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Biochar use in early Colonial America and in Europe.  RSS feed

 
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I just watched this interesting video by Steven from Skillcult.  He has done a lot of great experimentation with char production, as well as gardening, and I think that his information is highly valuable, not just for his innovative methods, but also his attitude about how and why he does things.  He's got a really interesting mind, in my opinion.   Anyway:  In this video he is reading excerpts from his research on Euro cultural use of char as an inoculation on crops.  Interestingly, many of the farmers are top dressing fields with char dust, or fine particulate, which is a waste product from foundries which utilize only the larger chunks for burning.  There is no mention of adding inoculations of nutrients...  Except that some do mix it with manure when adding it to the soil.   This, however, does not seem like it was the predominant method.  They just spread the char.  Steve figures that the stuff had been sitting around a while in heaps at the foundry, so he figures the atmosphere may have inoculated it with nitrogen/the charcoal drew the nitrogen from the air.  Green fields, wheat without rusts, bumper crops of potatoes and wheat....

   

I've watched most of his biochar stuff this week.  He has a lot of great stuff.  I highly recommend anybody to watch his series. 
 
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I wish I could see that, mostly because I wonder what part of foundry production waste he is talking about them using.
Most of the waste in the US from foundries was slag type materials, and those dump sites are not very "plant productive".
While in Europe, coal was used for heating foundries, in the usa coke was the primary heat source, these are very different even though coke starts out as coal.

I would imagine that what the Europeans were spreading would amount to a burnt rock mineral dust, so the benefit was more minerals rather than biology or water retention, but without being able to see the presentation, I can't tell for certain.
 
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Peat ashes and ashes derived from industrial processes (soap manufacturing and such) were quite widely used from about the seventeenth/eighteenth century, and often mixed with urine. There's a lot of information on this in agronomists' treatises if the era (eg https://books.google.com/books?id=5CBCAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Flemish+husbandry&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjgxMz928fcAhWFMd8KHeS5Dv0Q6AEIJTAA#v=snippet&q=Ashes&f=false )
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Hi Bryant.  I'm pretty sure he said foundries.  He also mentioned blacksmiths.  He was giving his own commentary, along with reading the excerpts, and so there is the possibility that he is making assumptions, but I don't think so.  He talked about people clearing the land of trees, and making charcoal in pits and selling the char.  The crop plants growing near the pits, it was observed by one gent, tended to have lusher growth with fewer diseases, and so he endeavored to try it on his fields.  I believe that what they were putting on the fields was charcoal, and what was considered waste was small particles that were not efficient to burn.  It seems like it from what I understand from the quotes Steven was reading. 
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Hi F Van Roosbroeck.  The guy in the video has done a lot of work with ash, and also mentions using a lot of urine at one time.  Not sure if he combined them,ever, but I haven't watched all his stuff and he's often adding side comments about what he has done that worked and what he does or doesn't do.  He talks a lot about using ash in the past, but has switched totally to working with char as it has much longer and more demonstrably positive effects on his projects.  That's interesting, what you linked to.  Certainly ash is useful, particularly for acidic soils and soils that are poor, as is mentioned in the quotes.  The urine might make the ash minerals stick around longer if the nitrogen gets the biology involved in different molecular structures.  The thing about ash, in general, is that, like soluble manufactured fertilizers, the effect is sudden and very noticeable, but relatively short lived on crop land (3 to 10 years depending on the soils type and climate) and it's most noticeable longer term effect (and even that is not that long) is on PH, whereas char has a very long term fertility effect on the fields, 100+ years, possibly 1000's, and it's PH effect (like ash, toward the alkaline) is noteworthy at the beginning, but as more biology attaches to it, that effect, from my understanding, seems to neutralize some what quickly. ,-meaning neutral PH.  
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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Hmm, interesting. The use of ashes was particularly associated with clover cultivation, and iirc application was indeed every six years or so. I'm not sure whether charcoal (unspent charcoal, I'm assuming?) was generally used as fertilizer, but I'll ask around. Out of curiosity, what makes the difference between charcoal and ashes?
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Out of curiosity, what makes the difference between charcoal and ashes?

  Charcoal is a carbon matrix, that is made when a wood is burned in such a way (usually by depriving or limiting oxygen), that it does not reduce to ash.  Ash is the resulting mineral deposit that is left after the carbon (charcoal matix) is burned off/reduced to ash.  That is the basic difference, but I'll elaborate to the best of my knowledge. 

Charcoal is simply incompletely burned wood.  There are varying levels to this state of being.  Proper biochar, in most people's opinion from what I gather, is made in such a way that all or most of the volatile oils are burned off in a high heat, oxygen deprived environment.  This produces a catacomb structure in each char particle that has a ridiculously large surface area per volume, with a very uneven surface full of cavities, tunnels, hollows, and as such is said to provide space to for micro water catchments, nutrient catchments, as well as pockets where certain microbial communities thrive safely from predation.  Charcoal can be made just because the heat is reduced enough that the burn was incomplete (the fire went out due to lack of combustion temperature, or oxygen), and this can still be attached to intact wood; biochar, on the other hand, is the carbon matrix that is left after the wood has burnt under certain conditions, and no woody (resinous) material is left.  The modern biochar tradition is to usually inoculated it with nutrients (which the colonizing microbial community thrive on) before added it to the soil, but if you watch this guy's biochar videos you will see that he just adds nutrients like weeds, manure, et cetera, at the same time as when he is adding the non inoculated char, and he has noticed that this is sufficient inoculation, considering his impressive results.  I hope that clarifies the differences.    
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:Hi Bryant.  I'm pretty sure he said foundries.  He also mentioned blacksmiths.  He was giving his own commentary, along with reading the excerpts, and so there is the possibility that he is making assumptions, but I don't think so.  He talked about people clearing the land of trees, and making charcoal in pits and selling the char.  The crop plants growing near the pits, it was observed by one gent, tended to have lusher growth with fewer diseases, and so he endeavored to try it on his fields.  I believe that what they were putting on the fields was charcoal, and what was considered waste was small particles that were not efficient to burn.  It seems like it from what I understand from the quotes Steven was reading. 



Ok, so he was talking pre-industrial revolution methodology. That would have been charcoal fired for sure.  Sizes for Europe and the US were larger "lump" type charcoal where as the Japanese use charcoal as small as 1/2 " and some smiths there use even smaller pieces at certain times, like when they were final firing a sword in the clay to get the hammon just right. Yoshindo Yoshihura even mixes charcoal powder with his clay slip that is going to mark out the hammon on his blades.  It is pretty amazing that even in Europe and the northern Americas there was a somewhat terra preta event happening.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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It is pretty amazing that even in Europe and the northern Americas there was a somewhat terra preta event happening. 

  Yes.  I think that was the prime amazing insight from this.  The other, is the use of surface biochar application as being used successfully.  I think that has a lot of potential bearing on people like me who are practicing no till.
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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So I've checked with my friend who did his PhD on early modern manuring practices (it's a niche), and he's never come across charcoal being used as fertilizer in his sources. That's not to say it never happened - you'll always have experimenters - but it was definitely not standard or typical. I'd also imagine that, if the main benefits of charcoal are because of its texture, contemporary tilling and harrowing practices would have quickly broken it up anyway.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I'd also imagine that, if the main benefits of charcoal are because of its texture, contemporary tilling and harrowing practices would have quickly broken it up anyway.

Texture is but one of it's many roles.  Even if it's broken down into smaller particles, it still has much the same qualities in other regards, namely that it is still a carbon matrix with a high surface are to volume, and as such it is full of microscopic topography that holds tiny catchments of water as well as allowing small pockets that microbes can thrive in. 
 
F Van Roosbroeck
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Right, but wouldn't that mean that the differences, fertilizer-wise, between ash and charcoal weren't all that great? Particularly in the early modern era, when I imagine charcoal wasn't always produced in the most favourable circumstances and where ashes might include larger pieces of charred or only partially burned material.

I'm not trying to nitpick, mind, just trying to understand better. In fact, many contemporary sources mention differences in quality between various kinds of ashes - perhaps this is one of the reasons why.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Right, but wouldn't that mean that the differences, fertilizer-wise, between ash and charcoal weren't all that great?

possibly... but not really the way I look at it. 

There is definitely some charcoal in ashes, and there is definitely some ashes in the char when I make biochar but the differences between ash and char are fairly pronounced if looked at as separate things, which they mostly are:  I would say that when I haul ash out of the woodstove, it is 95 or more % ash.  When I make biochar it is at least 95% char and is easily washed away. 

In fact, many contemporary sources mention differences in quality between various kinds of ashes - perhaps this is one of the reasons why.

  When trying to produce ash, one has to sustain a high heat with oxygen, which is not always easy to be 100% accurate with.  It is far easier to sort out the few char bits via a screen, and then have more % ash and less char, then to control the heat and oxygen perfectly.  That's why I think that there is a wider spectrum in ash quality.  In the end, unless you are making soap or some other finished product with lye or fine ash, then it is mostly the matter of sifting it.  The better the quality in the first place, obviously, the less work in the finishing stage for a product like soap. 

With Char, on the other hand, you need high heat, but without the oxygen, and this can mostly be done simple enough in a pit with the layering of wood on a fire where the lower coals are deprived of oxygen as the upper flames on the fresh wood consume the oxygen (as Steven indicates was done in the cone pits of Early Colonial America), and as he demonstrates in other videos with his trenches.  He still gets some ash, and some of this will be inside larger char pieces, but it can also be mostly sorted or sifted or washed so that it mostly goes away if one cared to want char clear of ash.
 
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