Monthly Archives:May 2012

What is Biochar? ~ A Colorado Master Gardener’s Perspective

See the original post from Gardener Scott here:

Biochar may become the future of gardening, though not many gardeners are aware of it. So if you know the answer to the title question, consider yourself one of the knowledgeable few.

A handful of biochar

Biochar increases soil fertility and increases plant production in the garden as a soil amendment. On a global scale it works to sequester carbon from the air into soil, helping to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, and effectively removing the greenhouse gas for centuries. Whether as a garden soil amendment or a global greenhouse gas reducer, biochar is clearly beneficial for all of us.

Biochar is commonly compared to or confused with basic charcoal but it is much more. You have seen the basic process of creating charcoal. A campfire or woodstove filled with sticks and logs of varied sizes burns, produces heat, and often leaves behind black, carbon-rich chunks that didn’t burn to ash. The blackened chunks are raw charcoal. When charcoal is added to soil it essentially becomes biochar.

This basic principle of improving soil fertility through the use of charcoal is attributed to the natives of the Amazon basin who burned their jungles in smoldering mounds to create charcoal. Large amounts of charcoal, bone, and manure were mixed into their infertile clay soils to create extremely fertile soil that is still visible today in Brazil where sections of “Terra Preta”, or “black earth”, reveal this innovative, ancient practice.

Biochar, or charcoal in soil, improves the soil in many important ways. It raises the pH, improves water retention, increases microorganism activity, improves nutrient levels, and can even reduce metal contaminants in soil.

By many measures, biochar achieves the same benefits as compost (and you know I love compost), but does so with a mechanism that doesn’t decompose as compost does. Biochar stays active in the soil for hundreds of years. Many low estimates say at least 300 years; the terra preta soils are over 1,000 years old and still quite viable.

When wood burns in a low-oxygen environment, water, chemicals, and gases escape leaving behind the simple carbon structure of the tree. The same holds true for any biological material that is burned in the same way. Within this carbon structure are innumerable microscopic pockets that once held cellulose and the water and gases. Think of it as resembling the structure of a sponge but on a much smaller scale. Charcoal looks solid from the outside but it contains countless air pockets and a true surface area much larger than the relative size of the chunk.

As biochar when the charcoal is added to soil, these empty pockets unleash their magic. Soil moisture finds its way into the empty, microscopic biochar chambers through capillary action and is retained very efficiently. These moist pockets then become home to billions of bacteria. These soil bacteria are critical to converting chemicals in soil into nutrients for plant uptake and form the bottom of the microorganism food chain. Compost as a soil amendment does the same things but compost continues to break down through the natural bacterial onslaught. Conversely, biochar’s structure remains intact and continues to act as a home for water, air, and bacteria.

Biochar improves the texture of soil through it’s own variably-sized pieces incorporating with various sizes of soil grains. It improves the fertility of the soil through the improved microorganism activity. It improves the structure of soil through the increase in pore space, aggregation, and soil stability. Biochar greatly improves overall soil tilth (for more about tilth see my article “The Dirt on Soil“, Feb 24, 2011).

Lucky for gardeners, there are companies that are beginning to market biochar to consumers. Their biochar is made in a much more refined process that removes some of the impurities that remain after the simple smoldering pile method of making charcoal. This process, “pyrolysis”, is quite efficient and reduces many of the air pollutants that burning wood releases into the atmosphere. Biochar companies use more than wood as their fuel. All kinds of organic waste, or biomass, are burned; these include corn stalks, manure, nutshells, leaves, and grass. Any biological matter that can be dried and burned can be turned into biochar.

Soil Reef Biochar

One biochar company that I’ve become familiar with is “Soil Reef” Biochar. One of their founding members is a friend of mine so I do have a connection with them, but I haven’t received anything by mentioning Soil Reef Biochar and paid full price for the biochar I purchased. In this evolving and emerging field, they are at the forefront and are working with Whole Foods Markets to bring their product to consumers.

My friend Lopa has been an advocate of biochar for years and has spoken around the world testifying to its amazing benefits. Only recently was I fortunate enough to learn about it and her company Soil Reef Biochar.

In the months ahead I’ll be working with and writing more about biochar. I’ve set up test beds and plan to create my own kiln for making biochar through pyrolysis as I recycle my yard waste into beneficial soil amendments. I’m sold on the benefits of biochar and will document its effectiveness in my garden.

If you’re intrigued by the idea find out more and purchase some biochar for your own garden. It’s a new and innovative idea and you can be at the forefront.

Link to “The Dirt on Soil
Link to Soil Reef Biochar

The Dirt on Soil
Link to Soil Reef Biochar


My PhotoAbout Gardener Scott:  I’m a Master Gardener in Colorado and relish sharing my experiences from the garden and from life. I’m also a Master Food Safety Advisor putting the practicing the ways of food preservation. All of the words and pictures here are mine. I share my successes and my failures in an effort to help others avoid the latter.

Follow Gardener Scott on Facebook for excellent and timely gardening tips & more information on his biochar journey!



Hi, My Name is Lopa, and I am a Biochar Junkie.

And an entrepreneur. Both….at the same….time.

I’ve been doing biochar for 5 years. I told this to someone at an investment conference recently and they responded, “So you are like one of 9 people in the world that can say that your primary career is biochar for this long, eh?”  I think it’s more than 9—there are a number of brilliant soil scientists, agronomists, entrepreneurs, and engineers that have been equally if not more dedicated to biochar than I have. But yes, it’s a small number of us.

The team at Biochar Engineering and our prototype technology.

I am an entrepreneur. If that’s not crazy enough, I am a biochar entrepreneur. Sometimes I think of myself as “being fond of pushing rocks up hills.” For the first 5 years, that’s what it felt like. I came in on the ground floor of Biochar Engineering, a company that haphazardly but enthusiastically and actually successfully produced mobile biochar technology. Looking back, I realize that I thought to myself often, “OK, 1 more year, and we’ll have this.” Rrrrrright. I did not realize exactly what I was getting into when I said, “Let’s start an industry no one’s heard of!” Heh. Naive? Maybe. Gusto? In spades. At least I’m in good company.

At first, my main motivating factor for being involved in biochar was because of climate change. Now, I’m a bit more moved by the need for us to build our soils; by the incredible potential for people to enhance their lives by JUST GROWING SOMETHING—and how biochar makes that easier. Urban homesteading, green roofs, permaculture, community gardens—these are the words that get me a little weak in the knees these days.

My mom is a Master Gardener. When I was a teenager, I swore to myself I’d never be into “that kind of thing”. Well, here I am. Expect to see some pictures of my little veggie babies and my proud, organic biochar garden. (disclaimer: I am no expert. Think of me as a curious-and-somewhat-comical-gung-ho experimenter). Expect me to ask my mom for advice on this thing (Mom, do you know how to post a comment to a blog? 🙂 And expect me to ask you for advice and insight as I do my best to steer this ship, along with my colleagues across the biochar industry and its myriad related tributaries, toward a more sustainable future.

Biochar Engineering sold last year to a biocoal company. I will refrain from making comments about that here. After that, I decided I wanted to do something besides biochar. I went to work at an orphanage in Haiti. I consulted for Slow Money, one of my favorite organizations ever.

It took about 3 months before I scrapped my idea of “something else” and decided to finish what I’d started. I paired up with my now-business-partner Jeff Wallin, a high-energy, high-integrity, biochar-go-getter that I’d worked with peripherally for years at my old company. We decided to build on the legacy he’d put his lifeblood into for 4 years—EcoTechnologies Group—and expand that business model into a new vision that was aligned to the core with the values that Jeff and I share and want to bring out into the world.

I’m not going to get all corporate-responsibility-mushy-lovey-dovey-values on you here, but I’ll just say how freaking satisfying it is to feel that transparency, whole-systems sustainability, profitability, and social impact really are at the core of our decision-making processes here internally. And I’ll gladly talk more about some of the nuances of what that means here on this blog. Feel free to share in the comments if there’s any particular aspect of running a biochar company that keeps you up at night wondering. I’m a pretty open book. Just ask.

Because we are not so creative, or maybe because we are very creative, we called it The Biochar Company. We wanted it to be the go-to for all things biochar. We do project development, technology sourcing and deployment, consumer and B2B product and market development; and are even forging a coalition of the willing in developing countries and working on some short films. We like finding other good folks in biochar and collaborating with them. We are launching our first products in the Soil Reef line, and are so excited to finally make biochar accessible to the masses.

We intend for this blog to become a hub for all things biochar. Science, news, how-to’s, videos, and copious pictures of my happy little veggie babies, including my arugula named Myka. If you want me to name a veggie after you, just ask. You think I’m not serious?

This is Myka. She is an arugula. Isn’t she beautiful?

You’ll be hearing from me a lot, and from my business partner Jeff, as well—but we’ll also be getting guest posters from inside and outside the biochar space. Have you used biochar? Are you interested? Skeptical? Curious? Inspired? I’d be glad to hear from you, either in comments—or if you are so moved, in a guest blog here. I know you know things that we don’t. Share them with us and the world!