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Making and using biochar, results too!

 
Posts: 302
Location: South Central Kansas
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Do you buy your biochar or make your own?

If you make your own, please describe the steps, materials, equipment, temperatures if known, and time needed to make it.

If you have used biochar, please indicate the type of biochar, the % you put in the soil and if you tilled it or layered it. Did you try it in a pot for a potted plant?

What were the results if known.

What plants did best with it and what ones did not do so well.

Did you use any other soil amendments in addition to biochar?

Biochar looks promising. It has been touted as a way to help sequester atmospheric carbon.
Some places use it to clean up contaminants.

Your information, opinions, and thoughts are desired!

Many thanks!
 
Kai Walker
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In my never ending quest for moisture control (I HATE having to water), I ran across Biochar.

It is supposed to be 2,000 year old technology.

Some call it Terra Preta (or Amazonian black earth) and some call it African black Earth.

Reports indicate that it make weakly fertile soil more fertile.

What I was after is the part concerning moisture control.

I made some biochar out of twigs and new paint cans.

Takes as long to break the twigs into a small size than worth the trouble.
Paint cans don't hold up so well so I bought an 8 quart stainless steel pot with stainless steel lid.

So far so good. Except for a tiny problem.
The stainless steel handles were riveted on with aluminum rivets and the aluminum melted off!

Tossed that batch of biochar on the lawn ( Grrrrr ).
So had to buy some machine screws, lock washers, and nuts then reattach all the handles.

Hooray! It stayed together!

I then tried old Pecans. The oil in them has a high flash point. Gases burn HOT HOT HOT too.
Ran out of them and then I researched hardwood pellets.

I found out they grind up wood into a fine dust, steam it, press it into a mold, and dry it to less than 10% moisture content (drier is better).
I bought 100% oak wood pellets, all natural (it says on the bag). 40 pound bag too. I get the extra heat from them and the charcoal as a bonus plus little to no ashes to dispose of. One bag has 35K BTU of heat energy in it.

I filled the container full, tossed the lid on it, then placed it inside the wood burner that heats the space. Takes about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours to pyrolize (dependent on how hot the stove is).

Umm. another hitch. It expanded and lifted the lid an inch!
I managed to get the lid back down after an hour of burning.

I used to take it out when it was finished flaming to let it cool.
Takes too long.

So I take it out of the wood burner and slowly pour the char into a bucket of solution. That is called quenching. It helps fracture the charcoal to give it even more surface area.

OUCH! The steam surged off it it like crazy. Burnt my under forearm in the process. Leather gloves are a MUST! Preferably gauntlet style welder's gloves.

Now I scoop a few at a time with an ash shovel into the solution - SLOWLY.

Not only does it eject scalding hot steam, it ejects charcoal dust everywhere if you go too fast.

Messy messy messy...

It does the Rice Crispy thing too sometimes - snap, crackle, and pop!

I push the charcoal under the water repeatedly with that metal ash shovel to ensure it is wet and there are not hot coals left. Charcoal is hydrophobic (resists water).

The quenching also draws in the solution.

After a short while I scoop out the cool biochar and place it into a colander above another bucket to strain out excess solution.

Once it stops dripping, I toss that into another plastic bucket and use a piece of wood from a wooden handrail to smash (gently) the particles into finer particles about the size of grains of salt on a hot pretzel. I try to make them no more than 1/8 inch in size or smaller.
Smashing smaller takes a lot more time too.

Ideally you want variable sizes if you can.

I then dump that into another 5 gal bucket and process some more.

After the 3rd or 4th batch, I sprinkle some wheat flour (handful) on the biochar and a handful of organic fertilizer. I mix well.

Repeating the process from start to finish until the bucket is full.

In the solution, I use rain water, sulfur free molasses, and a cup of comfrey tea I have been bubbling for a few months.

I also add in some apple cider vinegar with mother too.

(Holds thumb up and says to self: that amount looks about right- which is about 2-3 ounces of molasses, about 1/2 to 1 cup apple cider vinegar with mother depending on if it is a mostly full bucket of rain water or 1/2 full)

Although the hot charcoal will kill off some of the goodies in there, it won't kill them all.

Once I get the amount of biochar I need for a given spot, I progress to either layering it in or tilling it in by hand. Can always top dress later but it won't do much until it is in the soil.

I am trying both layering and tilling. Not top dressing at this time.

5 gal bucket will do a row 5 inches wide, 1 inch deep, and about 10-12 feet long. Dimensions are approximate.

Rule of thumb is you would try to get about 10% biochar into the soil.

Research how much for your situation for better results.

I suggest you start out with a low percentage as it is difficult to reduce the biochar if you use too much.

I have about 10% on a 3 foot by 8 foot patch of garden space. That is reserved for the wifey's flowers - but will sneak and plant some lettuce or radishes untill after last frost date.

I am trying to make enough to do my whole hugelgarden too but it takes a whopping amount to make that one inch layer for an 800 sq ft hugelgarden.

One site sells 5 gal buckets of it for $59. I can make it for $5/bag of wood pellets times two. Takes about two bags to make one 5 gal bucket.


Note: Inoculating and activation are two different things. Simply adding things to make the biochar is not activating it. That takes time and warm soil (I think above 50F) to activate it. The time is roughly 3 months to two YEARS depending on the situation. So patience is definitely a virtue!


This for me is a very LOOOONNGG slow process as I can only make about 2 quarts at a time.

But hey, it is winter time and can't do much else so why not?

Mixing in the biochar now while it is cold saves me time for when the soil warms and I can plant again. The biochar can still draw minerals to it while I wait.

Think of it like the biochar is a magnet and the minerals are like iron filings.

Microbes and fungi will still be dormant though.

You may want to put some worm castings tea or compost tea in the area to help things along.

I have given out 1 cup zip lock baggies to several people with the biochar in it.
I write on the bag Biochar - DO NOT EAT! And to mix it with 8 cups of soil or planting medium.

I also suggest they do two pots - one with the mix and one without to see any difference.

Won't know anything for several months at least.


Almost forgot.
Classify your biochar as copper.
There will be biochar 'sludge' in the bottom of the solution bucket after multiple batches.
I classify that as gold.
The black biochar solution left over I classify that at platinum (smallest particles biggest surface area).

I can mix the platinum biochar into water and use a watering can that will apply it without digging! YEA! No sore back!

Those smaller particles will actually get in between soil particles for added benefit.

Be aware, the smaller the particles the more you will lose over time.
Worms and other soil critters consume some of it and take it elsewhere. Rain can wash some out.

You can lose up to 17% of your biochar.

Maybe the sandier the soil the bigger the particles?

My research suggests that the poorer the soil (and sandier) the greater the benefit. Benefit can be as much as 400% by some estimates.

Good rich soil may not see any benefit or very little.

The 10% mix is a starting place. Some use 20%, 30%, even 40% to get results.

Isn't experimenting with things FUN?!!

I look forward to your experiences, knowledge, and any suggestions.

Thanks!




















 
pollinator
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I've been making my own since last fall, although I haven't gotten around to using it yet.

I make most of mine in the wood stove, out of crop debris like corn cobs or sunflower seed shells. This last fall was so damp I ended up pulling up my bean plants whole and having them dry indoors, so I had lots of bean vines to turn into charcoal, along with the empty pods.

I use small retorts made from empty soup cans. Use a side-cutting can opener so that the lid sits neatly back in place. After emptying and rinsing out the can, punch a ventilation hold near the top. I find a handle helps, so I also punch 2 more holes near the top and thread a piece of fence wire through it. And that's it, ready to go. Since most soup cans have a plastic coating on the inside, I like to burn them once while empty before using them.

To use them, load it up with whatever burnables you're turning into charcoal, set the lid in place, and put the can in a hot fire. I don't pay much attention to temperatures, although I've noticed I get better charcoal if the can is directly on the hot coals. I give it at least 30 minutes, sometimes an hour. When the can stops smoking, it should be done (although sometimes it cools down more than I expected and quits that way). I set mine under the woodstove to cool, although you can douse them with water if you want.When they've cooled down enough to touch, open the lid and give it a sniff. Half-cooked charcoal stinks, but finished charcoal has little or no odor. If it needs more cooking, just put it back in the fire. If it's done, I pour it into a metal canister and refill the can for the next batch.

If you heat with wood, you can make a lot of charcoal this way, just a little at a time.

There's another way I'm planning to make charcoal, although I haven't done a full burn yet. I have a steel bucket sawdust toilet out on my land. I had originally planned to use a beefed-up solar oven to bake the contents into charcoal, but had some trouble getting that hot enough. Now I have a portable rocket stove for use there, but the weather turned snowy enough it'll have to wait until spring, when the shed with that toilet is accessible again.

I went that route because I needed a toilet out there, but the terrain isn't suitable for humanure composting, and the ground is too hard to dig a latrine by hand. I figured this way, I could use one problem to solve another, because I wanted a ton of biochar for my field.

You were asking for input on made vs bought char. I'm actually going to be doing a research project this summer comparing different types of biochar, including homemade vs bought. I'm curious to see the differences as well.
 
Kai Walker
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I have noticed that the smaller the stock material the harder it is to convert. Seems there needs to be some gaps between the particles.
Coffee grounds are the hardest I found so far.

I figure it costs me about $15 to make a 5 gal bucket of the stuff.
Most places I researched want around $59 for a 5 gal bucket.
A 5 gal bucket holds about .667 cubic feet.

Of course there are some that will sell larger quantities cheaper than that rate. I have seen $2500/ton prices.

About the stock material.
Woody material, especially hardwoods from what I read, have the most pores but the least minerals left over.

'Greens' and similar have the least pores but the most minerals left over.

Bark is one of the best of the two worlds as you get more pores and more minerals left over.

Very high temperatures (around 900c) give less charcoal but more pores.
Low temperatures give the most charcoal but not so much pore wise.

And too hot will cause the carbon to actually melt.

Stainless steel glows red about 600C.

From what I read about 250-450C is more optimal.



 
pollinator
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I have read, on this site even, that temperatures in excess of 450C are necessary to vapourise all the volatiles. 250C would be much too cold, and would leave much of the porous carbon structure filled with the byproducts of low-temperature pyrolysis.

I don't think I would pyrolyse coffee grounds. They are essentially ground and leached seed matter, and worms go apeshit over the stuff. Charring it seems wasteful and unnecessary.

One backyard idea that I haven't had the opportunity to play with is where I set up a retort made from a 55 gallon drum that I build with an internal rocketstove riser and external feed, such that the operation of the rocketstove keeps the outer chamber of the drum, which I would fill with biomass, oxygen-free and heated to over 450C. I would want a pressure valve that exhausts into the burn tunnel, such that any buildup of gasses within the retort gets redirected to fuelling the burn. I would also want an appropriate temperature probe, but I suppose that if the drum were to start glowing cherry-red, then I would know that it had gotten sufficiently hot.

After attaining the correct temperature, I would allow the fuel in the burn tunnel to become exhausted, which would make it clear if any volatiles were exiting the retort (the flame would be a dead giveaway). I would then pop the lid off with an appropriately long handle and douse the activated charcoal with water, opening a drain port in the bottom near one side. I would then either compost with the resultant char, inoculating it, or I would do it faster, by preparing some actively aerated compost extract and dousing the batch with it, probably mixed in with a carbonaceous and nitrogenous mix of food sources, say hay or woodchips and coffee grounds or composted ruminant manure. I would also prepare and apply a fungal slurry, with species chosen based on the substrate added to the char.

One of my favourite setups is the kon-tiki.



But I love the stainless-steel-container-in-the-woodstove method, too. It's the ultimate in function stacking and efficient char production, as some of the heat produced by the combusted volatiles actually goes to heating the space, too, rather than just warming the atmosphere.

Good job. Send photos. Keep us posted, and good luck.

-CK
 
Kai Walker
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Rather hard to make compost tea right now due to the lack of materials related to it being winter time.

About the temps.
I have no way of know what they are except for this:

If the stainless steel pot glows red, I know it is above 600C.

The finished charcoal - if it floats on the water, temps were too low.
If it sinks, it is at least good enough to use.

I still smash the particles either way to make them smaller.
Even cold temp production can benefit from that.

From what I read elsewhere, seems that the leftovers 'clogging' the biochar from cold conversion are considered food for microbes and such.
One would assume that the microbes would eat the leftovers and open up the biochar pores.

I will try to get some pictures when I can get back to making more here in a day or two.

Hibernating right now due to low wind chills and low temps.

The wood burner I use is very old. About 40 or 50 years old.
It is about 5.5 cu foot in capacity.
Perfect for heating and making biochar with my setup.

Once the weather breaks and no wood burner needed, I have to find another means of production outside.

Barrels and piping would cost me about $200 to buy.
Precious seasoned wood is hard to come by here.
Would hate to waste that when it could be saved for next winter's heating needs. Also have to consider where I live and if that kind of conversion is permitted. Inside a wood burner they never know! LOL

Just hate wasting all that energy.

That container I use is about the same as putting one oak log in the burner.
So yes, I do get some heat out of it. Lasts between 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours. Almost no ash and get the charcoal in the same process.

Just wish I had a way to vent the gases for combustion to underneath the pot instead of at the top.

More of a closed loop system I would think.

Seems hardware stores here so not sell stainless steel plumber's strap.
I tried with plain steel but that lasts a few burns then it is so weak and brittle it breaks.

But the tests did seem to put out more heat and faster conversion.


About coffee grounds.
They are wet from public water and that contains chloramine.
I get them from coffee houses and can usually get 100 to 300 pounds or more at a time. For free. Far more than I can use in the garden.

No place to dry them out for garden use right now.

Coffee ground particles mean LESS smashing of the charcoal too. And are about the right size for application.

This is the pot I used:
https://www.walmart.com/ip/Mainstays-Stainless-Steel-8-Quart-Stock-Pot-with-Lid/37320201?selected=true

Unfortunately they used aluminum rivets which melted. So replaced them with steel screws, lock washers, and nuts.

Lid does not fit real tight either. Plenty of slop in it for safety.

Lasts a whole lot LONGER than steel paint cans.

I do have to keep it heated for it to produce the gases though.

I wonder what happens if you quench biochar then reheat it a 2nd time.
Would it leave more minerals in it?

 
Kai Walker
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For those with newer (and smaller) wood stoves, you can make or buy a 'BioCharlie' or use restaurant prep table pans with lids (EXPENSIVE).

I was trying to come up with a way to use a rocket stove to make it but feeding sticks in there constantly for hours is something I don't want to do.
 
Kai Walker
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Here is a pic a friend took for me.
I will upload more later when I get the chance.

Fiery-pot.jpg
biochar pot fire
Post used to make biochar inside wood stove.
 
Kai Walker
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Here are some the things I use to make my biochar.

EDIT: the shiny thing is a dime I put there for size comparison. But the biochar does have varying sizes.
IMG_2046.JPG
[Thumbnail for IMG_2046.JPG]
IMG_2047.JPG
[Thumbnail for IMG_2047.JPG]
IMG_2048.JPG
[Thumbnail for IMG_2048.JPG]
IMG_2049.JPG
[Thumbnail for IMG_2049.JPG]
IMG_2050.JPG
[Thumbnail for IMG_2050.JPG]
 
Kai Walker
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Ellendra Nauriel wrote:I've been making my own since last fall, although I haven't gotten around to using it yet.



Mixing it into the soil now allows the biochar to attract minerals before planting. The sooner the better! Remember, it takes time for biochar to situate things.
Winter snow/rain does wash out some of the minerals. Why not let the biochar hang onto them for you while you wait for planting season?

Microbes and such will just remain dormant till the soil warms. Putting the biochar in as early as you can speeds the benefits up a bit.

I plan on using well water (already has minerals in it, dissolved) instead of rain water.
I will augment the soil with worm castings too. And coffee grounds as a top dressing.

On a very quiet night I expect to HEAR my plants growing! lol

Or at least the worms chanting my name in gratitude for the coffee grounds...

I may be stuck buying some red worms as my garden only had 3 in it when we were working on it.

Might even buy some night crawlers too.
 
Ellendra Nauriel
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Mixing it into the soil now allows the biochar to attract minerals before planting. The sooner the better! Remember, it takes time for biochar to situate things.
Winter snow/rain does wash out some of the minerals. Why not let the biochar hang onto them for you while you wait for planting season?




Picture an ice skating rink.

Now picture that rink tilted at a 45-degree slope, with parts of it even steeper.

That is my land in winter. My garden starts about 800 feet up the hillside.

Yeah, not going out there until the ice melts.
 
Kai Walker
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Ellendra Nauriel wrote:

Mixing it into the soil now allows the biochar to attract minerals before planting. The sooner the better! Remember, it takes time for biochar to situate things.
Winter snow/rain does wash out some of the minerals. Why not let the biochar hang onto them for you while you wait for planting season?




Picture an ice skating rink.

Now picture that rink tilted at a 45-degree slope, with parts of it even steeper.

That is my land in winter. My garden starts about 800 feet up the hillside.

Yeah, not going out there until the ice melts.



Did you know that wood ashes can melt snow?


Lots of uses for wood ashes.
 
Kai Walker
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Here is one reason for various particle sizes:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022169415009464

And another study:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28598988
 
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Hello Kai,
You asked some great questions and came up with some interesting points of view. Many of your questions have been answered if you read through the other threads in this forum.
Thanks,
John S
PDX OR
 
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Kai,  I love what your doing with biochar.
I have made it in a bonfire by stuffing an old steel toolbox with bones, twigs,  and such.
I have also built a TLUD stove from a stainless steel 16 quarter stock pot.
I got my stock pot from harbor freight,  as the biggest of of a 4 part set,   for 25 bucks,  with coupon 20 plus tax .

I plan on using it the TLUD to fire a BBQ I've turned into a pizza oven.
Originally I was going to fire it with a rocket stove, and I still might,  but TLUD's offer long even heat,  and, biochar.

Maybe you could use a TLUD for   outdoor cooking, canning,or distilling.
When none of those things are needed,  drying feedstock  for the next batch could be useful.
A TLUD fired "white " oven could be filled with biochar feedstock and tapped to redirect the gasses back into the flames.

The person behind the YouTube channel Permaculture Playground is doing great work with indoor TLUD stoves.
Their latest iteration includes mass,  making it a TLUD mass heater.

I've considered buying the largest stainless steel mixing bowl available for use as a "cone" retort, but video from the purveyor of Skillcult has me convinced that a trench system is cheaper and takes less labor.
Still a big enough bowl would make for a nice fire pit.
A second smaller bowl,  inverted in the first,  could form a closed retort.
 
Kai Walker
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William Bronson wrote:Kai,  I love what your doing with biochar.
I have made it in a bonfire by stuffing an old steel toolbox with bones, twigs,  and such.
I have also built a TLUD stove from a stainless steel 16 quarter stock pot.
I got my stock pot from harbor freight,  as the biggest of of a 4 part set,   for 25 bucks,  with coupon 20 plus tax .

I plan on using it the TLUD to fire a BBQ I've turned into a pizza oven.
Originally I was going to fire it with a rocket stove, and I still might,  but TLUD's offer long even heat,  and, biochar.

Maybe you could use a TLUD for   outdoor cooking, canning,or distilling.
When none of those things are needed,  drying feedstock  for the next batch could be useful.
A TLUD fired "white " oven could be filled with biochar feedstock and tapped to redirect the gasses back into the flames.

The person behind the YouTube channel Permaculture Playground is doing great work with indoor TLUD stoves.
Their latest iteration includes mass,  making it a TLUD mass heater.

I've considered buying the largest stainless steel mixing bowl available for use as a "cone" retort, but video from the purveyor of Skillcult has me convinced that a trench system is cheaper and takes less labor.
Still a big enough bowl would make for a nice fire pit.
A second smaller bowl,  inverted in the first,  could form a closed retort.



Can you upload some pictures for everyone?

I am curious how you used your 16 quart one.
Making 3 quarts at a time is rather shall I say boring?

I thought about maybe drilling holes in the bottom of the container and lighting the top.
Not sure that would work though.
It would if I could engineer a resealable lid for it.

With the method I am using, I have virtually no visible ash.
Just wish I had a cheap way to direct the gases under the container for a positive feedback process. Would need a lot less wood in the wood stove to do it.

When the weather breaks and I no longer can use the wood stove for heating, I need an easy way to make it outside QUICKLY.

I am not allowed to dig a trench. And buying barrels and such are not practical for me.

Was thinking about some kind of rocket stove but feeding twigs in constantly is not what I want to do.

At the rate I am making it, I will only have about 2% in my garden. And that won't be enough to cover the entire garden either.
Just a good portion of it.

I figure *some* is better than *none*.

Trying to keep the cost down if I can.
What do I do with the equipment once I am done with the project?
Not profitable to make biochar to sell with such small batches.

 
Kai Walker
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Here is how one person makes charcoal and heats his home at the same time:
Small batches but hey? You got all winter with little to do out in the garden so why not make the stuff?
And save on heating at the same time!

 
William Bronson
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Kai , I will try to post a photo of the TLUD.
I punched holes in the bottom,  cut a hole in the lid, and  attached an empty  #10 can as chimney.
I fill it to almost an inch of the lid with pellets , douse the top with accelerant and   light.
When I'm sure its lit, I cover it with the lid/chimney.
It burns about 45 mins, or an hour, I think, its been a while.
To tell how far down the flame front hall progressed,  I must the side with a spray bottle of water ,which instantly evaporates from the hot spots.
 
William Bronson
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Kai Walker
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William Bronson wrote:Anyone looking at this thread should check this other thread out:
Indoor biochar producing TLUD gasifie


I getno audio when viewing from this site but if I go to youtube, everything works.

His setup is pretty darned nice too!

I try to avoid using electricity as much as I can whereas he uses a blower.
And an accelerant to get it going?

 
Hey, sticks and stones baby. And maybe a wee mention of my stuff:
A rocket mass heater is the most sustainable way to heat a conventional home
http://woodheat.net
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