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Biochar: Midwest Progress Report

By Stan Slaughter

Tags: biochar, Biochar Solution, compost, vermicompost, compost tea, Stan Slaughter,

After spending the past twenty years teaching composting, I have come to the conclusion that compost is the answer. Never mind the question-Compost is the answer. This pretty much puts me in the compost geek zone, of course.  But through droughts and floods, jump-starting new gardens into big production and even battling cancer twice, I’ve found that the “organic matter family”-compost, vermicompost,Microscopic detail of biochar. mulches and compost teas are powerful tools for getting food production and great nutrition right.

About five years ago I started experimenting with biochar. I collected charcoal from my wood stove, crushed it in a tough plastic bag with the car and charged it by soaking it in compost tea.

Microscopic picture of bIochar.  These tiny pores are the secret of biochar’s power. Imagine each hole as a home for a microbe or a water trove for a fungal hyphae. It’s like putting a high rise condo for microbial life in every cubic inch of your soil.)Photo courtesy of CarbonGold

I’ve had what I believe are great results, Enough so that I’m ready to take it to the next level by building a small scale biochar retort. Fortunately I’m not alone. In the past year I’ve shared ideas with a growing community of Midwest biochar converts and gained more than I gave. Last weekend I completed my first biochar retort and tested it on a cloudy Saturday.

Picture  ( A smoky start to a burn with chips that were too wet.)

A biochar making smokestack converts scrap wood to charcoal.

Picture ( Paint burning off the barrel and insulation paper charring as my second attempt gets really hot.)

Paint burning off the barrel and insulation paper charring as my second attempt gets really hot.

I previously spent a cold day in January completing the first of my New Year’s resolutions helping David Yarrow with two test burns.  David is a wise man in many of the ways of Earth keeping but he’s for sure a biochar expert. He’s even mentioned in Albert Bates’ The Biochar Solution. Together we built a screener so we could remove the smallest “fines” from a pile of wood chips then filled and lit one of his retorts.David Yarrow and a version of his TLUD (top lit-up draft) biochar retort.

Picture (David Yarrow and a version of his TLUD (top lit-up draft) biochar retort)

Once lit these retorts roar into life with a red-hot, clean burning flame that leaves no smoke. A full barrel of wood chips yields about a third barrel of biochar- about 150 pounds. David and his friends, near Lawrence, Kansas are building retorts, testing designs, and testing biochar on plant growth in a controlled experiment funded by a SARE grant this year. Me, I’ll be making more char and conducting more of my own project/experiments throughout this season.

Stan Slaughter, The Eco-Troubadour can be reached at

Stay tuned and visit these sites for more information:

5/28/2013 1:38:00 AM

Great post...I just wanted to know for what purpose that fence is rolled, can I use this type of fence there  ??? 

erich j.
5/16/2013 1:02:31 AM

To appreciate the wider applications of Biochar, the use as a feed additive and nutrient management tool, Please review my presentation and slides of this opening talk for the USBI Biochar conference in Sonoma California. This is the third US Biochar conference, after ISU 2010 and Colorado 2009;

"Carbon Conservation for Home, Health, Energy & Climate"

Modern Thermal conversion of biomass burns only the hydrocarbons in that biomass, conserving the carbon for the soil. At the large farm or village scale modern pyrolysis reactors can relieve energy poverty, food insecurity and decreased dependency on chemical fertilizers.

Please take a look at this YouTube video by the CEO of CoolPlanet Biofuels, guided by Google's Ethos and funding, along with GE, BP and Conoco, they are now building the reactors that convert 1 ton of biomass to 75 gallons of bio – gasoline and 1/3 ton Biochar for soil carbon sequestration.

If CoolPlanet Biofuels processed the entire projected US biomass harvest in 2030, of 1.6 Billion Tons, the yields would be;
120 Billion Gallons of tank ready fuel ,(The US uses 150 Billion gallons/year), and 0.3 Billion Tons of Biochar
The big numbers are jaw dropping,
The 0.3 Billion Tons of Biochar, with a surface area of 400 m2/gram means; One Ton has a surface area of 98,000 Acres!
Now for conversion fun: 98,000 Acres is equal to 152 square miles!! ....
So; 300 Million Tons of Biochar equals 45 Billion Square Miles, or 230 times the entire surface of the earth!

Costs; The field to wheel analysis is $1.50/gallon!

To review other developments in cleanburning cook stoves, pyrolytic home heating stoves etc. Please review my Sonoma Biochar Conference Report;