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June 11, 2008

Home Heating Via Biochar

Now that I've become obsessed by global warming, I plan to muse constantly about every possible aspect of it. At the beginning, at least, I'll be shockingly uninformed. So, let's get started!

Here's what I want to know right now: with the cost of heating oil going up, lots of people will be looking at new ways to heat their homes. In the seventies there was an outbreak of wood stove usage. Is there any reason lots of people couldn't use wood today—but instead of stoves, use biochar their home heating is actually carbon negative? In other words, is pyrolysis a plausible means of heating a house?

If so, it seems like there should be political initiatives to encourage this. At least if it wouldn't become so popular it led to deforestation.

UPDATE: I'm disappointed in the apparent lack of interest in biochar. I could talk about it for hours. Take it from me: if you haven't made biochar a part of your mental life, you're missing out.

MORE: Ah, things are picking up. Thanks for the links, including this useful article on biochar pointed out by Quin.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at June 11, 2008 07:44 PM

I burn wood, exclusively, but my neighbors use wood and propane. Again I have trees all along the creek to cut from and a chainsaw and a wheelborrow so its almost free. (10-15 dollars a year to run the saw, maybe, most likely less) I also use unpainted scrap lumber which I cut with a skill saw. Sadly, I cook with a microwave and use electric washer and dryer. (seems its ALWAYS winter here and its ALWAYS snowing, snowing on the mountain right now)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 11, 2008 08:24 PM

This whole environmental kick that you're on requires us to actually do something. It makes my head hurt.

Can't we just go back to political whining and historical snarkiness? Surely the problems can be solved through political observations, altogether avoiding wood chopping, and hand fed stoves. Manual labor should only be necessary if politics fail.

Posted by: Labiche at June 12, 2008 08:39 AM

Screwed up the link. It's this:

Posted by: Quin the Mighty at June 12, 2008 09:45 AM

It's a great question. My only knowledge of terra preta comes from the book "1491", so I'm starting from the same place you are. What did Erich Knight, the guy who left the comment on the earlier thread say?

Using the FAQ "Gardening with Biochar" link there, I got a quick, helpful response to my basic questions.

Posted by: Bruce F at June 12, 2008 09:56 AM

And then there's this, from -

"To date, I have found two technologies that offer some reason to hope that solutions could be developed at the individual household level:

1) The inverted downdraft gasifier. Developed to make more efficient use of wood for cooking in developing countries, it is undergoing continuing refinement. Many DIY-type folks are trying their hand at various configurations (The Garlington, the Magh smoke burner stove. The MIDGE (pdf). The James Butler MIDGE). It is a small batch process. It is highly efficient: a handful of twigs will boil a cup of water. The process is shut down about halfway through the burn sequence in order to retain the char.

2) At the high tech - glimmer-in the eye end of the visualization spectrum: The Stirling engine. A highly efficient, fairly simple, external combustion engine, the Stirling engine is far safer than the steam engine. The Strirling being applied to generating electricity from industrial waste heat, to generating electricity from solar heat, to cogeneration of household heat and electricity, and to service as a wood stove top circulating fan. A demo stirling can be made from tin cans and plywood, but a machinist in the family could be quite handy.

Look forward to seeing folks build on this theme of using the smoke and the heat generated in some beneficial way."

Posted by: Bruce F at June 12, 2008 10:07 AM

Is there any reason lots of people couldn't use wood today—but instead of stoves, use biochar their home heating is actually carbon negative? In other words, is pyrolysis a plausible means of heating a house?

Great thought. Seems like have the kiln outside (replacing a wood-burning outdoor boiler, for instance) and using hydronics would be a natural avenue to explore. DIY char kilning is normally a batch process, and commonly involves shutting down the burn to quench the fuel. However, a recent post on the discussion list was about initial experience with a chain feed biochar kiln, configured for continuous feed (and continuous quench of the biochar coming out) that would seem to have some real potential for a hydronics approach.

Posted by: Philip Small at June 12, 2008 10:50 AM

YOU people need to get out more, look up BLACKSMITHING or FORGE and YOU'll see what I'm saying. Turbine jet engine would interest YOU also. Same technology different fuels.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 12, 2008 11:47 AM

IF YOU build something like those stoves, PLEASE, I BEG YOU, DO NOT USE ANY GALVANIZED METAL. The fumes are high poisonous.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 12, 2008 11:58 AM

Yo Jonathan-

Not to seem petty and self-aggrandizing or anything-- especially as all I did was spend a minute on Google, whereas Bruce F actually offered some insightful analysis (and plus he way outdoes me in the cool department by raising veggies on his roof)-- but he wasn't the one who linked the Truthout article. It was me. MEEEEEE!!!!

Posted by: Quin at June 12, 2008 12:03 PM

Whoops, sorry -- now corrected.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 12, 2008 12:13 PM

Seems dubious. Other than the huge investment of labor required to actually heat your home on an industrial scale, what about cities? Are you going to truck in vast quantities of wood for people to use in the cities? I suspect solar home heating is far more efficient and cheaper for a huge number of uses, so why wouldn't we try that first?

Posted by: saurabh at June 12, 2008 12:34 PM

Thanks Jonathan! You know, that feels pretty good actually. I don't want to scare you off or anything, but I'm kind of a big fan.

Well, I suddenly realized that I wasn't making any sense of any of the stuff I was trying to read about biochar. Like, I didn't even know what a kiln was. God I feel stupid sometimes. Anyway, I decided to make this handy-dandy vocab chart for anybody who, like me, is mentally stuck at an eighth grade level.

CARBON = the stuff that there's too much of in our atmosphere. It's bad bad bad and could KILL US ALL

CHARCOAL = carbon-rich fuel used for burning stuff, made by heating biological matter (that is, from animals or vegetables) in the absence of oxygen. It can also be used as fertilizer

KILN = a special insulated oven provides the right conditions for producing charcoal

PYROLYSIS = the name for the process where you turn things into charcoal in a kiln

BIOMASS = living and recently dead biological material that can be used as fuel

AGRICHAR = charcoal made specifically with biomass. Apparently agrichar may be even more effective as fertilizer than regular charcoal, perhaps due to its recently-deceased status

BIOCHAR = same as "agrichar"

CARBON NEGATIVE = any process that removes carbon, in any form, from the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere in such a way that it cannot return

THE AGRICHAR PROCESS = is, as a whole, considered carbon negative because after you make charcoal, you can bury it to increase soil fertility. And since it's so carbon-rich, this takes it CO2 out of the atmosphere! Yay!

So... If I'm reading things correctly, Agrichar is NOT going to help with global warming if it's used as fuel in people's homes. Unless I just have totally no grasp of chemistry (which, um, let's face it actually, I don't, since I didn't even know what a kiln was), I'm pretty sure that burning the agrichar would just release the carbon right back into the atmosphere. In which case we ALL STILL FRY.

However, it's still great to use it as fertilizer, which can only help as other fuel sources get more expensive. Plus the carbon locked inside is thenceforth safely removed from the atmosphere, thus allowing kittens to safely frolic in the fields.

The Truthout article seems to talk about using Agrichar as both fuel AND as fertilizer. I guess the idea is that by replacing current charcoal kilns with more efficient Agrichar kilns, less carbon will be polluted out in the process-- also a net win.

Can somebody with a bit more knowledge on this stuff look over what I've written and tell me that I've understood this all correctly?

Posted by: Quin at June 12, 2008 01:08 PM


Thanks -- I like to think that this website has the fastest mistake correction in the business.

My understanding is not much deeper than yours, but that all makes sense to me, with a few caveats. Burning all the biomass (including the biochar) as fuel wouldn't be horrible, since it would be carbon neutral. But at that point I'd think we might as well just burn it normally (ie, with oxygen), since that's carbon neutral too. What we'd really like to see is the use of biomass on a huge scale to produce energy and biochar, and then use the leftover biochar as fertilizer or even just bury it, so the whole process was carbon negative.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 12, 2008 01:20 PM

saurabh: Pellet stoves and corn stoves (uses individual kernels of corn for heat) work much the same way as the Magh stove. WE have a pellet mill in our town which uses sawdust and chips from the town sawmill. These are common home heating appliances around here. Very efficient and fuel is fairly inexpensive. They use an augar to drop individual pellets,(augar and blower both use house current) which are about the size of a pea and burn one or two at a time. Pellets come in 20lb bags. The corn stove works the same way but seems counterproductive in light of recent world food shortages. The sawmill, in light of the recent subprime crisis, is closed down, so the cost of pellets may go up. Most folks here burn coal (coal mining town)(its cheap) and on the below freezing days, the town looks like its under a river of yellow smog. One can go on the mountain and cut downed wood but its 3 cord for 22 bucks plus its a 50+ mile drive up and back down and labor intensive(hard work). It requires a chainsaw, a truck, and usally 2 or more strong people. Loggers will sell firewood for 65--90 bucks(sometimes as much as 130) a cord. Solar seems much more logical on every level, and its everywhere(except in Gitmo).

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 12, 2008 01:22 PM

Ah-- biochar is carbon neutral even if you burn it? If so, I guess all good then.

One thing I can't figure out. In terms of reducing atmospheric carbon, why would burning biochar actually be any better than burning regular charcoal? Is it simply that making agrichar requires up-to-date, more-efficient, less-polluting kilns?

Posted by: Quin at June 12, 2008 01:46 PM

In terms of reducing atmospheric carbon, why would burning biochar actually be any better than burning regular charcoal?

I don't think it is -- as I understand it, biochar is just another name for charcoal. What makes it bio- is being mixed into soil. Maybe.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 12, 2008 02:02 PM

If you will, ahem, refer to my previous treatise above, you will find that Biochar is made from biomass, which is recently-dead or still-living organic matter. (Perhaps it will soon become the mafia's preferred method of body disposal?) Whereas regular charcoal is made from less-recently living organic matter, such as bones and wood.

So I guess the excitement about Biochar must come from (a) the fact that it's probably a more effective fertilizer than regular charcoal, and (b) the fact that the process of creating requires better kilns which create less pollution than regular charcoal kilns.

Posted by: Quin at June 12, 2008 02:31 PM

Closed-loop Prolysis via fluidic-bed furnaces or plasma carbonization emits no GHG. No combustion , no CO2.

I hope you will come to share my passion in getting the word out on the wonderful solutions provided by Terra Preta soil technology (TP, aka Biochar).

If pre-Columbian Kayopo Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 15% of the Amazon basin using "Slash & CHAR" verses "Slash & Burn", it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of energy return over energy input (EROEI) for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

This technology represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.Terra Preta Soils a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels via Pyrolysis of Biomass........., Massive Carbon sequestration via Biochar to soils (1/3 ton C per 1 ton Biomass)..............., 10X Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions.............., and 3X Fertility Too.


the current news and links on Terra Preta (TP) soils and closed-loop pyrolysis of Biomass, this integrated virtuous cycle could sequester 100s of Billions of tons of carbon to the soils.

UN Climate Change Conference: Biochar present at the Bali Conference

SCIAM Article May 15 07;

S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:

Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

for the 2007 Farm Bill

Bolstering Biomass and Biochar development: In the 2007 Farm Bill, Senator Salazar was able to include $500 million for biomass research and development and for competitive grants to develop the technologies and processes necessary for the commercial production of biofuels and bio-based products. Biomass is an organic material, usually referring to plant matter or animal waste. Using biomass for energy can reduce waste and air pollution. Biochar is a byproduct of producing energy from biomass. As a soil treatment, it enhances the ability of soil to capture and retain carbon dioxide.

( Update; In conference the $500 M was cut to $3M....:( :( :( )

There are 24 billion tons of carbon controlled by man in his agriculture and waste stream, all that farm & cellulose waste which is now dumped to rot or digested or combusted and ultimately returned to the atmosphere as GHG should be returned to the Soil.

If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP web site I've been drafted to co-administer.

It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of EPRIDA , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who's back round I don't know have joined.

The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) conference held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. The papers from this conference are posted at their home page;

Posted by: Erich J. Knight at June 12, 2008 10:36 PM

Quin - the problem with most fuel is that it is "fossil" fuel - that is, it is carbon that has been locked deep under the earth for millions of years, and we are suddenly releasing it back into the biosphere. There is SOME carbon that is being released because we are deforesting rapidly (I forget the exact amount, I think it is about 20%), but most burning of biomass IS carbon neutral, because it represents carbon that was recently in the atmosphere anyway - you're not introducing NEW carbon to the biosphere, as you are when you burn fossil fuels. When that stuff rots, it's most probably going to end up back in the atmosphere anyway (more or less), so it doesn't really hurt things to burn it.

Posted by: saurabh at June 13, 2008 03:34 AM

Another helpful link is to the thread titled "Terra preta for newbies" I found at Hypography: Science for Everyone.

Posted by: Bruce F at June 13, 2008 09:53 AM

I'm from a family of blacksmiths, mechanics,and metal workers. A byproduct of that is learning to make charcoal, which my Dad taught me. He would dig a pit, pile it high with brush, like a mountain of brush and burn it. When the fire died down but not out, the pit was loaded with large chunks of wood and covered with tin sheeting and dirt was piled on to where no air could get in nor smoke escape. He would tend this for three of four days, pluging up any smoke holes. once the fire was out, no smoke, he uncovered and bagged up the charcoal. That's how he earned some money as a child during the Great Depression.
A closed 55 gallon steel drum with the ring clamp lid can be used the same way. Chunks of wood are heated in the closed barrel with 2 VENT HOLES for escaping gasses, one at each end, with the drum laying on its side and fire underneath, or any heat sourse. If one chooses, the escaping gasses can be piped away and burned also once the moisture content has droped to allow combustion.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 13, 2008 11:43 AM

Isn't there some key detail about clay pots? Where's the clay pots? Nobody's sure what the clay pots were for.

This is all really promising. One thing I've been surprised by is how little the nitrogen rich fertilizers we produce from natural gas seem to have any impact on greenhouse emissions whatsoever - when I first glanced at the reactions for the Haber-Bosch process I just saw a lot of carbon swimming around scarily, but it all apparently ends up preoccupying itself with fixing nitrogen from the air. That is, until you go dumping the fertilizer into the environment in mass quantities trying to get a little extra yield, and most of it runs off from your corn field into the water supply and the oceans, and Does Stuff.

If I haven't missed anything part of the idea with biochar is it makes soil better at retaining nitrogen, so you don't need to dump mass quantities of said inorganic fertilizers on top of your corn and into streams n' rivers n' oceans. Assuming the Awesome Terra Preta Tech To Come needs any. So, win win.

Coincidentally, this Fritz Haber fellow that made us independent of scarce natural sources of fixed nitrogen - a booming extraction business in Chilea back in the day - happened to be the head of Germany's chemical weapons program during WWI. We've all been eating out of the dead hand of the father of chemical weapons.

It'll be nice when that's finally over, and we're eating out of the dead hands of a long extinct Amazonian civilization, and give all the credit to Francisco de Orellana.

Posted by: buermann at June 14, 2008 06:36 AM

In that deceptively spamfiltery comment from Erich: "Cornell folks"

By which he might have meant:

Has a lot of interesting business about it.

Posted by: buermann at June 14, 2008 06:46 AM

Mike, are you saying that making one's own charcoal for home heating fuel is viable as an environmentally friendly (and relatively safe) option?

Posted by: Quin at June 14, 2008 12:49 PM

buerman: I'm assuming that clay pots were the reason for making the kilns and charcoal in the first place and the biochar was a by product or waste product of the process. A lot of that stuff breaks in the oven.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 14, 2008 01:29 PM

Quin -

I'm glad you found it useful. The link on the newbie forum that helped me the most was the one to the Nature Magazine Article – “Black is the New Green”, August 2006. "Most high profile article on Terra Preta to date."

PDF -,%20624-626.pdf

Posted by: Bruce F at June 14, 2008 04:18 PM

Quin: Under forced air (blower as in the Magh stove) charcoal can reach 3500 F. and can melt steel or with natrual draft, BBQ a burger. I suppose safety depends on who and how, like a car, as long as WE don't let the toddlers or the drunks drive it, then things work out. As far as the drum method, DON'T PLUG UP THE VENTS, or use unshielded nuclear power to heat the drum. If YOU are uncertain about what to do and yet want to make some, dig a hole in the back yard cover it with tin, no problem. YOU'll either make charcoal of have a hole in the back yard full of ashes. As for home heating, like I say, I use wood which turns to charcoal at some point, I'm sure, but in the morning all I see are ashes. I use coal in my forge because its fast, cheap, and everywhere around here. I could dig it out of the hill myself should I get up that kind of energy. The forge sits out in the yard so its well ventilated. Charcoal would work just as well in the forge, its just a matter of cost.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 14, 2008 07:00 PM

Coal energy is way carbon-positive, right? Burning coal releases carbon into the atmosphere that would have otherwise not gone there.

Wood, on the other hand, one would think would be carbon-neutral for the same reason that charcoal/biochar would be. Then I ran across this:

...the real issue is to not simply be carbon neutral, but rather carbon rate neutral. If we take as a bare minimum definition that to harvest wood “sustainably” we must at least meet the condition that we are not harvesting faster than we are regrowing, then we can say that burning wood is carbon neutral provided the forest resources are being managed and harvested in a sustainable practice.

More simply stated, if not harvested sustainably, then no: burning wood is not carbon neutral. Some resources on the web make that critical qualification; others do not, or consider it to be a detail that can be buried in the last paragraphs.

An interesting sidebar to this question is that the cycle time plays a key role in the analysis. If the fuel to be harvested matures quickly (hay or bamboo are good examples), then the cycle time can be measured in a few months or a couple of years, rather than in decades. The fuel can be harvested and burned faster, but the fuel’s energy density, in terms of BTUs per acre of harvest, is much lower. It seems likely that there is some optimal combination of energy density, carbon density and cycle time among the available renewable fuels.

So he estimates that, for instance, even crude oil use would be "carbon-rate-neutral" if, on a world-wide wide scale, we only used somewhere between 20,000 and 3 million barrels per year. (Obviously that's a ridiculously low number, compared to the real number of 30 billion per year.)

So really, it seems to me that whether it's wood, biomass, or biochar, you can't count on it being carbon-neutral. The "carbon-rate-neutrality" mileage varies depending on what particular biological life went into its production, and how conscientious you are about growing more. Types of biomass that have a good balance between containing energy and growing back again fast are better.

But, holy crap, Terra Preta does seem promising, and not only because it makes things grow back faster, either. From the Nature article that Bruce F linked (alas in annoying PDF format but VERY worth reading):

According to Glaser's research, a hectare of metre-deep terra preta can contain 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes of unimproved soils from similar parent material. The extra carbon is not just in the char -- it's also in the organic carbon and enhanced bacterial biomass that the char sustains... That difference of 150 tonnes is greater than the amount of carbon in a hectare's worth of plants. That means that turning unimproved soil into terra preta can store away more carbon than growing a tropical forest from scratch on the same, before you even start to make us of its enhanced fertility.

But wait, there's more--

[Lehmann] estimates that by the end of this century terra preta schemes, in combination with biofuel programmes, could store up to 9.5 tonnes of carbon a year -- more than is emitted by all today's fossil-fuel use.

This is all very promising news.

Posted by: Quin at June 15, 2008 03:00 AM

By the way, since the last quotes were from a PDF, I was retyping, not cutting and pasting. So, where it says "9.5 tonnes" (what's the big deal about that?), it should have said "9.5 billion tonnes" (ah, that's more like it!).

Posted by: Quin at June 15, 2008 03:09 AM