Harvesting Biochar
(From My Woodstove)

Dateline: 27 March 2009
Updated: 27 April 2013

The photo-tutorial that was once on this page has been removed. In the 4 years since I posted it here I have greatly improved my wood-stove biochar making system. You can read all about it in The Planet Whizbang Idea Book For Gardeners.


homestead for happiness said...

I have been a big fan for awhile now, but have not commented. You never cease to amaze me. This blog is not only an inspiration for me, but it helps to know that there are other like minded individuals out there. Please don't stop blogging.

cntrydad said...

Hi Herrick:
I love your blog and whizbang tools and ideas!
I don't know if this would work, but you could try crushing your charcoal between 2 patio stones (18x18 or 24x24). Place a tarp on the ground, then a patio stone, some charcoal and then the other patio stone and turn it a few times and your charcoal should turn to dust. Good luck!

Anna said...

I've gotten intrigued by terra preta this year too. At first, I thought it was just charcoal, but there's actually quite a bit more to it. It turns out that terra preta is formed from charcoal, compost, and possibly urine. It's pretty complex and no one's quite sure why it's so awesome, maybe because of the large surface area from the charcoal. I posted on my blog about how terra preta adds fertility to soil and someone posted a very thought-provoking comment about the science behind it. I highly recommend you scroll down to the bottom of the page on my blog and check it out!

Celt said...

I have just started doing this myself. I read several articles on 'black earth' from the Mayans, or Aztecs, or whatever, and have been harvesting from my fireplace.

The great thing about this stuff is that it has several uses. You can throw it in your garden to hold minerals, you can pulverize it and use it as an activated carbon filter for filtering water, and you can re-use it to quickly ignite your fires. This stuff instantly ignites and throws off a tremendous amount of heat, so I use it to jump-start my fireplace when I have wood that is just a little too green.

Sweet Dog Farm said...

I think one of the main differences between biochar and charcoal is that biochar is created in the absence of oxygen. The methods that I have seen are where a large fire is created around (usually in a pit) a sealed metal container with wood inside.

I believe a little more research is in order to determine the complex differences in the biochar process.

Omelay said...

i read somewhere that you should soak your charcoal in chicken manure tea to charge it with nitrogen and nutrients. it will work better as a soil amendment.

Celt said...

One other use of biochar that I forgot to mention. Smithy's will sometimes make their own 'coal' by taking a steal drum, fill it with wood, then seal the drum. Put the drum over an open fire (making sure to have a vent for gases to escape) and cooking the wood in order to get char that will burn hot enough to forge metal.

Erich J. Knight said...

Biochar data base;

Disscusion Groups;
The group home page location, General orientation:
Biochar (http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/biochar/
Biochar POLICY;
Biochar Soils;
Biochar Production;

Earth Science Terra Preta Forum, Great for students;http://hypography.com/forums/terra-preta/


The Ozzie's for 5 years now in field studies
The future of biochar - Project Rainbow Bee Eater

The Japanese have been at it dacades, Lots of work as animal feed:
Japan Biochar Association ;

UK Biochar Research Centre

Virginia Tech is in their 4 th year with the Carbon Char Group's "CharGrow" formulated bagged product. An idea whose time has come | Carbon Char Group
He said the 2008 trials at Virginia Tech showed a 46% increase in yield of tomato transplants grown with just 2 - 5 cups (2 - 5%) "CharGrow" per cubic foot of growing medium. http://www.carbonchar.com/plant-performance

Dr. Rory Maguire,
In first year with Poultry litter char

USDA in their 2 nd year; "Novak, Jeff" , & "david laird" ,
There are dozens soil researchers on the subject now at USDA-ARS.
and many studies at The up coming ASA-CSSA-SSSA joint meeting;

Nikolaus has been at it 4 years. Nikolaus Foidl,
His current work with aspirin is Amazing in Maize, 250% yield gains, 15 cobs per plant;

My 09 field trials with the Rodale Institute & JMU ;
Alterna Biocarbon and Cowboy Charcoal Virginia field trials '09 http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/node/1408

Herrick Kimball said...

Thanks everyone for your comments here. It would appear that all porous carbonaceous material is not created equal, and the best biochar is made in an oxygenless environment. Nevertheless, I'll proceed to experiment with this in my garden. And I'll plan to try making biochar in a sealed metal drum using wood scrap, corn stalks, or other dry, woody garden refuse.

My apologies for deleting the post you made with the hot links. If you could post it again I will then delete the one above this comment. :-(

Anonymous said...

My wife needed some powdered charcoal a couple of years ago for some project or other she was working on. Rather than buy the expensive powdered stuff I simply ran a few chunks of natural chunk charcoal through my old Corona grain mill, it worked like a charm and powdered the charcoal in no time. Just an option if you are looking to fully pulverize prior to garden application. If you have a large amount, the Corona can be powdered with a drill to facilitate the process.

Anonymous said...

After sifting the hot coals from the ash, you could also try dumping them into an empty paint can and re-sealing the lid -- this might be easier than washing the coals...

Grene said...

Please soak your charcoal with compost tea for 2 weeks this will greatly speed up the healthy processes when added to the soil. Otherwise nutrients may be reduced in the soil as they colonize the charcoal, by soaking in compost you can speed up the process by 2 years making the soil improve quicker. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Having worked with organic gardening since the early '70s (the Rodales' books), I believe gardening success using charcoal is due to the minerals in it, along with the aeration of the soil caused by the chunks.

Bruce Hopkins

Anonymous said...

Somewhere along the line a decade back I saw pictures of farmers dumping semi-loads of coal onto their fields.

The same nooks and crannies that make charcoal a good filter also makes a good apartment complex for microorganisms in a reasonably biologically active soil.

I would think setting a metal garbage can full of leaves nestled into a outdoor fire would get you a good start. The carbon would be pre-powdered.

Anonymous said...

What a colossal waste of time. Chemicals are good. All farmers and gardeners should take advantage of chemicals.

Celt said...

It's really hard for me to stomach fools that say something stupid then have the audacity t run away leaving the simple and cowardly name of 'anonymous'.

Erich J. Knight said...

To me, in the long run, the final arbiter / accountancy / measure of sustainability will be
soil carbon content. Once this royal road is constructed, traffic cops ( Carbon Board ) in place, the truth of land-management and Biochar systems will be self-evident.

The Ag Carbon standard is in the second phase of review by the AMS-ARC branch at USDA.
After initial review they had objections on the oversight provisions and a few others that have been addressed. The next step in this process will be nominations for elections to seat a Soil C Board, a supreme court, if you will, under USDA / EPA oversight, to validate / certify practice & protocols for systems that build soil C.

A dream I've had for years is to base the coming carbon economy firmly on the foundation of top soils. My read of the agronomic history of civilization shows that the Kayopo Amazon Indians and the Egyptians were the only ones to maintain fertility for the long haul, millennium scales. Egypt has now forsaken their geologic advantage by building the Aswan dam, and are stuck, with the rest of us, in the soil C mining, NPK rat race to the bottom.

The Biochar Fund deserves your attention and support.
Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon

Biochar Soils.....Husbandry of whole new orders & Kingdoms of life

Biotic Carbon, the carbon transformed by life, should never be combusted, oxidized and destroyed. It deserves more respect, reverence even, and understanding to use it back to the soil where 2/3 of excess atmospheric carbon originally came from.

We all know we are carbon-centered life, we seldom think about the complex web of recycled bio-carbon which is the true center of life. A cradle to cradle, mutually co-evolved biosphere reaching into every crack and crevice on Earth.

Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent.

Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,

Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.

Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw;
"Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes;
"Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !".
Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar.
Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
Microbes like to sit down when they eat.
By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life.

This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it.
Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web. The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet. Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure we need to build out.

Biochar systems for Biofuels and soil carbon sequestration are so basically conservative in nature it is a shame that republicans have not seized it as a central environmental policy plank as the conservatives in Australia have; Carbon sequestration without Taxes.

A Chronology of my postings of 4 years;

Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't mind all the crazy talk here if it weren't for the fact that you fools are beginning to damage the planet. The organic food movement is, at best, a marketing gimmick. At worst it has a real potential to cause widespread misery.

In the not so distant past, everyone was organic. This was not a good thing. Words like peasant, famine, and slave were used far more commonly than today. Then, slowly and over a long period of time, brilliant chemists and farmers began to find ways of manipulating the building blocks of our world (elements) in ways that were beneficial to humanity. They figured out how to harness the power of science to make life vastly better for literally billions of people. This is a wonderful thing, no? Oh, that's right, some people actually think this is a bad thing!?!?

Fact: there are thousands of times more naturally occurring carcinogenic chemicals in the food we eat than there are pesticide residues.

Fact: if we stopped using man-made fertilizers we could only continue to feed the world by collecting every ounce of waste from every domesticated animal (including humans) on the planet and using it as fertilizer.

Fact: if all farmers went organic we would need to convert every acre of arable land on the planet to cropland, including vast tracts of marginal land. The entire Brazillian rain forest, for example, would need to be cleared and cultivated.

Fact: organic food is not more nutritious than traditionally grown food

Fact: farmers who use chemicals in the u.s. have a lower incidence of cancer than the general population (20 year study of 80,000 farmers and their families).


Organic is a religion, it is not a scientifically sound course of action. One final thought - do you organic zealots really believe that all the scientists and farmers who worked together to develop the current agricultural system are evil? Do you really believe they are all trying to destroy the planet? Does that really make any sense at all to anyone???

Erich J. Knight said...

Modern Ag has evolved in the ability to remove the limitations of plant growth, from burning forest for fertilizer to Guano islands then to crafty Germans figuring out how to suck nitrogen from the air to now with natural gas derived fertilizers.

NPK and the "Green Revolution" in genetics have brough us to where we are, all made possible by basically mining soil carbon stocks.

We can not go back, but we can go forward with our newly acquired wisdom.

In E. O. Wilson's "The Future of Life" he opens the book with a letter to Thoreau updating him on our current understanding of the nature of the ecology of the soils at Walden Pond.

" These arthropods are the giants of the microcosm (if you will allow me to continue what has turned into a short lecture). Creatures their size are present in dozens-hundreds, if an ant or termite colony is presents. But these are comparatively trivial numbers. If you focus down by a power of ten in size, enough to pick out animals barely visible to the naked eye, the numbers jump to thousands. Nematode and enchytraied pot worms, mites, springtails, pauropods, diplurans, symphylans, and tardigrades seethe in the underground. Scattered out on a white ground cloth, each crawling speck becomes a full-blown animal. Together they are far more striking and divers in appearance than snakes, mice, sparrows, and all the other vertebrates hereabouts combined. Their home is a labyrinth of miniature caves and walls of rotting vegetable debris cross-strung with ten yards of fungal threads. And they are just the surface of the fauna and flora at our feet. Keep going, keep magnifying until the eye penetrates microscopic water films on grains of sand, and there you will find ten billion bacteria in a thimbleful of soil and frass. You will have reached the energy base of the decomposer world as we understand it 150 years after you sojourn in Walden Woods."

Certainly there remains much work to just characterize all the estimated 1000 species of microbes found in a pinch of soil, and Wilson concludes at the end of the prolog that;

"Now it is up to us to summon a more encompassing wisdom."

Soil Carbon Dream

I have a dream that one day we live in a nation where progress will not be judged by the production yields of our fields, but by the color of their soils and by the Carbon content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, a suite of earth sensing satellites will level the playing field, giving every farmer a full account of carbon he sequesters. That Soil Carbon is given as the final arbiter, the common currency, accountant and Judge of Stewardship on our lands.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made forest, the rough soils will be made fertile, and the crooked Carbon Marketeers will be made straight, and the glory of Soil Sequestration shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see a Mutually assured Sustainability.

This is our hope.

My apologies to Dr. King, but I think he would understand my passion

Anonymous said...

Erich, you nut, your dream is called mass starvation. I don't know what you zealots are smoking, but billions of people starving to death would indeed be a bad thing.

Yields ARE the ultimate goal. If you want to pluck horn worms off the tomato plants in your back yard by hand and you want a drawer full of worms in your kitchen and you want to put the charcoal chunks from your woodstove in your strawberry patch, go for it. But don't pretend that any of this crap is sustainable. It isn't.

The people with brains are working for Monsanto. You should take a closer look at the philosophy they support.

Anonymous said...

Erich, you nut, your dream is called mass starvation. I don't know what you zealots are smoking, but billions of people starving to death would indeed be a bad thing.

Yields ARE the ultimate goal. If you want to pluck horn worms off the tomato plants in your back yard by hand and you want a drawer full of worms in your kitchen and you want to put the charcoal chunks from your woodstove in your strawberry patch, go for it. But don't pretend that any of this crap is sustainable. It isn't.

The people with brains are working for Monsanto. You should take a closer look at the philosophy they support.

Erich J. Knight said...

Dear Anonymous.
If you would have bothered to read the Soil Carbon Committee work, you would have noted that:
"The people with brains [who] are working for Monsanto" hosted this committee and have representatives on it. The Committee is composed of 100 plus folks from all the varied interested group concerning Ag, Big & small.

All political persuasions agree, building soil carbon is GOOD.
To Hard bitten Farmers, wary of carbon regulations that only increase their costs, Building soil carbon is a savory bone, to do well while doing good.

Biochar provides the tool powerful enough to cover Farming's carbon foot print while lowering cost simultaneously.

Another significant aspect of bichar is removal of BC aerosols by low cost ($3) Biomass cook stoves that produce char but no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing "Three Stone" stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria http://biocharfund.org/
The Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF).recently funded The Biochar Fund $300K for these systems citing these priorities;
(1) Hunger amongst the world's poorest people, the subsistence farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa,
(2) Deforestation resulting from a reliance on slash-and-burn farming,
(3) Energy poverty and a lack of access to clean, renewable energy, and
(4) Climate change.

The Biochar Fund :
Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon
The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that , and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )

Celt said...

Wow, more idiocy from the 'anonymous' gallery.

Searching for the cure your 'chemical folks' have found yet another cancer to disease us with and epically fail to realize it. I would rather pluck a few worms off my vegetables than bite into a poor tasting, possibly lethal tomato. Get your facts straight, you're insane if you seriously think Monsanto is the cure. They have had YEARS to better the worlds food supply and still have yet to do just that. They have made it worse.

Stop posting if you're going to cower under the rock of 'anonymous'.

Anonymous said...

I have read about this in a very good book

“The Biochar Revolution” with “The Biochar Solution”

I want to call this book: “All about Biochar” because “The Biochar Revolution” collects the results and best practical advice that these entrepreneurs have to offer to the biochar community.

Biochar Books
In the book you will read about the challenges of designing low-emissions biochar production systems from small-scale stoves to farm-scale pyrolyzers. Another section of the book is devoted to explaining simple tests to characterize biochar and methods for conducting valid field trials.

Biopejs said...

Thanks for this informative post about bio fuel that we mostly think that useless. Thanks for showing how to create a source of long lasting fuel source.

Yolk said...

Great post! I don't have a boil time because it is very subjective. Starting a fire suitable for boiling water is quite a bit different than just starting a fire.

Erich J. Knight said...

Clean Biomass cooking is no small thing.

The World Bank Study;
Biochar Systems for Smallholders in Developing Countries:
Leveraging Current Knowledge and Exploring Future Potential for Climate-Smart Agriculture

has very exacting analysis of biomass usage & sources, energy & emissions.
Also for Onion farmers in Senegal and Peanut farmers in Vietnam.

A simple extrapolation made from the Kenya cook stove study, assuming 250M
TLUDs, (Top-Lite Up Draft) Cook Stoves for the roughly 1 billion folks world wide now using open burning.
A TLUD per Household of 4, producing 0.52 tons char/Household/yr, X 250M = 130 Mt Char/yr
Showing sequestration of 130 Million tons of Biochar per year, could be achieved just from cooking.
In terms of CO2e, these 250M Households reduce 825M Tons of CO2e annually.

The cascading pulmonary health benefits for woman & children is the very thick icing on this nearly 1/2 GtC Soil Carbon Cake.