• Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic
permaculture forums growies critters building homesteading energy monies living kitchen purity ungarbage community wilderness fiber arts art permaculture artisans regional education experiences global resources the cider press projects digital market permies.com all forums
this forum made possible by our volunteer staff, including ...
master stewards:
  • Nicole Alderman
  • raven ranson
stewards:
  • paul wheaton
  • Jocelyn Campbell
  • Julia Winter
garden masters:
  • Anne Miller
  • Pearl Sutton
  • thomas rubino
  • Bill Crim
  • Kim Goodwin
  • Joylynn Hardesty
gardeners:
  • Amit Enventres
  • Mike Jay
  • Dan Boone

biochar - what do I put into my soil?  RSS feed

 
pollinator
Posts: 1361
Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
16
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
My husband likes burning and making charcoal which is great. I  know that charcoal holds onto many things, but what do I actively bring into the soil?
I want to go through the process of remineralizing and balancing the soil according to Steve Solomon's book, but if we produce a lot of charcoal I might throw this out of balance.
Is charcoal different to woodash? What does it contain? Google only tells me how valuable it is but not what's really in there.
 
gardener
Posts: 1218
Location: Middle Tennessee
192
books cat chicken food preservation homestead cooking purity trees
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Charcoal from wood is essentially pure carbon. (Charcoal briquettes from the grocery store can contain other things like coal and paraffin). It is very different from wood ash. I don't know a ton about biochar, but what I can say is it will increase a soils Cation Exchange Capacity, improve a soils tilth and it's ability to not only hold more water, but also improve a soils ability to let heavy rain events drain thru. If you want to use your homemade charcoal, crush & grind it into tiny bits/powder. One great technique to get biochar into a soil is to add it to a compost pile first where it can hydrate and absorb some nutrients and get billions of microbes living in and on it.
 
pollinator
Posts: 1800
Location: Toronto, Ontario
120
bee forest garden fungi hugelkultur cooking rabbit trees urban wofati
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Great points James.

Most users of biochar, though, consider it critical that the biochar be innoculated in a living compost heap. That's the step where, according to many actually using it, the charcoal becomes biochar. The open carbon matrix is essentially colonised by the beneficial microbiota in the compost, acting as housing for them, which you then transport to your garden or wherever it is you're planting it.

I would actually love some verification on this next point. I was wondering about the biochar's direct effect on soil pH. My initial impression was that because there were no volatiles left in the biochar, that there was nothing to dissolve, and so the pH would remain the same, until the microbiota start to do their work, that is. But isn't carbon one of the most promiscuous elements? Doesn't it bond with, like, any other element? What does that mean for soil?

-CK
 
pollinator
Posts: 1793
Location: Wisconsin, zone 4
92
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
This page goes in to a lot of detail about those type questions:  Biochar FAQs
 
gardener
Posts: 4864
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
557
books chicken dog duck fish forest garden fungi homestead hugelkultur hunting pig
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Biochar is "activated" charcoal, if you just make the charcoal and put it into the soil, it will take time for the microorganisms to take up residence at which point it becomes biochar.

Biochar is one way of adding carbon (sequestering) to soil, since it is in a solid form, it will take a long time for bacteria and other organisms to break it down thus releasing the carbon.
The one exception is when an organism eats the charcoal which means they will expel some CO2 as they breathe and they will excrete some carbon when they poop.

While biochar can and will work in most soils, it was most extensively used in very poor clay dominant soils in the past (which is how we rediscovered it in south America).

Redhawk
 
Posts: 239
26
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
A quick way to make biochar out of your charcoal, if you don't want to wait or don't have a good compost pile going, is to make a compost tea and soak the charcoal in that. Just apply it quickly after the soak and it should be filled with microbeasties ready to do your bidding.
 
Posts: 123
8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator

James Freyr wrote:it will increase a soils Cation Exchange Capacity


For those that don't know - this term describes the quantity of mineral nutrients (NPK etc...) the soil can absorb then release (exchange). A high CEC means more nutrients can be moved around, which is good for plants.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cation-exchange_capacity

Chris Kott wrote:
Most users of biochar, though, consider it critical that the biochar be innoculated in a living compost heap.


I have also heard this. If you add fresh biochar to the soil, it will actually drain nutrients from the soil (making it worse) because the biochar is such a powerful sponge.

Chris Kott wrote:
I would actually love some verification on this next point. I was wondering about the biochar's direct effect on soil pH.


Based on my reading, biochar moderately increases soil pH (it makes it more alkaline).

Chris Kott wrote:
But isn't carbon one of the most promiscuous elements? Doesn't it bond with, like, any other element?


I'm not a chemist or even a scientist, but I believe the carbon-carbon bonds in charcoal are so strong that almost nothing in the soil can undo them. That is why it is said biochar can sequester CO2 in the soil for hundreds of years - because it persists and does not break down easily. The term scientists use to describe this unwillingness to break down is "recalcitrance".

Other than that, I believe your understanding of carbon is correct. An interesting fact I have heard - you can make more molecules with carbon than all other elements on the periodic table...COMBINED! It is with this knowledge that it's really no surprise that all known life is carbon-based. If you want to make lots of interesting, complex molecules suitable for life, carbon is what you use.

Bryant RedHawk wrote:
Biochar is "activated" charcoal
Redhawk


I think you need to be more careful about your use of the word "activated". Activated charcoal does not simply mean "it's got microbes on it" - it's a proper scientific term that describes an additional heating process the charcoal has undergone which opens up additional pores, changing the nanoscopic structure of the charcoal. Activated charcoal is what is used in professionally manufactured water and air filters, and also medicines:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activated_carbon#Production

My current understanding is that it is not possible to make activated charcoal in your bonfire. You need serious industrial gear to do it.

I suggest we all need to start using the term "inoculated charcoal" instead of "activated charcoal".

Bryant RedHawk wrote:
Biochar is one way of adding carbon (sequestering) to soil, since it is in a solid form, it will take a long time for bacteria and other organisms to break it down thus releasing the carbon.
The one exception is when an organism eats the charcoal which means they will expel some CO2 as they breathe and they will excrete some carbon when they poop.
Redhawk


Are you absolutely certain the organisms eat the charcoal? I have not heard this suggestion. The way I see it, if organisms eat charcoal, that would mean microbe-rich soil would accelerate the break-down of biochar, and I do not believe that is true.

Bryant RedHawk wrote:
While biochar can and will work in most soils, it was most extensively used in very poor clay dominant soils in the past (which is how we rediscovered it in south America).
Redhawk


I have also read that biochar has little to no effect on soil that is already healthy.
 
pollinator
Posts: 965
Location: Los Angeles, CA
146
books chicken food preservation forest garden hugelkultur urban
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
As I understand it, the primary contribution that biochar makes to your soil is that it provides a home for billions of microbial organisms to live within, and it assists in capturing nutrients (N,K,P, and others) as they flow through the soil profile.

Charcoal is filled with zillions of little crevices and pores and tiny spaces for stuff to live in.  It's a reef, onto which soil life attaches.  Thus, you want to inoculate your biochar by turning in with your compost pile for a week or two, or sufficiently dousing it with compost tea. 

You don't need it in big lumps.  Breaking it up by pounding it or running over it with a vehicle is better --- more parts, more little micro-reefs.

Some people add it to potting soil, to lighten the mix and give it better drainage. 

It will not be some kind of instant miracle additive, but over the long term, biochar is one part of building healthy soil.
 
pollinator
Posts: 2198
320
books cat chicken duck rabbit transportation trees woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator

Marco Banks wrote:It will not be some kind of instant miracle additive, but over the long term, biochar is one part of building healthy soil.



I am not so sure... (saying so in a teasing way).

Over on a coal forum, a guy who has hydroponics growing in a greenhouse wanted to see if he could use anthracite coal as a growing medium and so he grew his tomatoes in coal. Not only did they grow, they grew so high that they pushed his temporary greenhouse off its supports when they hit the plastic and pushed it upwards! Part of it was his hydroponic fluid of course, but also the coal which of course is 85% pure carbon! Since he had grown tomatoes before, and coal was the only difference, it had to be what contributed to the plants amazing growth. I thought it was an interesting comparison.

Maybe I should get a truckload of rice coal and dump it in my garden!
 
pollinator
Posts: 265
Location: Maine, zone 5
23
food preservation forest garden homestead solar trees wood heat
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I keep seeing people say that Biochar is inoculated charcoal with soil microbes.  To me that is incorrect.  Biochar is charcoal that is made under conditions that make the charcoal fit for use in the soil.  This means forming the charcoal at a temperature that causes the charcoal to glow faintly red during the pyrolysis step.  This gives the charcoal the correct balance of properties....high surface area due to removal of tars that form, pH that isn't too high, good CEC, good chemical stability for the remaining carbon and a good redox state for the oxygen left decorating the graphene oxide like molecular structures formed.  The Biochar then becomes black earth, or Terra Preta by becoming inoculated with nutrients and soil organisms.  The compost pile or additions into sheet mulches are great places for this transformation to occur.  Really, just getting it in places where nutrients are cycling so that they can help transform the Biochar.  People always want to rush to instant gratification, but they should focus to just integrate Biochar use as a part of how they live their lives over decades, not days.  Even if it takes a year before the Biochar is really integrated into their soil, so what?  It will be working there for 100s to 1000s of years!  And by having the Biochar present during the composting process the resulting compost will be much, much higher quality.....very nice reward for doing it right.
 
Greg Martin
pollinator
Posts: 265
Location: Maine, zone 5
23
food preservation forest garden homestead solar trees wood heat
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
For whatever it's worth, I've been making and using Biochar for 11 years and would never compost or garden without it. 
 
Angelika Maier
pollinator
Posts: 1361
Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
16
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I was asking for the chemistry but the answers were still good. The idea to put it into the compost heap is great, grinding how to?? Simply stomping on it or how?
I am just starting to learn about soil chemistry and my knowledge in chemistry is absolutely non existant....
I know about the impact on CEC but you bring something into the soil and you have to bear that in mind if you put other fertilizers into the soil (woodash).
 
pollinator
Posts: 140
Location: istanbul - turkey
34
books dog greening the desert hugelkultur urban
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Angelika, maybe you are looking for biochar composition? You might want to google through those keywords.
The main parameters for your question are what is biochar made from and how high the temperature got to? You can create char from various materials wood, manure and even bone. Obviously biochar from bone-char wont be same with biochar from pine tree. It is a bit extreme example, but meant to underline that char from straw, through the exact prosedure, wont have same composition with pine-char. Same process, different atoms/compositon
The other issue is that how hot the process got to. The end product might have exact same amount of carbon atoms but ties between them will be different. So their behavior will be different. Char, diamond and graphite are all carbons with different tie strucure. Just as an example, if you heat  carbon feedstock to 1500 celcius the end product will have more strength (carbon fibers in a sense) then the one you obtained by reaching 2500 celcius (which is basicly graphite), under same pressure. Same atoms different behaviour.
Pressure is also another factor btw, but we are not producing biochar under 50 atm ;)
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 4864
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
557
books chicken dog duck fish forest garden fungi homestead hugelkultur hunting pig
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator

I think you need to be more careful about your use of the word "activated". Activated charcoal does not simply mean "it's got microbes on it" - it's a proper scientific term that describes an additional heating process the charcoal has undergone which opens up additional pores, changing the nanoscopic structure of the charcoal. Activated charcoal is what is used in professionally manufactured water and air filters, and also medicines:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activated_carbon#Production  ;




Well Matt, I am a scientist, chemist/biologist to be accurate, and activated charcoal is exactly what a biochar is, the charcoal for a real biochar has had all the gaseous proponents removed in an air deprived retort cooker.
Just making charcoal in a fire and thinking that is biochar is where most folks get mixed up from so much misinformation on the Internet.
While that can be done, it creates a lot of waste in the form of ash where a retort furnace will produce little ash.
 
Matt Coston
Posts: 123
8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Hi Bryant.

It feels to me like we're arguing different points.

Bryant RedHawk wrote:Biochar is "activated" charcoal, if you just make the charcoal and put it into the soil, it will take time for the microorganisms to take up residence at which point it becomes biochar.



You used the term "activated" in the context of added microbes. Your sentence above reads like the difference between activated and non-activated charcoal is just the microbial content.

I'm saying the difference is actually physical, and is caused by a heat process - it has nothing to do with microbes. Further down my previous comment, I said that I believe we should use the term "inoculated charcoal" when in the context of microbes. I'm interested to know if you disagree with this.

I'm willing to concede that activated charcoal can be made in a DIY retort - I've yet to see anybody actually prove it via an electron microscope. On the Wikipedia page I linked to, it says that the production of activated charcoal requires two stages - a "carbonisation" stage and an "activation" stage. If it's possible to make activated carbon with a single carbonisation stage in a DIY retort, then why doesn't it say that on the Wikipedia page? If the Wikipedia page is wrong, then let's correct it.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 4864
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
557
books chicken dog duck fish forest garden fungi homestead hugelkultur hunting pig
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Yes Matt, it is a two step process. First you create, via retort furnace, the "charcoal" (coming out of a properly used retort this is fairly pure carbon) (some people use a TLUD, for the same thing but it doesn't really get there, however it is very close).
Then you inoculate with bacteria and fungi so the end product is what is called Biochar.

Yes, I didn't complete the sentence in my first post, sorry, my mind works faster than the fingers on the keyboard.

No, I believe we are on the same page conceptually here. I agree with your "inoculated" terminology proposal completely.

Redhawk
 
Matt Coston
Posts: 123
8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Thank you, Bryant. Good to hear we're on the same page.

I am very curious though - why is a TLUD not as good as a retort? Is it just that a TLUD tends to have a bit more oxygen in it than a retort?
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 4864
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
557
books chicken dog duck fish forest garden fungi homestead hugelkultur hunting pig
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Yep, that one thing turns out to be a deciding factor.

I used to use a TLUD for everything, then I got together a small retort and used my microscope on samples of both types of charred wood, the TLUD had not opened up the pores (more resinous residues left) the way the retort had.
Now I use the TULD for making charcoal for BBQ and Forge and my little retort makes any char that I plan to inoculate.
I did an experiment where I inoculated samples from both methods and one sample from the fire pit, comparisons were wide spread with the fire pit samples not taking on the inoculant very well (<1.0 b/micron), the TLUD samples were far better (>2.5 b/micron). and retort was best (>6.7 b/micron)
((b=bacteria)) I did not do this test with fungi since the presence of bacteria numbers would indicate good inoculation with fungi will occur, but to grow it out for microscopic counts takes two weeks (which I didn't want to take at the time of the testing).

Redhawk

 
Matt Coston
Posts: 123
8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Oh darn that is a bit frustrating. I'm building a TLUD at the moment. Can you share images of your comparison under microscope? What microscope do you use?
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 4864
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
557
books chicken dog duck fish forest garden fungi homestead hugelkultur hunting pig
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Build your TLUD with a removable "choker" plate, that is a restrictor plate for the "chimney", that way you will get a more complete burn and limit the O2 enough to get the micropores to clear of resinous residues.
Keep in mind that with char, the longer you leave it to inoculate, the better and more complete the inoculation will be.

This is the specs of my microscope:

Microscope Type
Compound

Specialized
Phase Contrast

Application
Clinic, Veterinary, Laboratory, Teaching/Training

Magnification Power
40X to 2500X

Optics
Infinity

Field View
Extreme Widefield

Head Type
Binocular 

Objective Power
4X, 10X, 40X, 100X

Objective Size
20mm

Eyepiece Power
10X, 25X , + 30X (additional purchase so I would have 3000x magnification abilities)

Eyepiece Size
30mm

Stage
Two-layer Mechanical Stage

Light Type
Halogen

Light Power
20W

Light Shape
Built-in

Number of light bulbs
1

Stage DIV
1.00mm

Condenser
Kohler

Condenser Type
Brightfield

Condenser Optics
NA 1.25

Iris
With Iris

Power Supply
110V, 220V

Brand is AM, costs (not cheap but under 3k)
AM makes a nice one with 2500x for under 650.00 but it doesn't have phase contrast.

Redhawk
 
Matt Coston
Posts: 123
8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator

Bryant RedHawk wrote:
Build your TLUD with a removable "choker" plate, that is a restrictor plate for the "chimney", that way you will get a more complete burn and limit the O2 enough to get the micropores to clear of resinous residues.


HA! This is amazing! I've actually already had that idea. My prototype did not include it but the one I'm building now will.

Bryant RedHawk wrote:
Keep in mind that with char, the longer you leave it to inoculate, the better and more complete the inoculation will be.


Oh that's good info. I had not considered that.

Thank you also for the spec for your microscope. I have to admit I do not understand all of the specs. I used to do photography, so understand most of them.

I suppose I should actually ask a different question regarding microscope specs - What is the magnification you recommend to be able to do a basic assessment of biochar pores and inoculation rates? Basically - what is the entry level scope specs?
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 4864
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
557
books chicken dog duck fish forest garden fungi homestead hugelkultur hunting pig
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
To be able to see bacteria clearly (and micropores in char) you need a minimum of 2000x but 2500x is the normal, bacteria microscope power. 2000x the majority of bacteria will not be discernable as to species and some will not show up at all.
I ended up add the 30x eye pieces to be able to do species determinations better, this isn't necessary for most folks.
Phase contrast is also not necessary but it really helps for detailed study (so while I need this feature, most folks won't need it).

AM makes a lot of really good scopes, the trick is to know what features you really need vrs those you would like to have, that allows you to get the best bang for your bucks with out going over the top or finding out you need more than you bought.
A good scope for most people wanting to do microbiome adjustments like we are talking about doing, will cost in the 500-600 dollar range but there are some that are passable that are under 400 dollars.
My scope was in the 2k range with add on parts. I do not recommend people go to this range of cost unless they are wanting to get serious about research and record keeping. It just isn't necessary for most people's needs.

Redhawk
 
Matt Coston
Posts: 123
8
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Oh wow. Thank you, Bryant. That's really helpful info there.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 4864
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
557
books chicken dog duck fish forest garden fungi homestead hugelkultur hunting pig
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I just went looking and this link is to what I would call the bare minimum microscope it is under 200.00 bare bones microscope

I like this one better (binocular and still under 200.00 on sale) better bare bones microscope

Redhawk
 
s. ayalp
pollinator
Posts: 140
Location: istanbul - turkey
34
books dog greening the desert hugelkultur urban
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I searched through the web and found this document. I think it answers your question Angelika. If you multiply the weight of the biochar (in kg's) you will get how much and what you import.
The link to the article yield and nutrient composition, Asif Naeem, 2014
I will add the picture of the composition table.
Hope it helps
Screenshot_20171204-213005.png
[Thumbnail for Screenshot_20171204-213005.png]
 
pollinator
Posts: 202
Location: Ashhurst New Zealand
29
chicken duck homestead cooking trees wood heat woodworking
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Question for you Redhawk: have you made any biochar using a water quench method similar to the one in the Ithaka cone kiln design? And if so, have you compared the pore structure to the stuff made in a retort?
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 4864
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
557
books chicken dog duck fish forest garden fungi homestead hugelkultur hunting pig
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I have not tested the Ithaka cone kiln.
 
Angelika Maier
pollinator
Posts: 1361
Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
16
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
The table is great! So to assess the quality of the charcoal you make it is not enough to test if it is brittle? We actually got very little ashes and the end prouct is nice and brittle.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 4864
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
557
books chicken dog duck fish forest garden fungi homestead hugelkultur hunting pig
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
real bio char quality charcoal will make a "Tink" sound when it breaks, it is almost china breaking in sound quality.
 
It's exactly the same and completely different as this tiny ad:
177 hours of video: the 2017 Permaculture Design Course and Appropriate Technology Course
https://permies.com/wiki/65386/hours-video-Permaculture-Design-Technology
  • Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic
Boost this thread!