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Pinecones for material for small scale biochar?

 
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This year I was lucky and was given some sawmill shavings for using in my small-batch biochar container. Now I'm scouting around for alternatives for the coming season so I start collecting early and have not fear of running out.

So the local squirrels tend to throw down the Doug fir cones and although they'd be a little bulky, has anyone tried charring them?

It seems that they'd be easy to break up once charred, which is a major asset to me?

Thoughts anyone?
 
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I've charred gumballs
They are pretty light for their volume, much like pine cones,and they leave behind a fine,  easily crushed structure.
That makes for less char out for what you put in,but that might be ok.
 
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I don't suppose you have scotch broom around there? If you could chop that up with loppers and cook char with it, I think you would get a round of applause from ... everybody and their dog.
 
Jay Angler
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:I don't suppose you have scotch broom around there? If you could chop that up with loppers and cook char with it, I think you would get a round of applause from ... everybody and their dog.

We got rid of most of that years ago now, but there is some that I should lop into bits. If Himalayan Blackberry was easier to cut small, I'd use that in a heart beat. The problem with both of those options is that chopping a pile of stuff up small enough to fit in a pan in our wood-stove is a lot of work for my slightly arthritic hands. Doug Fir cones are already a fine size - I just have to rake them into a pile and put them in buckets to hold until winter heating season - so if no one thinks of reasons *not* to do so, I'm inclined to collect at least the ones along our paths to the two main fields, and give it a try. If I can, I'll mix with sawdust to increase the quantity of the results, but that's limited in supply also.

There is stuff that we chip and shred, but that requires diesel fuel so most of it gets inoculated with duck or chicken shit and then composted. If worse comes to worse I will use some of that for biochar, but I'd really like to find things that don't require fossil fuel to process.
 
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I see no reason why fir cones would not cook into decent char. Actually there isn't much dry veggie material that wouldn't, though the finer and softer it is the more ash you get and you have to be aggressive about limiting oxygen. If there is a way to stomp the cones into more dense material, you'll get a better yield; opened cones have a lot of dead air space.
 
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:I see no reason why fir cones would not cook into decent char. Actually there isn't much dry veggie material that wouldn't,




I'll second this. The majority of the char I make is from non-woody material. Crop debris such as bean shells, sunflower shells, corn stalks, etc, all make decent char. If you have a dog or cat, their poo can be made into char as well, eliminating both the smell and anything infectious that might be lurking inside.

Try the cones and let us know!
 
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I think it sounds like a great idea, Jay.
I have a large pine cone tree by my house too.

They are great for burning hot, getting rid of the volatile compounds, and giving you char.

Thanks for the idea.

John S
PDX OR
 
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The only thing I have heard that you should NOT burn or make biochar from are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac -- the volatile oil urushiol can get all over things including into your lungs.  Other than that I would suggest looking for the invasive plants around your place like bittersweet, porcelain berry, japanese knotweed, etc.  That will turn a pest into a useful symbiotic product.
 
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I’ve thinking that dry Japanese knotweed stalks would make excellent biochar. Anyone on here tried that?
 
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Ellendra Nauriel wrote:

Douglas Alpenstock wrote:I see no reason why fir cones would not cook into decent char. Actually there isn't much dry veggie material that wouldn't,




I'll second this. The majority of the char I make is from non-woody material. Crop debris such as bean shells, sunflower shells, corn stalks, etc, all make decent char. If you have a dog or cat, their poo can be made into char as well, eliminating both the smell and anything infectious that might be lurking inside.

Try the cones and let us know!



Ellendra, that's genius.

I know about pyrolysing toilets for humans, and if I have a glut of heat energy, I would go that route for human feces, simply for the ability to cook out and break down any contaminants, including but not limited to microplastics and pharmaceutical residues.

But the real genius comes when you apply that to cat owners. I simultaneously hate cats and love the two I've had in my life. Cat feces is the bane of my existence, speaking as a former cat owner and gardener; it was one of the driving factors in our choice of Flemish Giant Rabbit over a Russian Blue cross cat (I am allergic, but least allergic to those). The worms appreciate the decision, as we use a product that is raw, unbleached waste product from the paper industry as bedding.

I think that I will remember this if we should ever have cats, and probably for the dogs as well (definitely having dogs).

Jay, I think that pinecones will work fine. They are almost a matrix for something else, though, something that may be too dense to char as a pile. If you had sawdust, for instance, or more shavings, you could stand a bunch of the cones upright in your pan and sift the little bits over them so that the open scales (I am assuming they're open) fill. That would let you get more char per batch, and would make it easier to restrict oxygen by eliminating much of the open air space.

-CK
 
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This "small scale biochar" discussion is surprising and interesting to me, a new biochar convert. I'm surprised because I thought "small" would be a cubic foot of biochar made from a fireplace or firepit with a pile of branches that were extinguished by water at the appropriate time. The cooled charcoal breaks up easily into biochar. My concern was to fully pyrolyze and burn off the gases. But this sounds like people also make biochar on an even smaller scale. My approach also uses up my slash piles and grills meat and entertains guests--while wasting energy if done outdoors. I've also considered the biochar "canisters" set in fireplaces, but thought they were too fiddly. However, the tangential thoughts about human and animal waste open up new possibilities. I have composting toilets in boats and camp latrines and faced social opposition to how to ultimately process that compost.  Much to think about.
 
John Suavecito
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We have a lot of great concepts going here!

One is that it is in many ways optimal to use excess organic material to make your biochar with. More efficient ecologically.  I have a permaculture orchard, so I 'm always pruning something.

Another is to keep our ears open to the many innovations that we are seeing here.  Not just designs, but also applications, and sources of materials.

Another is that fires for other uses can be used to contribute to biochar making.   I would imagine that the many indigenous groups who started biochar observed that plants were growing much better in places and tried to figure out why, then made it their intentional practice.

We go camping quite a bit. We have found burned fireplaces with mixed char. We have talked about collecting it.  One thing that I have found from burning my own biochar, is that I will usually have a couple of larger pieces that didn't completely burn through at the end when I douse it with water. This isn't really a problem.  I have a couple of old leather gloves that I found in the street, and I "wring" the pieces until the char falls off.  Then I crush that and Nutrify it like all of the other char.  The woody part that stays after wringing it is just put into the next batch of char.  

You people have got me thinking along some useful ideas.  Thank you!

John S
PDX OR
 
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I would expect them to char up absolutely fine. That said, I don't do any small scale stuff. From experience I can produce a huge amount of char quickly using a very simple open pit type burn, so processing small batches in a domestic fire just isn't a sufficiently efficient use of time.
 
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I'll have to give this a go. I have a huge burn pile that came with our property and could make some char while burning. Don't think I'll get too concerned about it, maybe use some paint cans and start small. I assume I can just add the biochar to my compost pile for next year and everything will be happy
 
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Continuing the "brainstorm" that my tangential comment earlier exposed, "small scale" biochar exists on a continuum: from commercial kilns; down to either a. high-tech backyard burn-barrel retort designs (rusty barrels) or b. forest-slash burning fire-pits extinguished with wither water or covered with a plate-steel lid; further down to backyard recreational fire-pits (portable or laid-brick) doused with water; further down to fireplace-canister biochar micro-kilns; down to (really?) dutch-oven style kilns. Every person faces unique situtations and scenarios.

And, regarding the "purpose" for the output, ultimate soil-amending applications are relatively homogenous EXCEPT for timing: how soon will the charged and nutrified biochar be added to edible gardens. Some people recommend a few weeks of "charging", yet others suggest that on-site or in-situ charging will happen anyway, so don't worry.

But, my marine-toilet composting problem has always been "timing". I was faced with finding a suitable compost pile in which to dump my pre-composted human waste. Observers asking, "Watcha doin'?" were always triggered by the answer--which meant 'sneaking around"...  But, by taking the peat-moss and compost mixed composting-toilet output as feed for micro-biochar production, I can answer probing questions by saying, "This is biochar from my yacht's woodstove." And then just dump it in forests or trash or landscaping without qualms.

However, "charging" or nutrifying the biochar with urine is still needing further investigation. I just read that using urine as the moisture and mineralizing step with plant-based compost for the biome can be a, uh, sweet package-deal. I'll let you know if it works. What I do is use grass and other vegetable compost piles to create non-manure compost. This I use to mix in the marine composting toilet with human waste. (This actually deoderizes almost instantly and yields "earthy" compost in days.) Then I'll pyrolyze that mixture in fireplace sized cannister kilns and mix it again with more plant-based compost. Then I'll use that in the urinal holding tank/bucket to absorb and break-down the urea to prevent ammonia production (hopefully). Then the automatically charged and nutrified compost/biochar mix can be distributed to gardens or forests without even being recognizable as composting-toilet output. And all this on a weekly basis (meaning total quantity is less than a 5 gallon bucket).

Now, the secret I haven't mentioned is that this is actually a model for disaster relief shelters that help villagers stay on their property, safe and healthy as they plant permaculture gardens to augment their bags of rice food supply.

 
Jay Angler
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Ellendra Nauriel wrote:

If you have a dog or cat, their poo can be made into char as well, eliminating both the smell and anything infectious that might be lurking inside.

The mill shavings I was using this past winter for biochar had been visited by either the feral or domestic cats in the area. I just tossed it in the pot with the sawdust and I agree, it did just fine! Glad to  know I'm not the only one.

I raised the point with a friend who currently has two small dogs and one big - would they be willing to let the dog shit dry before collecting, and as Chris Kott suggested, I had already figured mixing it with sawdust would be a good approach. To me, if I can get her to come around to my thinking, getting biochar for my land by removing it from "land fill" is win-win.

Michael Cox wrote:

From experience I can produce a huge amount of char quickly using a very simple open pit type burn, so processing small batches in a domestic fire just isn't a sufficiently efficient use of time.

Location, location, location! We live on designated "agricultural land reserve" and actually practice agriculture. Unfortunately, we're in a popular area for wealthy horse owners to come and build 5000 square foot + homes. We now have to pay $100 Canadian for a "burning permit" and can only burn during the wet season. So as much as putting old pots in our wood-stove is a fiddly time suck, it gives me biochar for my compost and to tuck into old paper feed sacks when I have to bury a dead chicken and heats the house at the same time and a little biochar is better than no biochar!
 
Jay Angler
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Phil Faris wrote:

However, "charging" or nutrifying the biochar with urine is still needing further investigation. I just read that using urine as the moisture and mineralizing step with plant-based compost for the biome can be a, uh, sweet package-deal. I'll let you know if it works.

I've been using diluted urine to charge my small-scale biochar before dumping it in the compost or elsewhere - it's a bit stinky, so I wouldn't leave it on the surface, but it seems to do the job.

However, I also have a bucket with a toilet seat on it in the back field for emergencies on days when my 60+ knees or balance aren't up to squatting (I'm a female "Jay" - the plumbing isn't as convenient!). That bucket is 1/2 filled with a mix of sawdust and biochar and even if I had to use it a couple days in a row, there's no smell. I almost feel now that I should try using it more regularly as a test, but the chickens give me funny looks!
 
John Suavecito
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Jay's point is well taken here.  We probably don't know the details of exactly why each design will work best in each specific application.  I think the best we can do is offer experiences and possibilities and have each person ask questions and figure out what works best for them.

I don't know the specifics of Brian's situation.  From what I've heard, though, if I had a huge pile of wood and acreage, I would definitely consider the burning in a dug out trough that others have used.  It was surprising to me to see how small the amount of biochar I would get from a double closed retort.  I just have a suburban property, and I need way more than I could get from that.  I can't dig a trough and have a large fire.

I was able to get the 55 gallon drum for free on Craig's list.  The other parts were cheap, like the chimney was $2.

It took me a few years after wanting to make biochar until I could actually find a system that would work for me.  

Good luck and I hope you share your experiences,

John S
PDX OR
 
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can you take a picture of your biochar setup?  What is small to one person is huge to another...

BTW, I built a couple of ones out of 55 gallon barrels.  I could never keep them lit for a complete burn.  I could probably process a couple hundred tonnes of woody material if I could get something working long enough to get good char...  As a side note, I had purchased a small abandoned farm that had not had any maintenance to speak of for 15 to 20+ years.  I have wisteria vines on some of the trees that are as big around as my thigh, and the invasive vines completely over-topped every tree and shrub less than 20' tall, and a few trees that are 75' to 100' tall...  It is a MESS.  It would be nice if I could set up with a unit that is self extinguishing (like the TLUD's) so I can light and work on something else.
 
John Suavecito
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I should probably do that in another thread.
John S
PDX OR
Staff note (Jay Angler) :

Here's the link: https://permies.com/t/160236/Show-biochar-system

Thanks John

 
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Ebo David,
I did set up a different thread showing my biochar system. Isn't it humid and rainy back East in the summer?  I think that you probably want to burn when it is dry.  That may be the winter for you! Keeping your materials dry or covered until they are dry is really helpful.   Here, in the Pacific North Wet, Summer is the easiest time to efficiently burn biochar.

John S
PDX OR
 
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This setup looks useful: http://www.biochar.info/?p=en.small_scale_biochar_kiln. I like their approach, cataloguing their failures and the points that could be improved upon along with good instructions for building this kiln. Saves continually re-inventing the wheel. I should give it a try, particularly as herself says that I will never find the time to do it with all the other projects we have on the go!
 
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Jay,
Here in New England, we've got Eastern White Pine (pinus strobus) and the cones have a lot of sap on them, and just a few makes for great fire lighters. Maybe another use for you?
I'm not sure what that pitch would do in quantity inside a tiny kettle-in-a-woodstove retort? If your cones have a lot of pitch, maybe start with a few, and work up...
I bet the cones would work well. My OCD would have me arrange them in neat rings inside the pot, like wreaths, to get the most inside. Maybe a layer of sawdust to take up the gaps, and layer until full. (suddenly hungry for dolmas or stuffed cabbage)
 
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@John Suavecito, I am aware that Japanese Knotweed is used medicinally.  I studied naturopathic and herbal medicine back in my 20's.  I am looking for a place where I can sell it (open to suggestions).  As a note, I am working towards USDA organic certification. While the farm is not yet certified there have not been any conventional farming or applications of herbicides and pesticides in at least 20 years.
 
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@Jim Webb, The double baffle made of insulating fire brick looks nice.  I had thought about doing something similar with some salvaged fire bricks I had (but they got used for other things).  Also, nice use of perlite as an insulator.I have been considering using something similar with aircrete.  I'll have to revisit this when things slow down just a little.
 
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Scotch broom smoke is a little toxic
 
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I'm in Central OR and put Ponderosa pine cones in my Tin Man and woodstove retort.  Works great and, as has been mentioned, crushes down easiest of all things I char.  The one down side is that, when all the cones are open, the deadspace is large and the final product is much less than when I use woodchips, sticks, etc.
 
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Small scale biochar here in our suburban backyard.  Graniteware pot inside Chofu wood fired water heater.  Makes biochar while we soak in our outdoor soaking tub.  We've been putting our stone fruit pits and pistachio shells in ours.  Received some batches of cling stone fruit (peaches and plums).  Learned not to put them directly into the graniteware pot, makes a sticky mess.  After processing for canning and eating, we throw the pits into our worm bin and let them clean them up for us.  I don't know if it is true, but the worms seem to 'push' the pits to the top of the soil.  I pull them off the top and put them in the graniteware for pyrolyzing.  If I feel like it, I put the char in a cloth bag and stomp it up.  Then I dump it in the deep litter of our chicken run.  I figure it is getting charged there.  We are just approaching the end of our first year with chickens, so I'm about to clear out the deep litter to the compost bin for a couple months before adding to the garden beds in the fall.

Love the idea of charring cat feces (neighborhood cats think our backyard is their personal toilet).
 
Jay Angler
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Welcome to permies, Carla! Yes, part of my thoughts are to find organic material that's "already small enough" rather than having to chip and shred material in order to char in just a pot. It would be nice to be able to do it on a larger scale, but it's not practical at this time. Glad this thread has helped solve your "cat poop" problem - I can just imagine you telling your guests, "yes our hot tub is heated by the neighbors' cat poop - come in for a dip!
 
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@Ebo David. I like the double wall plus insulation too. I wouldn't have thought of using high temp silicone but they seem to have done OK with it. Maybe it only holds the job together until the fireclay is cured. I like their idea of having more than one drum, to speed the cycling up. I fancy building a gantry with a travelling hoist to swap the drums over. They could each have three lugs bolted on which would be used to attach chains for lifting and which could double as attachment points for the afterburner assembly, which seems a bit problematical in the original design. I think I would have three or four vertical steel rods set around the inside of the firebrick cylinder to guide the drums and stop them hitting the firebricks, which could be a bit fragile. The gantry frame could also support a metal roof to keep the rain off the kiln.

I like the idea of using fir cones, we have plenty of them. Most of the feedstock would be small fir limbs, down to about 3/4" dia. Anything smaller goes through the shredder. I would also try dry sawdust from the chainsaw, it may be coarse enough to hold sufficient air to cook itself or it might be better mixed with the fir cones.
 
John Suavecito
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@Jim WEbb:
I loved the site you showed. It had a lot of information about their model and their ideas. Since they are a commercial site, I'm not sure that I trust them 100%. This non-commercial site tends to disagree with them about the temperature of other biochar models, and therefore, the usefulness of biochar made in those systems:

" In previous independent experiments with accurate thermocouples, temperatures in the flaming pyrolysis zone of similar TLUD devices have been measured from 490ºC to 700ºC, increasing with increasing gas flow and faster pyrolysis.  Therefore, the reported temperature trends should be considered qualitative and requiring replication with better equipment.6.6.2.  "

This was from the Dr. TLUD site.  

Another model that reminded me of the one you showed was by OJ Romo on you tube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrTaISI9fm4&t=829s

I got a whole bunch of bricks to use this model until I saw the one from warm heart biochar foundation and used that type of TLUD.

John S
PDX OR
 
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Location: Kingston, Canada (USDA zone 5a)
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I found that small sticks and branches even if they are still somewhat green will char well when mixed in some lumber off-cuts. I use a TLUD.

 
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https://youtu.be/6AsrNh5hwj8

I discovered a sweetspot in the geometry of a rocket-stove inspired biochar making device.

Unlike most designs, you can "switch" this off in the amount of time it takes you to go-pee-return
and in six burns it has never failed to produce results which it does on a continuous basis{also a
departure from other devices}. I usually burn a 5-gallon bucket or two of sticks at a time. The video
shows one bucketful being burnt and the amount you can get. See the description for my two permies
posts that are related. The only downside is this must be continuously monitored. It is not a fire
and forget device.

I will soon post a way to light and relight the ARS-C with my new discovery of artificial bark.

The ARS-C will handle sticks/branches/twigs up to 1-inch in diameter. I suppose it could handle
larger but an unfortunate tiny knock by a stick while in full flame caused a huge crack. No more
experiments until I can reproduce this in cob. I believe a two by four cutoff will not be beyond its
capabilities.

The only WARNING I give is not all wood and stuff is safe to burn. Some like the Manchineel
tree give off toxic fumes when burnt. Britannica : "The manchineel is so poisonous that smoke
from its burning wood irritates the eyes, and latex from its leaves and bark causes skin inflammation."
If someone can point to a list of trees/shrubs to avoid burning, that would be appreciated.

I suppose it can handle dried dung. There is a never ending supply of it on my roadside despite the
absence of stray dogs. In India cow dung is dried and used as firewood for cooking.

I have accumulated six 5-gallon buckets of my own dung. According to Geoff Lawton, sealing
humanure for 1-year will render it safe for composting purposes. With my biochar I am thinking
of making the Holy Grail of permaculture: Terra Preta. I have all the suspected ingredients
including pottery shards.

Alternatively, I could top up the last 10 percent of the bucket of humanure with soil, place a
lid with a 1-inch hole in it and invert the bucket unto a raised bed and then neglect it. Maybe
place a flowerpot on top.  This way
nothing leaches out despite heavy rainfall and the only way this humanure gets out is
through the gut of earthworms which I expect will render any pathogens harmless.

 
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I am using ponderosa pine cones, Im in interior bc., they frequently leave a hard core that is not finished or breakable. the biochar site I frequent says they are not good char. I do burn the needles and they need to be fed slowly. I have read that nepal makes pellets of pine needles and burns them for heat.  They must clean their chimneys often.
 
Edward Lye
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edd anderson wrote:I am using ponderosa pine cones, Im in interior bc., they frequently leave a hard core that is not finished or breakable. the biochar site I frequent says they are not good char.



These guys use a retort{fresh roadkill turns into brittle char}:  



This Chinese guy uses molten salt{100 percent conversion and zero smoke}:



You pine cones don't stand a chance. What furnace are you using? I admit my
ARC-C{see above somewhere} failed to char a corn cob fully but I was
excavating all the newly exhausted coals as they appeared. If I let the bed
of coals alone I don't think fresh corn cob could last also.
 
Jim Webb
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@John Suavecito. Although that site is commercial, I like the way they aren't just pushing their product but trying to educate people about the history and benefits of biochar in general. They've clearly done a huge amount of research and I'm inclined to give some weight to their conclusions. I must admit I haven't come across a TLUD before (shows how much I know!) but it seems to me the difference between that and the Low Temperature Biochar Kiln (it needs a name, should we just call it a LTBK?) is that the latter is externally heated and, having no air holes in the bottom, relies on the oxygen present in the feedstock load for pyrolysis to occur. This is a self-sustaining reaction once a high enough temperature is reached, as long as the material is reasonably dry. Possibly the insulation around the kiln makes all the difference and allows the heat produced by pyrolysis to maintain the required temperature without external heat. In contrast, other methods of making biochar (or charcoal), like the TLUD, burn part of the feedstock to achieve the required temperature and I would expect at least some of the material to reach higher temperatures. The yield will also be lower. However, a TLUD is so much simpler, quicker to make and cheaper so a drop in the yield is of little importance, particularly if you have an unlimited amount of material to process. I will have a go with a TLUD until I get the time to make myself a LTBK and at least I will have some biochar for this year's growing season. I will experiment with the paint can size and move up to 45 gallon size as I have a lot of wood to go at. Another project!
 
Jay Angler
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edd anderson wrote:I am using ponderosa pine cones, Im in interior bc., they frequently leave a hard core that is not finished or breakable. the biochar site I frequent says they are not good char. I do burn the needles and they need to be fed slowly. I have read that nepal makes pellets of pine needles and burns them for heat.  They must clean their chimneys often.

I've met the odd Ponderosa Pine cone in my past, and yes - they're bigger and denser by far than the tiny Doug Fir cones I'd be dealing with, and yet even with the odd Doug Fir cone, I have noticed that the core is noticeably tougher than the seed scales. That said, woody material is also a help if you've any reason to think your soil is low in carbon or has difficulty holding water, so if PP cones are what you've got and what you'd like to make use of, I'd accept "good enough" before rejecting a source of materials. I recall somewhere on permies, a member collecting huge cones to use as kindling (I believe it was Burra in Portugal), so I'd want to know more about why the site you frequent says they're "not good char"?  If it's because they burn unevenly, that may be less of an issue than them being a fire risk left on the forest floor? I fear the BC is in for another *really bad* fire season, judging by the low rain for the last month on Vancouver Isl and the ongoing clear-cutting of old growth forest which has been shown to reduce rainfall down wind.
 
John Suavecito
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I will use pine cones, sticks, branches, nut shells,  even left over pieces of lumber if someone is getting rid of it. If it's free, I'm in.  I have read research that a small percentage of bones are good in biochar, so when I have bones, I throw them in .  The point is to get a lot of material, so it makes lots of fine housing for microbes with lots of CEC and connections to improve flow of water, mycelium, and minerals through the soil.

John S
PDX OR  
 
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Phil Faris wrote:...I thought "small" would be a cubic foot of biochar made from a fireplace or firepit with a pile of branches that were extinguished by water at the appropriate time. The cooled charcoal breaks up easily into biochar. My concern was to fully pyrolyze and burn off the gases.



Edibleacres has a couple videos for this using their wood stove and hotel pans that doesn't require anything fancy:
 
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Hello. I just bought a few bags of cooked charcoal hardwood (with nothing else added) for $12.00, and then put it in a plastic swimming pool with some urine as activator. Seemed like a good enough idea at the time. I did my PDC in Ireland with Albert Bates as one of the instructors and he showed us how to make biochar from scratch. I have too many projects going so thought this was a good shortcut plan... but he recommended the urine part to get the good bacteria.
 
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