“Whenever I plant something using biochar, not only is there the pleasant expectation of whatever it is — tomatoes, beans or peas — but I know that I am chipping away at that 415 ppm in the atmosphere and the CO2 which was in the plants that made my biochar will never go back into the atmosphere again.”
— Milton Wallace
I am grateful Milton Wallace could help me with this weekly post, because I have been traveling to and from speaking events and have found it difficult to keep up. The following is an account Milton wrote about one such event, at his ecovillage in Ontario.
Many people visit our ecovillage, including members’ relatives, people who want to help out on our Work Bee days, school groups, those interested in becoming members, workshop participants and more. One of the things we like to share with our many visitors, especially as we all are becoming more concerned, is the projects we have underway to help reverse climate change. What’s going on at our biochar site often draws the most attention.
Biochar is carbon that has been removed permanently from the atmosphere. Leading us forward on this project is 85-year-old Barbara Wallace, the oldest member of Whole Village. Because of her enthusiasm and single minded support, she is often referred to as “Biochar Barb.” She has had us making biochar for almost 5 years.
We make our biochar in a Kon Tiki pyrolysis kiln, so called because as the Kon Tiki raft crossed the ocean in the last century and revised our idea of human capabilities for finding something new, it is hoped the Kon Tiki kiln will help us create a new beginning. Our kiln was made by our neighbor John Rowe, who was kind enough to gift it to us.
Biochar can be made from anything that was once alive. We fill our kiln with dry wood waste from our many acres of woodland, and set it on fire. The kiln is constructed so that the fire’s flames shield the wood below and keep out oxygen. The kiln heats up to 500 to 700 degrees centigrade, driving out the wood oils and leaving pure carbon. The design of the kiln prevents any smoke or other emissions from escaping to the atmosphere.
So what can you do with biochar? Well it turns out you can do a whole lot! A recent tabulation found 55 uses for biochar. Biochar in asphalt road paving raises the temperature at which softening occurs and reduces rutting. In cement, biochar reduces weight, increases strength, provides indoor pollution control, humidity control, and much more. In toothpaste, it removes stains without abrasive or bleaching agents. In bedding, it adsorbs perspiration and odors. And so it goes — an amazing material which can be made into all kinds of things with amazing properties.
At Whole Village, we use it for agriculture. We grow vegetables, grains, berries, fruit and other trees, and add biochar to all as we plant. Biochar has a very porous structure. It is full of tunnels and pores where the wood gases and moisture used to be. The result is a condo like structure in which the microbes, bacteria and mycelia reside while they are helping our plants grow. Once all the critters have moved in, they can cut down fertilizer requirements significantly every year from then on. Another nice feature comes into play when rain is scarce. Biochar can hold almost 6 times its own weight in water which is made available right at the root zone.
We also use it in the barn. Spread on the floor, it cuts down on animal odors, and after it is shoveled out onto the compost pile that continues. Then we load it in our manure spreader and spread it all over our hay fields, helping to grow more and better hay. As a feed supplement, Biochar reduces diarrhea, improves feed intake, and has other benefits.
The latest reading at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii is 415 ppm of Carbon Dioxide in our atmosphere. We need to reduce that to about 260–280 ppm to avoid a lot of very serious consequences. Whenever I plant something using biochar, not only is there the pleasant expectation of whatever it is — tomatoes, beans or peas — but I know that I am chipping away at that 415 ppm in the atmosphere and the CO2 which was in the plants that made my biochar will never go back into the atmosphere again.
There are many different kinds of kilns in use all over the world. The Kon Tiki is a good size for a farm like ours. There are also small kilns that are good for house plants or a small garden. At the large end are more industrial sized plants. They can be located near a good source of materials for making biochar. They can also manufacture some of the many products enhanced by biochar. Money is not necessarily needed to make biochar. It is made in pits in the earth in many parts of the world.
Albert Bates is a friend of Biochar Barb’s and mine who is right up there in the list of major players in the biochar world. His latest book titled Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth, co-authored by Kathleen Draper, has the CO2 measuring instruments at Mauna Loa changing direction from up to down. Albert was at Whole Village earlier this month, and led an all day workshop attended by about 100 people from Canada and the U.S.
Burn by Albert Bates at Chelsea Green Publishing
By Albert Bates & Kathleen Draper. How We Can Harness Carbon to Help Solve the Climate Crisis In order to rescue…
He showed us a new way to use our Kon Tiki kiln which looks much easier. We’re anxious to try it ourselves for our next burn. He also texted his expert friends on the other side of the world to get a question answered which will dramatically change our procedure. The burn took several hours which gave us time to hear some of what Albert had to say about biochar. When the burn was done and quenched, I was pleased to see several of our guests step up and crush the biochar with our quite heavy roller-crusher.
During the burn people were taken around the farm to see some of our other climate change reversal projects. These include the 40,000+ trees we have planted, our carbon farming ways with cover crops, minimum tillage, and compost as well as our fencing setup to allow us to maneuver our cattle around so as to maximize carbon sequestration.
After a busy afternoon, we had a “knock your socks off” dinner made by our Whole Village super cooks using food supplied by Rowan Lalonde (another biochar believer) from Harmony Whole Foods.
In the evening, we heard Albert speak about biochar and his new book. Albert’s talk was riveting. He has spoken to the U.S. Supreme Court, the UN in New York, and to many hundreds of others around the world during his biochar-laced permaculture courses. The idea that emerges is that a lot of money can be made by developing biochar-based products and methods, and that if this course is zealously pursued by enough people we can reverse climate change.
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