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Carrying these biochar production R&D results further

Posted by ronallarson on 21 May 2016 at 19:43 GMT

PLoS One Editors:

Thank you and the project sponsors for making this important article available on a no-fee basis. The most important sentence for me was this:

"This implies that high-quality biochar can be made in a sustainable manner without investing more than for the labor involved in digging out the soil pit, drying the feedstock and carrying out the pyrolysis.”

This is to ask the paper’s authors and other readers about the validity of using that sentence to start a global “rural char-making industry”. “Industry” here meaning investments, employment, managers, expectation of (early losses but later) “sufficient” profits, private sector (but probably non-profit initiated), etc. Designed to ensure mainly local benefits, no land-grabbing, etc. The justification for foreign investment (countries or philanthropists) would be climate related (but completely compatible with increased local income, increased food supply, etc). The goal would be to have repayment of start-up funds - trying to explore an investment here - not a gift or doing additional R&D.

The justification for thinking there is a potential “industry” here is the statement in Table 4 that a cubic meter of char can be made in 3 hours. This might be possible to convert on the world carbon credit market to $50/ tonne char - which would be about the same as $15/tonne CO2. This is a value seen sometimes today and much less than the statements of damages caused by an added tonne CO2. The cubic meter of biochar might weigh about 300 kg, so we are at about 100 kg char/hr (hence worth, not costing, $5/hr). There is a large population now earning $1-$2 dollars per day - who would love to make $5/day in a biochar industry. The above 100 kg/hour equates to 10-20% of the cost of producing $50/tonne char (depending on work hours per day or year). Collecting the biomass, and a myriad of other costs could make it difficult to meet a $50/tonne char goal in remote areas - but the goal is not obviously out of the question. Especially because of the soil benefits, which are almost certainly worth much more than $50/tonne char. The issue I am raising here is how to kickstart such a valuable possible new rural industry.

The main obstacle would seem to be proving carbon negativity for those who want to help remove atmospheric carbon. Maybe a cell phone picture history, capturing dates, quantities, people, and exact latitude and longitude? To keep per unit costs down, the investors will need to accumulate proof from hundreds or thousands of workers - all using the soil pit method (which can be coupled with cook stoves as well). The new industry must ensure that the resultant char (with urine added, etc) is actually placed in soil (by the same or different farmers). This is not the place to go into all the difficulties in forming such a new industry. Rather it is to ask the authors (and other commenters) about problems with any of the $50/tonne industry-outline above. Can/should this paper be used to try to interest investors? The type I have in mind are like the mostly Nordic groups who have already helped fund the reported R&D. What would be their reservations of going one step further? The R&D is wonderful and encouraging, but globally we need to start a biochar industry. The flame shield method appears to be the least cost approach available - with benefits much beyond the atmospheric ones.

Other thoughts?


No competing interests declared.

RE: Carrying these biochar production R&D results further

hschmidt replied to ronallarson on 23 May 2016 at 15:04 GMT

Dear Ron Larson,
Thanks for your kind and interesting comments. The price of producing 1 ton of biochar in a soil type Kon-Tiki kiln only depends on the price for collecting the biomass and the labor cost. In a big enough pit you can easily produce a ton of biochar in two hours. But even if these cheap production cost of less than 50 USD per ton might make carbon credits an interesting business model, I am in fact much worried about these low costs of turning biomass into biochar or charcoal. Charcoal from remote areas in developing countries can be sold on the world market for a minimum of 300 USD per ton and at the production prices stated above this provides a business model for more deforestation and land degradation all over…
In Nepal we defended the use of wood for biochar making and also the selling of biochar as charcoal. But it is clear that it is only a question of time that farmers will discover that they would earn more selling the charcoal made from their crop waste than from selling the crops.
Without international laws defending the export of farmer made biochar the ease of making it might turn into a catastrophe. However, our latest field trial data from Nepal show that a ton of cow urine enhanced biochar (on dry matter base) is worth between 3000 and 4500 USD in yield increases for most crops in subtropical Nepal when applied at 1 t / ha to the root zone (data are in preparation for publication).
Anyway, it is not the biochar carbon that may slow done climate change if it's not the trees and plants that grow (thanks to biochar substrates and conservation farming) in degrade, till now barren land.
With kind regards, Hans-Peter Schmidt

No competing interests declared.

RE: RE: Carrying these biochar production R&D results further

jhofmeyr replied to hschmidt on 30 May 2016 at 11:30 GMT

Hello Ron and Hans-Peter.
I look forward to seeing the follow-up work to which Hans-Peter referred:
"..... 3000 and 4500 USD in yield increases for most crops in subtropical Nepal when applied at 1 t / ha to the root zone (data are in preparation for publication).

Competing interests declared: I am also interested to find funding for research. A particular interest is the proof of synergy between vermiculture and biochar and the value (in increased crop yields) which can be attached to that. The concept is described at