hogs or those in the meat poultry world.

Tons more research is needed but I’d like to see if by adding biochar, farmers could eliminate bentonite clay or sodium bicarbonate (think baking soda) or probiotics from the TMR thereby offsetting the cost of biochar.   I’m still learning about the costs and environmental impacts of these products as well as all of the benefits they are supposed to provide to see how biochar stacks up as an alternative.

If you have any ruminations of your own on this topic, please share!

Four Biochar Production Models that Will Make Your Mother (Earth) Happy

There are a growing number of biochar production models emerging.  No one really knows which ones will ultimately survive and thrive – but my guess and hope is that more than one model will be triple bottom line successful!  So what does the evolving Char-o-sphere look like these days? I’m glad you asked…

First there are large scale biomass energy producers that generate biochar as a by-product of energy production.  I think we will start to see more and more of these that are capable of creating an enormous amount of biochar.  There is a delicate balance between optimizing generation of energy (e.g.  bio-oils, syngas or thermal energy) and the yield and quality of the biochar. As I understand it, some of these producers are able to shift this balance as the markets for the different products changes.

Then we see a few producers emerging that are really more focused on the quality of the biochar versus the other co-products of biochar production.  At the moment their market focus seems to be on the retail gardening market although there are other interesting niche market opportunities that are evolving in things like remediation.  Some of these are  beginning to expand in the US, while others are still fairly local or regional in focus.  (I can’t say with any degree of authority, what is happening beyond the borders of the USofA, but certain countries are marching along at a much faster clip!)

A third model that is beginning to emerge is the livestock waste conversion biochar production model.  Though this model solves the waste management issue in an environmentally friendly manner, there is the question of what to do with the resulting biochar that has posed some challenges as most large livestock producers don’t necessarily want to be selling biochar!  [Ideally off-take agreements will be set up….but that may take a while to sort out.]

And then there is my favorite, the holy-grail IMHO: the closed loop biochar production model.  In a nutshell, this is the model where the farmer or grower converts their own organic waste into biochar and then uses the char on-site.  Why is this so compelling and why will this go the furthest in terms of making Mother Earth happy?  First, in line with Wendell Berry’s ‘solving for pattern’ thinking, this mode of production addresses multiple problems in tandem such as waste management, depleted soils, nutrient leaching, etc.  Second, this type of production environment involves minimal transportation and therefore maximum carbon sequestration! Ultimately I think this is the model that could be most affordable for farmers as well…but time will tell!