So, at the university where I'm doing energy and carbon consulting, there is a soil science professor who is a massive expert in biochar. She really knows this stuff and can explain so many of its properties, give optimum recipes for given applications, and wants to see it in widespread use. Of course, as we got to talking earlier today, the question of economics came up: as much good as biochar does when charged up and incorporated into soil, we simply don't have production at any sort of scale that would bring the price down to a point that farmers would get truckloads of it and put it on their pastures and arable lands.
We agreed that if one were to make a lot of high quality biochar, it would be to everyone's advantage to use it for more than one function before it goes to the land. In New Zealand, we have a huge problem with nitrate and phosphorus pollution in our streams and rivers. This originates on over-fertilised farmland and has made much of our fresh water a stanky mess. Another huge problem we have is management of slash after forestry blocks are harvested. This past winter Tolaga Bay was wrecked by all the logs and debris carried off the hillsides and down the rivers. We also have lots of towns and industries whose consents to discharge treated sewage to rivers will expire soon, and the regional councils are unlikely to allow this practice to continue. This means local wastewater managers will need to contemplate discharge to land and all that entails.
So, my plan is to turn that forestry "waste" into biochar. Take the char and put it into big bags and then place those across the tiny rivulets, drains and feeder streams coming off the pasture lands. Spread it on basins for treated sewage. The char will absorb the excess nutrients and accumulate a nice microbial inoculation in the process. Then, periodically gather it up, check it to ensure it's not full of anything nasty...if it is, then dump it in an old coal mine. If it's clean, then it goes to farms and gardens.
I just need to figure out how to scale the production side. Deploying a whole bunch of Kontiki kilns would be quick but require labour. Building a pyrolysis facility creates a problem of over-centralisation and is also capital intensive. Going to think on this a bit more.
The sort of project you are contemplating is indeed (as Matt alluded to) more politically driven than most people who come up with the idea think it is.
I know of two companies that are trying to make a go of selling biochar, the economics of making it raise the price to where it isn't really feasible for farms to buy the biochar.
As you brought up, the infrastructure for such a plant means you either have a bunch of smaller operations spread over the intended area or you have one giant central setup.
Either way there will be costs to build the equipment needed for proper Torrification of wood. Then you have to get it inoculated and wait for that to fully populate the terrified wood before you can sell and install it.
Right now, there is not enough interest by the big farmers (here in the USA) for such a company to be able to survive much less make a profit.
If Government could be shown how well it works, and you then pushed for some funding from that government, you would have a better chance.
If you go out and stump and promote how well terra preta works in farming, water retention, contaminate remediation, that could be a big help in popularizing the use of biochar, which would create some demand for the product.
You are also going to have to either help with the installation or do the actual installation yourself or provide workers to do it.
Waste water management is probably looking for designs that will work for their needs, which is just one opportunity to get your foot in the government doors, these folks are generally more forward thinking than regular politicians, because they actually have to perform their job and save money when possible.
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Thanks for the thoughts. I have a couple of pilot sites in mind and a mate of mine had all the pine on his farm cut down last year, so things are about to click. As Kola Redhawk says, this is a politically opportune moment to get the local and regional councils looking at a biochar solution, as the central govt is reviewing the freshwater standards and is likely to tighten them considerably (the last one relaxed them so much that they are more or less a joke). So funding might be easier to get.