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Burn baby, burn
The world’s largest “biochar”  eco-charcoal plant opens for business next month in Sequatchie County, Tennessee.

It is possible to make  biochar in your own garden  by simply digging a trench. Pile brush, wood, corn husks and other biomass into the trench and then light it. The fire needs to be hot at first but then has to be cooled down by reducing the oxygen supply.

Supporters say when dug into the soil it also enhances plant growth, increases water permeability, nutrient retention, fertility and improves root development.Although Sequatchie was for decades a coal town, on August 1 it will become a charcoal town, when Mantria Industries and partner company Carbon Diversion Inc, open a new bio-refinery that will transform organic plant waste into biochar, a form of charcoal credited with near miraculous environmental properties.

The company says the plant will be capable of producing almost 40,000 tons of biochar a year –or 8,000 pounds an hour. It will transform wood waste and other biomass into charcoal pellets by a process know as ‘pyrolysis’ which involves burning wood at temperatures between 400c and 1000c with little oxygen.

Within days of the plant’s opening opening, the potential of biochar will be endorsed by the US government. The first major biochar conference in the US will open at University of Colaorado (Boulder) on August 9 with Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture as the keynote speaker.

Biochar sequesters carbon

Biochar has attracted the attention of environmentalists in recent years as a form of biological carbon capture and storage and for its ability to radically improve soil health and crop yields.

Last month a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) claimed that soil could sequester as much as 50 gigatonnes of carbon over coming decades.

Unlike crop wastes and wood, biochar is extremely stable. If mixed into soil it can safely lock up carbon for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Soil is the third-largest carbon sink in the world after the oceans and carbon fuels themselves. Unrestrained open burning releases 95 percent or more of the carbon in the matter. However, low-temperature controlled burning retains about 50 percent of the carbon.

Many believe that if sufficient amounts of biochar were produced, the world could reduce levels of atmospheric CO2 while at the same significantly reducing levels of NO2 (nitrous oxide), a greehouse gas hundreds of times more destructive than CO2.

The use of biochar was pioneered by Amazonian Indians over a thousand years ago. Today Amazonian soil remains fertile without need for any added fertilizer, say experts.

Make your own biochar

A significant aspect of the appeal of biochar is that you don’t need a multimillion dollar refinery to produce it.  Not only can you make it off-grid, it makes off-grid living more feasible by enhancing crops yields on even a very small land-holding.

Experts say the best way to tell what’s going on in a biochar fire is to watch the smoke. The white smoke, produced early on, is mostly water vapour. As the smoke turns yellow, resins and sugars in the material are being burned.

When the smoke thins and turns grayish blue, dampen down the fire by covering it with about an inch of soil to reduce the air supply, and leave it to smolder. Then, after the organic matter has smoldered into charcoal chunks, use water to put out the fire. ENDS

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