Biochar versus aliens…

A sustainable energy manager I know just came across another report on some of the findings from Stonelaws Farm in Scotland where the benefits of biochar are currently being assessed. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, biochar is plant waste which is heated at very high temperature in an oxygen free environment so that it does not burn. The result is gases/ liquids which can potentially be used as fuel or agricultural treatments and a dry, carbon rich solid similar to charcoal which when added to fields can enhance crop yields whilst retaining the carbon it contains for years…

As the article mentions seemingly “Win-Win-Win-Win”. Sceptics do remain (and in any case it is probably good to make sure we really understand the full impact of biochar before we heat all our plant waste), but generally the prospects are good. I have to admit I like the solution – the simplicity of it and the fact that it seems to replicate the regular cycles of fertilisation are really appealing. Unfortunately the simplicity might actually be what kills it – a lot of money will flow into climate change mitigation and adaptation and some of the investors are looking for overarching solutions and this one would require coordinating a lot of farmers. It also seems we are not very good when it comes to changing our day to day behaviour – after all energy efficient lightbulbs and insulation have some of the best business cases in terms of sustainable investments (especially in colder countries), and yet we are still loath to make the change…

Now me… I think biochar offers interesting prospects when thought of as a mechanism to tackle alien invasive plants and promote indigenous ones, as well as sustainable livelihoods. I am asking a lot of it and granted, the technology will probably remain quite expensive for a good while but imagine the following scenario / equation:

1) A (municipal?) task team removing alien invasives like Syringas and planting indigenous plants in their place..

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2) A centralised Biochar Processing Unit where alien invasives are made into biochar…

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3) Biochar is then redistributed to the communities from which the alien plants were extracted… Excess can be sold (there are a million and one Syringas in Durban, for example)

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Control of alien invasive plants, communities with indigenous plants and a carbon rich solid that can enhance crop yields, which will help them to grow their own food…

Too idealistic? Probably… What are your thoughts?

 

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11 Responses to Biochar versus aliens…

  1. Juanita June 8, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    It’s a fantastic idea…very idealistic but still a good one. Now only for the implementation part, right!

    A small scale, small community test case scenario with a few willing farmers would be a good place to start as a proving ground. But again, the time/effort/cost/education/skill involved will be a barrier to success.

  2. mol-d June 8, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    i would say that if the municipality bought the necessary machinery, it would just be a matter of maintenance – chopping and planting tress, which they already do – and distribution…? seems simple?

  3. Juanita June 8, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    Alas, many things could logically be simple, but simply aren’t in this country.

  4. Walter June 9, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    Hi,

    We are busy testing a South African technology and process with the aim to build units at Municipalities and process at large scale the green ‘waste’ to biochar/high quality charcoal and at the same time generate clean energy.

    Will keep you updated.

  5. mol-d June 9, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    hi walter,

    sounds interesting! it would be great if you could post in some details to post@sprig.co.za.

    thanks!

  6. JennyE June 12, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    What a wonderful idea, we have an enormous proglem with Black wattle and Blue Gums in our valley and to get some one to remove them and be able to make money is a great idea. Where are the enterprising young entrepreneurs !!

  7. Tomas Persson August 28, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    Hi Walt,

    We are looking for Biochar producing equipment. Please connect. greenforze@gmail.com 081 485 0949

    Tomas Persson

  8. Marietjie September 1, 2011 at 8:00 am #

    I like the idea and yes it can work. Every municipality should have a piece of land inside their area/town or city where they plant fruit trees and vegetables which will feed the unemployed.And yes, the unemployed must somehow contribute to the labor of these sites. We are the country with the highest unemployment and still we have an influx from the peoples of Africa. If these projects can be sponsored to get going and create employment again it is a sustainable way which is very much needed. This is how I see the future and how it should be. Re-create the gardens of Eden. Re-create healthy sustainable communities and healthy sustainable environments. We have abundance on this planet. We just need to do it.

  9. Richard April 16, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    I saw a video of how biochar has been made in 200 litre drums with great success. I think it would be perfect to make biochar on small scale. However to make biochar for a 10 hectare field is a different story. I was toying with the idea of digging a trench 2m wide x 2m high x 15m long. At the bottom of this trench laying a steel pipe with holes in and bent up towards the surface for air supply. Now fill the trench with organic matter, like whole branches and pack tightly as possible. I’m trying to avoid the cost of chipping the branches first. This you set alight and the trench then will be covered with a steel lid with a few chimneys.

  10. Richard April 16, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

    Sorry, posted prematurely by accident.
    Basically when burnt through the fire will be smothered by blocking off the vents. Remove the lid and extinguish finally with water. Then I plan to lift the pipe up and place on top of the extinguished biochar, fill again with organic matter and repeat the process untill the trench is full. Then scoop it all out with a loader.
    Please comment on whether you think this could be feasible.

  11. Kobus Venter February 4, 2015 at 9:49 am #

    My comment is almost 4 years on from when this article was written and I would like to think that we have taken that step up to make biochar on larger scale. Three 200 L drums filled with invasive wattle biomass is pyrolised into biochar per batch burn. Check out http://www.vuthisa.com/2013/12/23/the-vuthisa-biochar-initiative/

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