The Forestry Forum

General Forestry => Alternative methods and solutions => Topic started by: Dan_Shade on May 19, 2018, 09:01:42 PM

Title: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: Dan_Shade on May 19, 2018, 09:01:42 PM
Do any of you know anything about biochar?  Is it a fancy name for charcoal? 
Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: Don P on May 19, 2018, 10:22:15 PM
Yup, basically crushed charcoal. Most like it not too fine (not real dusty) around pea sized. Preferably inoculated in a nutrient tea so it doesn't rob nutrients when applied. I made some last year but have been to busy to mess with it more. I made some charcoal and screened the lump out for cooking, then smelting size, then biochar size. From what I've read most places you want to burn hot enough to drive off the tars, dull rather than shiny charcoal. Bacteria will eventually take care of tars but it ties them up. That is also better lump charcoal, cleaner burning. There was more interest in the biochar than anything from local gardeners. I was saving some piles of slabs to make more and finally bonfire them last week, too many irons in the fire, a waste of a resource that there is a market for if you can make the time to process it. Google terra preta as well as biochar for more reading info.

There is a thread on ramial wood, chipped twigs and small diameter wood, pencil sized and smaller which is nutrient rich, that would be one product, then you could make biochar from the larger scrap and close the loop on that end of operations.
Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: DMcCoy on May 20, 2018, 09:23:01 AM
What he said.  There was a small firm trying to market their biochar on the west coast.  From what I heard it was expensive and the cost/benefit was hard to sell to the retail public.
I believe there are 2-3 very important questions;

1) As mentioned the nutrient content of ramial chipped wood. Is this what the terra preta was made from?  Is the type of wood critical to the final product and will some types of charcoal be essentially a waste of time.

2) If the type of wood is critical for the nutrients they impart to the bio-char product then for those nutrients to make it through carbonization is there a temperature range that is also critical?

3) Do all factors play an intertwined part?  Type of stock, kiln temp, the absorption of nutrients, and the gradual development of the soil environment.

That it can work isn't so much the question but rather how.  The ability of soil to hold nutrients is technically called "cation exchange capacity" if that helps your research.  Another factor is nutrient availability vs. soil Ph. There are charts on the internet.

I would wonder from personal experience if the soil environment isn't altered to make it more hospitable to certain soil fungi which make the process work.  In other words I'm not sure that thinking about biochar the same as we would 'soil' and 'fertilizer' is the whole picture.  What I know about soil chemistry is that it become incredibly complicated very quickly after you get past the basics.

The concept 'a chain is only as strong as it's weakest link' relates to soil as well.  Plants growth will be limited by the least available nutrient.  I have found the 'minors', as they are called, are the ones that I have to pay attention to.

My 2 cents hope that helps.
Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: Don P on May 20, 2018, 04:24:11 PM
ramial wood and biochar are two different things, didn't mean to confuse the issue. Biochar is primarily just a stable form of carbon and is the basis of what I've seen described as terra preta soil. Not too critical what it is made from, the black soils of the plains is from charred grass.

I was suggesting that ramial wood might be another product for the same market group.
Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: DMcCoy on May 21, 2018, 09:03:55 AM
Sorry I wasn't clear either.  I have used ramial chipped wood and it is amazing.  I looked it up and there is nutrient difference in where the chips come from limbs vs stems, conifer vs, hardwood.  So if there is a difference in nutrients in different parts of the tree then could there also be a difference in the chemical make up of the charcoal based of what part and type of wood was carbonized.

Organic Research (

Looking at my bags of fertilizer, I'm a nurseryman by trade, the nutrients in Ramial chipped wood reads like that fertilizer label.

So my questions are based on there no records that I am aware of in how terra preta was made.  We know it is charcoal but charcoal from what? I'm not saying it does or doesn't matter only that I would think that there would be some chemical difference if you used limbs vs stems, hardwood vs conifer.  

There are differences in coal so why not charcoal

Coal 101: The 4 Types of Coal and Their Uses | Investing News Network (

"The WCA explains that the quality of coal is largely determined by:
  • The type of vegetation the coal originated from;
  • The coal’s depth of burial;
  • Temperatures and pressures at that depth; and
  • How long it took the coal to form."

I think it's a worthwhile question.
Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: DMcCoy on May 21, 2018, 01:54:03 PM
Here is some current research, dry land wheat farms in eastern Oregon. 20-25% increased yield.  Different biochars do have different properties.  ;)
Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: Don P on May 21, 2018, 09:42:29 PM
There looked to be one line mentioning that but no details. I'd be interested if you find something concrete and peer reviewed. I tend to believe in the old saying "What you see is what you believed before you looked".

Organic material is just about always a good thing for the soil. I think we're pretty safe making charcoal from the slab pile without getting into its provenance too deeply, crushing it up and selling it as biochar, and calling it a good thing.
Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: DMcCoy on May 22, 2018, 10:25:22 AM
I couldn't agree more.  I keep looking as to me it should be an area where testing before and after should be rather easy but hasn't been done or I can't find it.

There was a seminar over 20 yrs ago I attended where they looked at different plants including corn and divided them into C-3 and C-4 plants and their responding need for carbon as the limiting factor to growth.  If I remember they were promoting a product that could be sprayed on corn fields during hot weather that mimicked or turned into methane for its carbon content to be absorbed through the leaf.  Never really took off locally but Oregon isn't known for growing corn either.  Just a carbon related story I guess.

As you say I think bio-char is good no matter what.
Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: mike_belben on May 22, 2018, 01:18:19 PM
Its hard to know if "bio-char" is a real benefit or a buzzword.  Like all the organic hoopla.  the hippies selling their 'natural soap.'  Yeah its as natural as cracking the glycerine out of your waste veggie oil with methanol, lye and a whole lotta watt hours.  Ie, its industrial waste dressed up in dreadlocks and a hemp skirt.

Bio char is a big chunk of carbon.  The whole forest is made of decomposing carbon.  Why are we adding carbon when the dirt is starving for nitrogen and trace elements?  Are the microbes and worms and fungi saying give us carbon?  Far as i know theyre saying give us carbohydrates.  Biochar feels like another wealth transfer scheme to me, like timeshares and carbon credits.  Hopefully im wrong, i dont know.  Ive not seen any response to it personally but ill keep an open mind.

I pile up woodchips, they just sit there.  I add water, urine, nitrogen sources, some white rotted branch tips to innoculate the pile.  Now things get interesting.  

This is a picture of a few clay dirt clumps that were in my chip pile.  Its at 155F and white fungus has covered the clay.  I dont know why but its feeding on something in there.  The woodchips they were in hardly showed any fungus.  


Toss in an apple core, 3 days later theres hardly anything left.  The microbes are after something other than carbon chunks.  Splash molasses solution on white rot and watch it double.  Again i dont know.  But i soak in my observations for a rainy day.

PS- ive read that ramial wood link 3 times now.  It seems like excellent information and im trying to see if these practices translate to plant growth here in real life.

Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: DMcCoy on May 22, 2018, 03:53:04 PM
I have an area where the county road crew dumped the dirt from cleaning ditches.  Sandstone was most of it along with rocks, road gravel, beer cans, plastic cups, etc.  Junk dirt.  I leveled it out and added 6" of used nursery soil(fir bark, peat and pumice, weeds etc.)  I then added 6" of the power line crew's wood chips.  Almost 100% small diameter limbs from red alder.  These chips sat in a pile for over a year and when I went to move them they came apart in big blocks(4-6" thick by feet square) all tied together with white mycelium.  I tilled this all together and broke a few tiller tines on some big rocks but eventually got it done and planted pasture mix grass on it.  A couple years pass and it looks great.  The 2 years became 5, then 6 and it still looks amazing.  Nursery soil is good but not that good.  I just didn't get it, so I look up wood chips, and that led me the that ramial link I posted.  I think I'm 12+ yeras on that patch and it looks like I give it fertilizer, dark green and lush.  A different  area with undisturbed native top soil that didn't get the same treatment is a dull green.  

Scientific - no, not even a soil test.  But it makes sense also that fertile bottom lands are soil washed off forested slopes and stream banks.  

Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: Don P on May 22, 2018, 05:30:40 PM
Hard to say Mike, my wife who has an ag degree kind of rolls her eyes at all of this but I keep an open mind. I simply see it as providing product or services to those who want them, opinions are kind of immaterial.

I've read the ramial link a few times too, that's why I'd like to see more peer reviewed info on all this. He was jumping to conclusions and making claims that sounded pretty off the wall.  I started thinking "where is this guy getting his ideas from?"  I checked his sources in the bibliography at the end, sure enough, he pretty much gets them from himself. That doesn't mean what he is saying is wrong but it sure would be nice to see some science tempering that. I have seen the research done at VT and there were positive results, as expected, without the hyperbole.

One thing I've wondered but haven't seen mention of, you know where the growth hormones are in a tree.

On charcoal, it is a pretty stable form of carbon, recalcitrant rather than labile, which would be converted by decay to CO2, the wood or whatever is instead converted to a relatively long term part of the soil structure. It certainly helps with tilth and moisture retention, these are good for the soil. Lots of organic things happen around carbon. I keep a cautiously skeptical but open mind to both of these things.

If I make either I know there is a ready market, all I really need to know is whether or not it would be cost effective. I've built plenty of houses that I thought were crazy, as long as the draws come on time they can keep doodling on that napkin.

Edit: Well this was timely, I just checked email and this came in today from ATTRA, I'm still reading it but it looks to be a good article on the current state of biochar research. (
Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: mike_belben on May 22, 2018, 11:15:54 PM
Hey, if theyre buying, ill make biochar until they run out of money.  That the ecological details are above my paygrade is undisputed, and i am okay with that.  
Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: DMcCoy on May 24, 2018, 09:39:41 AM
Don, that is some article. 
Years ago I built a retort kiln to make bio-char for nursery use, and a charcoal crusher.  Nursery soils are likely not the place for biochar was my take away. I did several trials, none produced results to justify the time spent, I did not see any difference at all. Carbon sequestration or not it has to pay.  Fertility wasn't something we lacked, we use both slow release granular and injected liquid fertilizer into the nursery water.

The retort kiln was very interesting to watch once the process got up to temp.  I sent all gasses back under the 55 gallon drum that held the wood to be charred where the gasses burned above the external fire I used to get the whole thing started.  I hope that all makes sense.  Cutting and loading a 55 gallon drum (tightly) is a time consuming project. 

Great article, looks well researched.  It does mention chemical content of feed stock repeatedly, which makes sense to me. 

What did the makers of Terra Pretta use for feed stock?  Was it brush and twigs that they repeatedly burned to keep an area open to be able to farm?  Stumping an area is hard work without dynamite or a track hoe so once this area was cleared to me at least it would be super importnat to keep it from turning back into stumps.  Burning would be the easiest way.

Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: DMcCoy on March 23, 2019, 09:41:50 AM
The charcoal thing keeps coming back.  Wildfire charcoal gets replenished and consumed/moved as part of a cycle that is getting greater study.

Is charcoal a good soil amendment? | OSU Extension Service (

After the fire, charcoal goes against the grain, with the flow: Soil charcoal became more concentrated over time -- ScienceDaily (
Very interesting detail in this one - charcoal moves downhill even very gentle slopes.

Another article mentions charcoal ending up in the ocean.

Title: Re: Biochar - marketing for charcoal?
Post by: Don P on March 23, 2019, 07:55:58 PM
It will be interesting to see what the effects are on inland and offshore waters.
I noticed in one article it mentioned that biochar enhances microbial activity which then converts more soil carbon into CO2, no real net sequestration going on.