Patrick Robinson
Sue Dickson, a volunteer, was loaded up with freshly harvested corn stalks to be weighed before being converted to biomass for testing. Around the world biomass like this can be burned in special stoves or kilns to become “Biochar” a special form of charcoal that can remove CO2 from the air and act as highly effective soil amendment.

SeaChar harvests corn as part of a citizen science project at SSCC

Biomass converted to Biochar is an environmental boon

2010-09-30

At the southern end of the South Seattle Community College campus a group of volunteers was working Wednesday Sep. 29 to save the earth with charcoal.

If that seems like a far fetched goal, the threads of the story behind what they were working on lead to a very rich and detailed set of ideas now being put into practice.

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Art Donnelly is the President and Co-Founder with Don Hennick of SeaChar.org an organization whose mission is to promote a form of charcoal called “Biochar” made from green waste which has applications for sequestering or removing and trappin carbon dioxide from the air, and acts as a remarkably effective soil amendment for crops.

The organization describes it as, “a fine grained, porous charcoal substance that, when used as a soil amendment, can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the soil, Biochar provides a habitat for soil organisms, but is not itself consumed by them, and most of the applied biochar can remain in soil for several hundred to thousands of years. The biochar does not in the long-term disturb the carbon-nitrogen balance, but holds and makes water and nutrients available to plants. When used as a soil amendment along with organic and inorganic fertilizers, biochar significantly improves soil tilth, productivity, and nutrient retention and availability to plants.”

“Think of it as a super sponge,” said Donnelly, “Charcoal wants to draw into it, and load up, nutrients and moisture.” Donnelly explained that you must prepare it by first mixing it in your compost pile for a month or so it can then be used as a soil amendment. “It acts as a capacitor, releasing nutrients and moisture back into the soil when there’s a deficit.”

Charcoal has a unique surface geometry that make it almost “fractally porous” he explained, that gives it these abilities.

In the natural carbon cycle, plant decomposition emits CO2 and the natural cycle is carbon neutral, what was captured in the plant is released. Creating Biochar can sequester some of the carbon in a much more stable form. Biochar removes circulating CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it in a virtually permanent form, which makes it a carbon-negative process.

Biochar can be made by burning blackberry canes, woody waste, animal dung and other green biomass in small stoves or large kilns, some of which Donnelly has worked on developing. These range from a 5 gallon capacity stove with super efficient heat output up to a kiln planned for the SSCC campus.

SSCC is “really excited about building a community garden scale, proof of concept kiln to turn the remediated waste from this 8 mile long Duwamish Greenbelt into Biochar that can be returned to the soil right here around the campus,” said Donnelly. The goal through Biochar and other efforts is to turn it into, “an entirely carbon neutral campus.”

It would be located on the southern end of the campus and be able to process a ton and a half of material at a time. Grants will be written, and labor donated by the SSCC trades programs to build the $2500 device.

The stove Donnelly has been developing is 50% more fuel efficient than an open fire, 75% lower in carbon monoxide and particulate emissions and it produces Biochar instead of just ash.

The implications of Biochar and the stoves that can make it extend from the plot testing project here to locations in South America and elsewhere. “There are 11 very tightly controlled bio char experiments going on around the world,” said Donnelly.

Typically small farmers in many nations cut down trees for fuel in stoves used for cooking and heat. Biochar stoves make it possible to use biomass materials for this purpose instead. But for local gardeners and farmers everywhere the benefits include more crops, more nutritious crops, better soil, and a cleaner environment.

The 5 year project has SeaChar working with SSCC and a large number of other organizations. They set up a 4600 sq foot site that was planted this year with corn. The site was broken down into sections with un-amended soil, another amended with compost only, another amended with biochar only and the last amended with both biochar and compost.

The goal is to determine which plot produces both the most harvestable crops and the most nutritious.

The harvested ears of corn were separated, from the “stover” or left over corn plant biomass. Half the corn will be given to Fare Start and half will go to the SSCC Culinary Arts Program. The biomass was weighed (total and harvestable), then the plant by product was ground in a chipper, put in bags and organized by the plot each came from.

People from WSU’s Puyallup Research Center were on hand to help with preparing and recording samples for testing by the USDA. Other volunteers pulled this seasons last set of soil samples to be sent to Jim Ippolito at the USDA-ARS lab in Kimberly Idaho. The results are expected in two to three weeks.

SeaChar’s Hennick said,” This story is going to get much bigger because people are really only just beginning to become aware of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. As the urgency becomes more recognized by policy setters, that’s when this technique of pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it in soil, and experiencing and enjoying the other ancillary benefits of soil amendment, then the Biochar story will just go viral.”

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