Thursday, September 29, 2016

Biochar Kilns

"We tell the government officials that we can provide more power than they need, at a tenth of the cost of the oil, and we can do it from feedstocks they consider wastes, and we can use processes that net sequester greenhouse gases at each step, with a lifecycle cost that is high in the black, low capital outlay and quick return on investment. Oh, and it arrests global warming, deepens soils, saves water and increases biodiversity.

Naturally, they are incredulous.

Surely we are trying to sell them snake oil, what we propose is illegal, or there is some neglected externality in our calculus that makes our proposal fall apart once exposed to serious scrutiny.”  -- Albert Bates, "The Biochar Moment"

Biochar is a win-win-win, for energy, for environment, for economy.

"But as I've studied biochar, it's the only thing I've seen with no downside. Nothing! And that's very exciting to me."
  --Doris Hamill, NASA Langley Research Center

Biochar is pure natural charcoal made exclusively from above ground biomass resources with no added ingredients.  Biomass is wood, straw, stalks, stems, cobs, husks, hulls, pits, etc.  When biomass is heated to a point where all that remains is the black carbon that previously formed the main structure of the biomass, bingo, charcoal.  When this natural charcoal is  applied into the soil for soil improvement and carbon sequestration it officially becomes "biochar".

Dr. Karl Frogner of the Ulaanbaatar Biochar Initiative estimates almost a ton per acre of excess biomass from mixed maize, rice and agroforestry small farms (7-10 acres).  After deducting the energy stored in biochar produced, the btu equivalent of about 100 gallons of propane per acre is available as current carbon cycle, non-fossil energy.  As the biochar is soil applied, about a half ton per acre of atmospheric carbon is sequestered for hundreds to thousands of years.

This pure natural charcoal has no resemblance to most commercial bagged charcoal for grilling.  Never apply bagged charcoal briquettes to the soil!  They are not even similar products.

Pure natural charcoal has many uses besides soil improvement, with centuries of traditional use in medicinal, veterinary, odor control, liquids filtration and de-contamination applications.  Hans-Peter Schmidt writing for the ithaka journal describes 55 modern and past uses.

Pure natural charcoal has also been "gasified" in onboard "producer gas" systems for vehicle power, most notably in WWII Europe during petroleum fuel shortages.

Natural charcoal can be obtained as easily as scraping the black chunks off partially burnt pieces of wood - right on up to as complex as anyone can dream up

Charcoal kilns have been developed over the years at various scales and purpose.  A fairly recent innovation is micro-gasification cookstoves.  These devices, use only the energy already contained in the biomass, to make smoke, burn the smoke and save the charcoal.  More detailed info on the concepts and applications are in the book "Make Smoke, Burn Smoke".

In the early days of small scale biochar production, a fellow "stover" (clean cook stove builder) opined that "biochar kilns are a lot like snowflakes, no two alike".  Kilns were fashioned mostly from "obtainium" by those knowledgeable in the basic engineering principles.

For simple micro-gasifiers, the "feedstock", the biomass to be charred, drives the design.  Beyond that usability, and making use of the "waste heat" are additional considerations.  The simplest tool that will do the job is THE design pattern in brushape circles.

Listed in chronological order, from earliest to latest designs.

AnthroSoil Grassifier
Natural charcoal is not all created equal.  Various biomass feedstocks have varying pore spaces and shapes.  Grass/straw/stalks generally do not char well in kilns designed for charcoal production from wood.  A University of Hiroshima study discovered that bamboo charcoal holds almost 5 times as much water as hardwood charcoal. "..bamboo is in a class by itself in the charcoal world - its ability to store water is tremendous"

The anthrosoil was developed to convert grassy feedstocks into biochar.  It works well across a variety of grasses including wheat straw, switchgrass, corn stalks and bamboo.  In real world use it has even been used to char 2x4 wood scraps by a knowledgeable user.

The shiny thing near the chimney is a skillet. Cooking supper while charring switchgrass, delicious.

Lori's Terra Preta Authentica Clay Kiln
Had been looking for someone to build a biochar kiln in clay.  Lori, a local art teacher made one for me, one for her, and had her entire class make them as an art project.  She said the ugliest one in the class burned the cleanest.  (Engineers don't make the best art students?)  Her design not only looked beautiful, but made a very interesting thin line of flame and ran plenty clean enough for space heat in her drafty garage/art studio.  The clay throws wonderful radiant heat.

KeySTove LX
The KeySTove LX design was publicly released to instructables and won the "instructables of the month" award in December 2011.  The name came from discussion with a fellow stover as the Keystone XL pipeline tar sands plumbing project was in the news.  He said "you know they will probably waste more energy clearing and burning the right of way than the net energy that will ever come out of it".  Tar sands have an incredibly low rate of energy return on energy invested (EROEI), requiring $100 per barrel oil to turn a profit.

Besides open sourcing the design to instructables, also built several hundred of these for friends and eventually for sale.  "The vortex swirl" was fun to watch, and creates turbulence.  The three T's of clean combustion are time, temperature and turbulence.  With the small combustion chamber, the time was not much, but insulation and swirl made up for it in a very clean stove that saved "biochar".

The KeySTove LX had an operating time of about 90 minutes on small twigs, with enough power to cook a meal or boil a pot of water.  A larger version dubbed KeySTove GH (GreenHouse version) reliably operated at about 50% greater output for 8 hours on 10 pounds of hardwood pellets.  Perfect combustion releases mostly carbon dioxide (the same thing animals breathe out) and water, both great for greenhouse plants. 

"Just Another Kiln Experiment" and the first name of the fabricator that supplied the stainless steel tubes.  The tubes were being made for chimney vent pipes.  The kiln is produced in 1foot, 2 foot and 3 foot versions that all operate at the same power.  The one footer runs 4 hours, 2 footer 8 hours, and 3 footer 12 hours on a charge of hardwood pellets.  The output besides heat is beautifully uniform charred pellets.  A full load in the two footer is about 10 pounds.  The one foot version is my current personal choice for a clean char making stove/heater.  It is small enough to pack easily, has plenty of output to cook and heat.

2 foot JAKE

Jake replaced his wood burning stove with a JAKE char maker for one heating season in his office where doors to the outside and into the shop were frequently opened.  While he liked the heat and the char, his white metal ceiling acquired a patina of black soot.  Soot collector/burner caps were then designed and used on the higher end pyramid kilns.  See below.

Pyramid Kilns

Not long after we started building these, a professional grower relayed a bit of wisdom.  The term pyramid literally means "fire in the middle".

The pyramid shape in limited testing seems to have amazing potential.  In one test in a humid greenhouse setting the chimney began to roar and turned bright red.  A kid walking by asked "what are you burning in that thing, rocket fuel?"  The most logical explanation is that with the high humidity in the greenhouse getting higher as the kiln ran, some kind of dissociation of water into hydrogen and oxygen was happening in the humid environment.  Then the molecules re-combined in the flare.  Anyone who has cut metal with an oxygen torch can relate.

We have built and tested a few of these, but not nearly enough to explore the potential.  A noticeable side effect was that when soot collection was added, the temperature in the soot collector chamber (1950F) was higher than in the combustion chamber (1350F).  The stainless steel soot collector immediately "blued".

Blued collector right, new build left

Pyramid kiln with soot collector (on top) and char dump can (on bottom)

In the pyramid shape, time, a key design element for clean combustion, becomes an ally.  Both residence time in the combustion chamber, and residence time in the even higher temperature of the soot collector aid the the other two T's of combustion, temperature and turbulence.

Back to Practical
In parallel time frame of pyramid kilns, an aquaponics client asked for an inexpensive long duration kiln with high btu output.  55 gallon (200 liter) drums were used for the fuel cell, with a housing built around them.  Over 100,000 btuh output and they ran mostly smoke free across a wide range of "waste" biomass feedstocks.

Fun with Kilns
Some folks are looking for commercial products.  Brushapes just have fun fabricating innovative biochar kilns.  The clean heat and biochar are a bonus.

In a win-win-win scenario, all is a gain.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

BrushApe Horticulture Therapy - Raised Bed Garden with Biochar, Minerals and Microbes

When transplanted from soil improved for years, into a yard that would barely grow good grass, what is a Brushape to do?

Not making light of Horticulture Therapy and the need for trained therapists.  We salute their work as a sure path forward to a better future.  Just had not heard of HT at the time, and was feeling an absolute need to get some seeds and roots in the ground at a new location.  Folks intuitively understand the therapeutic nature of gardening and growing.  It is a great addiction!

May 29 - Weathered Oak Posts Raised Beds

Part of the move included removing aged oak 8x8's these from the prior location.  These create a very sturdy foundation.  They were spaced so the garden can be completely straddled, a foot on the landing of each side of the raised bed.  This allows easy access to all parts of the bed.

Some extra, more rotted posts and rounds, were placed in the center of the grow bed.  Ground contact of wood attracts worms, wood also helps fill the space.  Wanted to use biochar and minerals at high application rates and didn't have enough material to do the whole square footage so a modified hugelkultur made the most sense.

Also beds were spaced to 42" to allow a 40" mower deck to pass between them and cut down on weedeating time.


May 30, Beds Filled with Growing Mediums, Covered with Mulch

Soil amendments applied on top of existing lawn then covered with mulch to maximize moisture retention.

June 27, Bedding Plants Taking Hold

Spaghetti and butternut squash, Goliath tomato, heirloom sweet potatoes.  The two small square beds are used mostly for herbs.  Set out some eggplants but they were almost immediately attacked by flea beetles and have not been able to mount much of a recovery.

July 3, Interesting Fungus

Enhanced fungal growth is universal any place this brushape has applied biochar to soil.  The picture does not do justice to the shimmery, watery gel cap that crowned the tops.

July 13, Growing is Good and Easy

Less than 40 days after planting, the spaghetti squash is over 15 feet long and setting squash like crazy.  The Goliath has grown out the top of its cage.  Sweet potatoes have made a nice mat that covers the entire width of their beds.  The few weeds that have popped up are easily uprooted.  Beside the eggplants which are still riddled by flea beetles, no pest problems.  Have a feeling the flea beetles came in with the pots of the egg plants.


Friday, July 8, 2016

Carbon-Mineral-Microbes Soil Restoration Food Plots

A BrushApe Thicket - 4 year Soil Improvement, Self Re-seeding

Mallow, sorrel, wild lettuce, lambsquarters, dill, polk, mint, yarrow, comfrey, grapes, onions, wheat, potatoes, carrots, radishes, a mulberry tree, a cherry tree, clovers, worms in the roots of every plant.  

Life has taken over the space!  Virtually everything in this list is edible with many unique flavors.  Never any chemical fertilizer or pesticide application while growing beans, corn, cabbage, radishes, mustard and just about anything I had a taste for at the time.

A healthy elderberry bush popped up just downhill from the plot.

Kick Starting Soil Improvement

Biochar, minerals, microbes and mulch are the key ingredients.  No tilling or digging except to start bedding plants.  Then letting the plants go to seed and letting wild edibles take their places in the mix.

Did not get pictures of the start of this, but took several of the next iteration, a "biochar no-till food plot".

Mow or Scythe Existing Vegetation Tight to the Ground

Apply Biochar as First Ground Cover

A good dusting to cover the soil in "dark".

Apply Composted Manure - Turkey Litter was used on this plot

About a 1/4" to 1/2" thick cover of turkey litter.

Sprinkle Minerals Over Entire Plot

Sea-90 was used on this plot.

Cover The Prepared Rows with the Mulch

Old switchgrass hay with some mold in it was used for this plot

Seed with Mix Suitable to Location

A personal preference that works for most locations is turnips and wheat.

Plant mostly along the edges.  Make holes in the mulch for seeds like corn or beans so the seed can burst out.

Let Nature Take It's Course

For this plot, seeding took place August 21.

First rain to follow was in early September.  First frost was October 24 and the plot looked like this.

Turnips handle frost well.

Had some very tasty turnip globes for Christmas.

Next March 28 Wheat looked like this.. grasshoppers loved it, turkeys loved the grasshoppers.

Also March 28 turnips were flowering, attracting swarms of honey bees and other pollinators.

That summer brought severe drought.  July 4 plot looked like this..

Finally some rains in late August, on October 1 of the year following, with no additional labor inputs beyond putting in the initial plot, successful re-seeding was evident.

Friday, April 1, 2016

What Time Is It? Time for Equitable Energy

From youtube, "Wealth Inequality in America" 18 million views, graph at 5:15 mark  

With almost 19 million views to date, this 2012 chart, depicting 1% of the people in the US owning over half the wealth, was predicted by Ivan Illich in 1973.  What is anyone doing about it?

Illich in his 32 page thesis titled "Energy and Equity" mused that concentrated energy (oil) allowed time-space compression at a small relative cost to those already privileged.  He foresaw time space compression via high energy use (think private jets for individuals, F-15's for nations) would make the poor poorer, and the rich richer.  As oil production peaked, time space compression would come at ever higher relative costs to the poorest, eventually pricing them out of the market for oil.

And the many things oil is used for, like transported groceries.

Fortunately, modern woodgas power systems are restricted more by speed limits than top speed capability.

Woodgas is equitable energy at highway speeds, with a small investment in an onboard bio-refinery.

Safe, Clean, Obtainable, and Restorative are great features for the energy of the future that is already possible today.

However equity may be the most appealing feature of biomass energy, because it will drive culture change from an unsustainable exponential curve, back toward the normal curve typical of healthy systems. 

Normal Curve Distribution - Fat in the middle, tapers on both ends

Systems that get "out of whack", tend to move back toward normal.  The farther away from normal, the greater the potential for a catastrophic "immune response".

That warning was the purpose of the youtube listed above "Wealth Inequality in America"  A "snap back" warning was also found in the closing sections of Illich's "Energy and Equity". 

"Liberation which comes cheap to the poor will cost the rich dear, but they will pay its price once the acceleration of their transportation systems grinds traffic to a halt."  - Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity
The good news is that equitable energy is already being done.  And it works well for practitioners and the environment.

African Christians Organizing Network

ACON in Kenya provides an entire value chain from fuel production to stove manufacturing, distribution, sales, and maintenance. 

Pyrolytic stoves generate a byproduct that is beneficial for soils. The charcoal residue (biochar) increases food security for rural households in Kenya. The fuel briquettes produced by ACON are derived from an invasive species growing on Lake Victoria.
ACON harvests water hyacinth plants, crushes the liquids out of them (which is also used as a soil nutrient), dries and compresses them into fuel briquettes for the ACON manufactured stoves. 

These activities result in the following benefits:
* remove invasive species from Lake Victoria
* create fuel that can be used in place of forest wood, preserving forests to provide sustainable fresh water storage and microclimate stabilization in the region.
* employment cleaning up the Lake and selling fuel briquettes
* clean and efficient pyrolytic cook stoves that generate biochar as a byproduct of cooking daily household meals and heating water. These stoves also reduce indoor air pollution and reduce fuel purchase costs for the household.
* the stoves generate biochar, a highly effective soil restructuring agent for plant productivity, additional benefits to food security from household gardens are realized.

ACON isn't doing anything that can't be done in most inhabited places on earth.

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident." - Arthur Schopenhauer 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

What Time Is It? Time for Restorative Energy

14 foot tall Biochar Okra
Amazing growth is reported by many folks in these parts who combine biochar into their other best growing practices.  Search "David Yarrow + Carbon Smart" for in depth information.  David is a frequent contributor to Acres magazine and long time soil restoration advocate.  Two images that say a lot regarding biochar - from his touring slideshow:

Biochar has immediate benefits, and long term restorative improvement that is not available from any other soil amendments.

Source: Dr. Johannes Lehman, Cornell University

Using energy from biochar production closes the loop on the only energy strategy that actively reduces atmospheric carbon.  Note that it is also zero waste, and enhances biomass production for next season, so is a self-reinforcing positive loop.

Dr. David Laird, USDA-ARS National Soil Tilth Lab Iowa State University wrote an article highlighting the restorative potential of converting local biomass to energy. The title says a lot.

"The Charcoal Vision: A Win–Win–Win Scenario for Simultaneously Producing Bioenergy, Permanently Sequestering Carbon, while Improving Soil and Water Quality."

In this article Dr. Laird describes the benefits of widespread use of small scale biomass gasification systems to overcome the transportation and distribution cost inefficiencies of transporting low value ag wastes. - Agronomy Journal • Volume 100, Issue 1 • 2008

Restorative energy models are available and not particularly difficult to implement on a local scale.

"And he gave it for his opnion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."  -- Jonathan Swift - Gulliver's Travels 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What Time Is It? Time to Try Obtainable Energy

Waste biomass is the low hanging fruit of alt-energy.

Stems, stalks and woody debris classified as "waste" can be converted to clean energy and biochar  OR landfilled OR burned out in the open air.  Conversion happens on-demand, exactly when the energy is needed.
"It is obvious that the sun keeps our earth warm with its radiant energy. It is perhaps not so obvious that all living and once living matter on this planet is a form of solar battery, storing the suns energy in chemical bonds.."  - Larry Dobson

On-demand availability makes biomass a fail-safe back up that can reduce physical plant requirements for wind and solar systems during times of high demand.  The technology is already, all ready.  Conversion equipment is easily scaled to the requirement, down to the level of a single home, home generator or vehicle.

Oak Ridge National Laboratories - Agricultural Waste to Energy, 2003

One quad = one quadrillion btu, = 180 million barrels of oil equivalent.  3.73 quads is about 670 million barrels of oil equivalent energy.

Every place water, photosynthesis and soil turn seeds into plant growth, biomass is obtainable.  Every place excess biomass is burned, or wood is landfilled, the potential for clean energy, plus biochar is wasted.  Much effort and expense is often expended to speed up the waste cycle.

Lied Lodge, the hospitality showcase for Arbor Days Farm implemented a wood energy system over twenty years ago.  The Arbor Days folks give tours of the system for guests.

Lied Lodge - Nebraska City, NE
The original plan was to use SRIC, Short Rotation Intensive Cropping, of fast growing wood species, 3-6 tons per year per acre, for energy.  Shortly after installation, local wood waste became the primary source and has been abundant since.  Lied Lodge saves 60-80 percent on energy costs versus similar sized hospitality enterprises by using locally provided urban wood waste.

Beyond Waste - Land and Forest Improvement

Dr. Karl Frogner reports in "Estimated Low Tech Biochar Production by Small Scale Diversified Farmers" 2 tons of excess biomass per acre on small (less than 10 acre) plots in Thailand with rice, maize, and agroforestry cropped in equal proportions.  That is 320 million btu per plot of excess energy, equivalent to about 280 gallons of gasoline per acre, while improving soil, water, and economic conditions.

REAP Canada reports that switchgrass planted on marginal lands in Ontario produces 60 million more btu per acre per year than the energy required to plant and harvest it.  That is equivalent to about 525 gallons of gasoline per acre, per year, beyond the energy required to plant and harvest.

Switchgrass was the native species in the "Great Plains" prior to the dust bowl days.  The deep roots hold soil and water, create excellent habitat for wildlife, excellent forage for herbivores.
"American demand for wood continues to rise, yet the nation's forests are growing faster than they're being harvested." - Biomass Energy - State of the Technology, US Dept of Energy -1993
Timber stand improvement includes thinning.  Decaying wood on the ground produces methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide produced while burning.  The number for the amount of wood that needs to "be gone" varies widely, but over 1 ton per acre seems to be a rule of thumb average.

Slashing and charring one ton per acre in advanced clean kiln designs would produce about 11 million btu of energy plus 500 pounds of biochar, per acre per year.  That is the energy equivalent of almost 100 gallons of gasoline PER ACRE, PER YEAR USING THINNINGS THAT IMPROVE FOREST QUALITY WHEN GONE!

Invasive species management, wildfire prevention, etc, etc.  There is a whole lot of energy right where it needs to be.  It is ready to use, obtainable with very little effort, on a small local scale.

"one moment can change a day,
one day can change a life,
one life can change the world"
Gautama Buddha

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What Time Is It? Time for Clean Energy

"Wood Burns Cleaner Than Oil.

A prototype residential cook stove developed by Northern Light R.&D. (named "Helen") was officially tested by OMNI Environmental Laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy/Bonneville Power in 1986, burning green sawdust of 44% moisture content, with no catalytic afterburner or stack cleanup of any kind.

Its particulate emissions were 65 times cleaner than the average state-of-the-art woodstove, several times cleaner than the best pellet burner, and considerably cleaner than the average oil furnace.

Carbon Monoxide emissions in the stack gases were 1/7500th of the Federal Auto Emissions standard, 1/100th of the gas industry's standard for "CO-free combustion", and 1/2 of the EPA's standard for acceptable 24 hour indoor air quality."  -- Larry Dobson, "Biomass Energy - State of the Technology" - 1993

Wood Powered Truck - Less Emission than All Electric Vehicle

Wayne Keith accepts award from EPA
It was estimated that Wayne's truck, powered by wood, produced less net emissions than an all electric vehicle powered by the Alabama grid (primarily coal based).

The latest micro-gasification designs such as Wayne's set new standards for clean energy while creating a value added co-product, biochar.  Carbon smart vehicle power is not only possible, it is being practiced today by early adopters.

Cleanest Known Single Meal CookStove Saves Biochar

Source - GA Tech Presentation by Hugh McLaughlin, Phd, PE and Paul Anderson, Phd (DrTLUD) October 2010

The cleanest known biomass cooking technology is a Top Lit Up Draft Pyrolytic Gasifier saving the charcoal (biochar).  The obvious feature when witnessed is that a lit cigarette in the room makes more noticeable smoke than this cookstove boiling more than a gallon of water.   

Equally important, perhaps more important economically speaking, is the creation of a high value product (biochar) from the low value waste biomass that went into the stove.

The magic is made possible by loading, lighting, and leaving it alone.  After operational temperature is achieve, no additional fire tending is needed.

We are powerfully imprisoned in these Dark Ages simply by the terms in which we have been conditioned to think.” – Buckminster Fuller