The Future of Biochar – Traditional and Innovative Uses, by Albert Bates, 7-8 September, Lilleoru
More than 450 years ago, explorers arriving in the Americas witnessed a completely different style of agriculture than they had known in Europe. Using carbon as a building block, it transformed infertile soils into prosperous gardens (the famous terra preta of the Amazon forest has also been formed by using biochar), encouraged streams to fill with trout and salmon, and established forests teeming with wild game. In the latter half of the last century, we deciphered the magic ingredient in that system - something scientists called “biochar.”
Uses in permaculture
Biochars are fine-grained, highly porous charcoals that help soils retain nutrients and water. It is taking carbon from the atmosphere, turning it into coal and burying it in the ground for thousands of years. The most significant value, to our ailing planet, is biochar’s unique quality as a soil conditioner. Biochar is like a coral reef in the soil. If it is turned in a nutrient pile (any compost will do) and then tilled into the ground, it immediately becomes colonized by soil microbes, much in the way coral reefs are populated by all manner of marine life. The microbes attract fungi, which connect to the roots of plants, carrying nutrients from the reef to where they will do the most good.
Besides stimulating the health of the soil, the biochar provides a reservoir and conduit for soil moisture, soaking up water from oversaturated areas and giving it back to dry areas. One gram of charcoal (a piece about the size of a pencil eraser) has a surface area of 1000 to 2500 square meters (about the size of a house) because of all the micropores.
Now, in this century, we learned that indeed biochar can do all of that, but much, much more. In addition to use in the soil, newer uses for biochar are now competing with traditional uses for activated carbon, carbon black, and graphite. It is also well poised to displace, at least in part, noncarbon materials such as sand, Styrofoam, and fiberglass.
A single crystal can cascade from one use to many. It can sequence from water purification to mine reclamation to metal refining to cathodes in fuel cells. It can transform waste materials and nuisances like municipal sewage, plastic trash, and seaweed or algae fouling beaches and waterways into pothole free highways and more durable bridges, tunnels, ports, high-rise buildings, and airports. It can even build passenger jetliners, improve their electronic avionics, and assist their transition to biofuels. National governments have been bedeviled by carbon taxes and credit trading systems but biochar can make all that obsolete by simply offering a profit motive to make reversing climate change the best thing to happen to any economy since the invention of money.
Biochar is a cellulosic material that has been pyrolyzed — fired in a low-oxygen environment such as a kiln so that everything but the carbon has been burned off. As pure charcoal, it is hard (in Japan they make xylophone keys from it), black, and largely devoid of any nutrient value. It can produce relatively smokeless heat by being burned further in an oxygen-rich environment, which is why it is valuable for cooking and heating in many parts of the world.
Biochar can be made from a much broader range of materials than charcoal can. Crop residues, manures, and wood are all potential feedstocks.
What will you learn in this workshop?
Everyone will learn to make small batches, how to best use biochar for home gardens and for heaters. We’ll make some biochar bricks, char-cob, a water filter, paper, and possibly some charcrete.
Albert arrives to Estonia from a Biochar Study Tour in Finland and he will share about innovative larger scale uses of biochar that he witnessed there.
Albert is one of the founders of the intentional community and ecovillage movements. A lawyer, author and teacher, he has taught ecovillage design, appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than 60 nations.
He is also a civil sector representative at the COP climate conferences, trying to point the world back towards a stable atmosphere using soils and trees, and he is presently representative of the Global Ecovillage Network to the UN climate talks.
Albert has been director of the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology since 1984 and of the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm since 1994. His books include Climate in Crisis (1990); The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook (2006); The Biochar Solution (2010); The Paris Agreement (2015); and Burn. Using Fire to Cool the Earth (2019).
Since 1972 he has been a resident of The Farm, a pioneering intentional community in Tennessee, USA.
Albert's website and blog: https://www.albertbates.cool/
"The Future of Biochar" keynote presentation at "The Climate Economy in Southern Illinois” conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WM7wStUrAfs
"How to make our communities thrive in the crises?" interview during European Ecovillage Conference in Lilleoru, 2018: https://youtu.be/zMd2RhtUti0
“How to Make Biochar” article related to Albert's newest book: