The Biochar Tipping Point

biochar tipping point

I am a huge Malcom Gladwell fan and I recently reread his book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”.  As with nearly all of the non-fic books I read, I tend to think about how the information presented could be applied to the world of sustainability.  More specifically with this book I was mulling over how Gladwell’s thinking could be used to help biochar reach a Tipping Point.  Below are my mulled upon musings:

There are three overarching themes Gladwell promotes as being necessary for something to reach a tipping point which are:

  1. The Law of the Few – a few key people are needed to launch an epidemic (specifically Connectors, Mavens and Sales People)
  2. The Stickiness Factor – i.e. you can’t get something out of your head
  3. The Power of Context – conditions need to be right

Connectors tend to be people that participate in a variety of different niches.  For biochar I think an ideal type of Connector could be Extension Agents or the folks at the USDA.  They are connected to Academia as well as Farmers.   I think we (biochar community) need to be working much more closely with this group!

Mavens are people that tend to know a lot and share their information easily.  Hans-Peter Schmidt from the Ithaka Institute (nicknamed the CH’artist) is a fantastic example of this, as is my research buddy ‘Charchemides’(also known as Christian Pulver)  to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude for educating me on the underlying science of biochar.   Folks like Albert Bates, Erich Knight and Dolph Cooke are also invaluable biochar sherpas (Charpas?).

Salespeople are charismatic, powerful negotiators that can influence people.  I think there are a few individuals that are effective at promoting biochar but we don’t have nearly enough yet.  One critical component for selling biochar is trustworthiness and sometimes I think ‘truthiness’ has been more prevalent.  That could be detrimental to the long term prospects for biochar.

The Stickiness Factor is where I think the biochar world needs to focus a bit more attention. Many love to tout the carbon offset potential of biochar.  Yet while this is one of the aspects that I find most promising about biochar for the planet, carbon offsets don’t make too many people swoon.  So how to make biochar sticky?  Therein lies the challenge…(perhaps we could engage the Ylvis brothers to write a song about biochar…?).  We need more clever minds to help us ‘Dig the Change’ as I like to say.

And finally there is the Power of Context, which is the notion that improving small things may lead to epidemics or rapid broad-scale change (e.g. removing graffiti led to reduced overall crime in NYC).  When I think of this for biochar, the first thing that comes to mind is that perhaps focusing biochar’s impact on climate change is the wrong lever.  Even the focus on yield improvement is a bit of a slippery slope because while biochar has been shown to improve yield incredibly in depleted soils, in other trials yield impact has been minimal or even negative (Gasp! Yes it has happened. This is why I always pipe up and counsel people to ‘know what you sow’!.).  Maybe if we focus on some specific things that farmers struggle with that biochar can address such as arsenic or e coli in their soils, odor problems in their lagoons, then biochar will begin to take off in other directions in the farming community.  These are things that can have positive environmental, financial and social implications for farmers so they may be more persuasive and compelling than the focus on saving the planet.


Carbon Planner – Biochar Specialist

Carbon PlannerBased on some of the stuff I’ve been learning and doing over the past year, I decided to design the ultimate fantasy/future biochar related job and have bestowed upon it the title of “Carbon Planner – Biochar Specialist”.  I could see this working at all sorts of levels including municipal, state or federal government, corporations or even at college campuses.  I would really love to see this kind of role catch fire…er, take off that is.

Job Description

Using GHG emissions benchmarks for (city, county, company, campus, etc.), develop strategies for ambitious annual emission offsets and reductions using biochar.  Collaborate with generators of underutilized biomass to determine viability for biochar production, optimal end use, including quantification of economic and environmental impacts.  Liaise with federal, state and local government agencies (e.g. FEMA, Soil & Water Conservation Agency, DEC, etc.) to prioritize uses of biochar including but not limited to: ameliorate brown fields, augment carbon levels in depleted soils, reduce or replace the use of products which cause high carbon emissions (e.g. activated carbon, fertilizer, concrete, etc.).  Prioritize end use markets according to geographic proximity, GHG impact and environmental improvement.  Working with academia, keep abreast of potential new uses for biochar, best practices for applications and regional issues for consideration. Maximize all related co-products from biochar production including thermal energy, bio-oil, syngas.


Biochar as Soil Insurance?

Many farmers in the US buy federally insured crop insurance every year as a way to stay afloat when weather, insects or other disasters take a chunk out of their yields or revenues.  Perhaps there is a case to be made for biochar as a risk management strategy as a kind of ‘soil insurance’.  My thoughts du jour on this are as follows:

Minimize negative weather related impacts.  Droughts are increasingly common and have been the cause of enormous loss of crops in the past few years.  Biochar has been shown to improve soil’s water holding capacity which can help plants survive longer and reduce the need for irrigation.  The frequency of heavy rainfall is also on the uptick and often carries off large amounts of productive topsoil.  Floods can leave toxins on soils rendering crops unfit for human consumption.  Biochar can help neutralize such unwanted deposits.

Improve yield.  While the impact biochar can have on yield varies widely, generally speaking and used properly, biochar can improve yield, especially in poor soils or under challenging weather conditions

Improve soil health.  Pests can take a toll on crops. Research has shown that biochar improves microbial activity in soils which can help improve resistance to pests which could mean fewer pesticides are needed. Bacteria such as e coli in soil can be deadly to humans and costly to farmers.  A few studies have indicated that adding biochar to soil is effective for inactivating certain pathogens (e.g. EHEC, STEC and Salmonella) in soil.  Also some soils have toxic levels of arsenic or copper from previous pesticide use (abuse!) which can be taken up by crops.  Biochar is able to render these toxins unavailable to plants.

Decrease negative environment impacts.  Nutrient run-off from farm land has caused massive dead zones in rivers, lakes and oceans to the extent that many regions are now beginning to regulate the amount and timing of nutrient additions.  I would guess that fines will eventually be assessed once those regulations are rolled out.  Biochar placed in swales or added over fields can reduce this run-off which not only helps local water bodies, but I would think local communities would be happier too if their lakes have less algae so they can get back to swimming or fishing in them.

Now if only there was a way to get the government to subsidize this kind of soil insurance like they do for crop insurance!

Blog Pics - Biochar as Soil Insurance

2013 Biochar Symposium

The 2013 Biochar Symposium held last month in Amherst was charrific with over 300 attendees from academia to agriculture, from non-profits to biochar businesses and consultants with plenty of newbies balanced by many who have been in the biochar world for a decade or more.  I fall somewhere in the middle these days …(i.e. I work a lot with academia and ag, I feel like I am a non-profit instead of a consultant some days and I’ve been around the biochar world for nearly 4 years!).

I had been part of the Symposium Planning Committee heading up the Benefits & Uses Track for over a year so it was gratifying to see things go so well.  The event kicked off with a Farmers Workshop at the New England Small Farm Institute, which is a wonderful place in Belchertown where I first learned how to make char out of a TLUD.  Judy Gillen does an amazing job running NESFI and she acted as our very gracious hostess for the workshop.  I had asked some very capable PhD students at Cornell, Rachel Hestrin & Thea Whitman,  as well as the indefatigable David Yarrow to create biochar content that would be relevant to farmers.  “Charchemides” and I also did a presentation on “The  of Anatomy of a Biochar Trial” [you can download the presentation here – warning though – my presentations tend to be more pictures than words so you might not get the whole jist from this deck!].  We had standing room only attendance and lots of great dialogue throughout the workshop.

The Symposium was filled with amazing content covering four different tracks: Feedstock & Production; Benefits & Uses; Policy & Community; and Sales, Scale & Marketing.  For better or for worse I only saw the presentations in the Benefits & Uses track but they were really, really interesting and diverse. There is so much going on in so many different research fields these days, it is exciting.   A majority of the Symposium presenters allowed us to share their presentations which are now up on the conference website.  Some are not able to share the content as their research is still in the peer review stage but they were able to describe and discuss some very interesting research.

Presentation videos will be added to a youtube channel that we created for the Symposium once the video editing is completed – which turned out to be quite the arduous task!   You may even get to see my IGNITE talk called “Balancing the Hope & Hype of Biochar”…I’m sure you can’t wait!  I’ll post more on that later but here was the title slide…

Balancing Hope & Hype

CHARpe Diem!

Who is ready to change the world?  The world below our feet needs help as does the atmosphere surrounding us.  Believe it or not there is a “soil-ution” almost as easy as changing your lightbulbs…only this has a more long lasting impact.  Allow me to introduce you to BIOCHAR (aka Terra Preta), a (relatively) low tech carbon sequestration method that is actually beneficial…unlike some of the other rather scary and expensive sequestration ideas being tested out there.

First let me confess that I am not a scientest – not by a long shot.  I am a mom first and foremost that went seeking some hope for postive climate change mitigation news.  Well I do believe biochar fits that bill.  I am in the process of setting up Finger Lakes Biochar, a local small scale biochar production company focused on coverting agricultural waste, maybe even forestry waste as I live near a community college with a kick-ass Woodsmen Team that generates rather a lot of that, into biochar.

As time allows, I will be updating this site with various information that I hope will help inspire others to learn about it, use it properly and help spread the word.  But I warn you I, like most other moms, am juggling so posting may be somewhat less than regular.

CHARpe Diem! Make your soils excellent!  (Who can name the movie this is ripping off!)