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Biochar in Berkeley?

Yes, and we can thank Burning Man . . .

. . . well, not the man that gets burned each year at the festival, but rather a group of artists and fabricators who in 2001 set up some shipping containers on a lot near Urban Ore in Berkeley to serve as workspaces for building their Burning Man projects. The Shipyard, as they called it, had no usable connection to the power grid, and when a zoning restriction prevented the hookup, the group decided to generate their own electricity. Inspired by a DIY technology used in resource-starved wartime Europe, the group put together a “biomass-powered gasifier genset,” which is essentially a refinery that turns biomass into syngas and then runs it through a generator. A bonus arrived with one of the by-products—biochar—a humble substance with great implications in carbon sequestration and agronomics.

Perhaps embers of Burning Man enthusiasm are still aglow at 1017 Folger Avenue in Berkeley, but by 2008, the collective had launched full-steam into research, design, and manufacture of small-scale renewable energy systems. Under a new name, ALL Power Labs (APL), they created the Power Pallet, a biomass-powered gasifier genset housed in a shipping container, described as a new category of renewable-energy-generating device with potential for carbon-negative output. Reaching that magic number requires using biomass waste as feedstock and properly implementing the biochar by-product, which APL is assessing in numerous local garden test sites.

 

Left: The packaged biochar here is about to be put into use in the compost yard at Gill Tract Community Farm in Albany. Right: Staff at ALL Power Labs check out a “Chartainer,” a test model of their biomass-powered gasifier genset especially designed to produce high-quality biochar. Photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler

APL functions essentially as a laboratory devoted to R&D of zero-emission carbon-sequestration technologies, but the lab does produce and sell Power Pallets, and their experiments result in useful by-products like energy and biochar. Perhaps as important to the team is the cultivation of believers who can help spread the idea and the biochar, and it’s in that spirit that they hang out late on a designated Friday night each month, luring susceptible community members to their lab with “char-be-cue,” beer, and a show.

Resident biochar expert Austin Liu takes the lead at these open-house events by offering a riveting slide-assisted talk intermingled with questions and answers that invite both believers and skeptics. After a quick overview of the equipment parts and mechanics, he moves as deeply as the questions propel him into the biochar science and studies showing quantifiable data on the benefits. He explains how to co-compost biochar and how that mixture confers astonishing benefits when dug into a garden bed. Every home gardener in the room wants to know how to get some biochar, but for the time being, APL is following a specific track aimed at scaling it up:

“We’re empowering local gardens and community farms to produce organic food without resorting to synthetic inputs,” says Liu. “Gill Tract Community Farm is our original flagship node in the Local Carbon Network.”

He’s speaking of the all-volunteer-run farm at the busy corner of San Pablo Avenue and Buchanan in Albany. Other participants in the flagship node of the Berkeley Local Carbon Network (LCN) include Ashby Community Garden, A Living Library (in San Francisco), PLACE for Sustainable Living, and Peralta Garden. APL’s biomass feedstock comes from Green Waste Recycle Yard in Berkeley. Liu mentions several other partial participants, including Malcolm X Elementary’s garden program, the social enterprise Planting Justice, and a couple of others pending. Meanwhile, the LCN initiative is poised to galvanize ordinary citizens to participate in carbon sequestration projects around the globe, and it has reached as far as Italy.

 

In late June, Bob Flasher, who manages the compost operations at Gill Tract Community Farm, stands with a biochar/compost–dressed pumpkin vine that’s wildly outperforming similar plants not given the biochar advantage. Photo by Cheryl Angelina Koehler

Edible East Bay made an early-summer visit to Gill Tract Community Farm to find Bob “Flash” Flasher tending the farm’s compost yard. “You have to make the composting easy for everyone who works here,” Flasher says as he integrates food scraps from nearby Potala Organic Café into heap #1 along with dry leaves and local horse manure–soiled straw, which provides a high load of microbes that will break down food scraps into compost. He spreads some APL biochar over the heap and then pitch-forks the mass up and down to integrate the components. Moving down the production line to pile #8, he thrusts in a thermometer to chart the temperature indicating microbial action at the pile’s center. “Almost done,” he says. The biochar has stoked this pile to reach around 155˚ quickly and remain at that temperature for a few weeks, which means it’s close to ready for use in the garden beds.

As Liu is so happy to explain, well-made biochar, with its high electrical conductivity and hydrophilic nature, captures moisture and nutrients in the compost that might otherwise be lost in off-gassing and leaching. “The nitrate retention is incredibly high in biochar compost, and the soil seems to have an explosion of fungal activity.”

Walking up to the pumpkin, artichoke, and broccoli plants that had received biochar-amended compost, Flasher concurs with Liu: The plants appear to have been stimulated to grow at a rate that “defies explanation by mere nutrient access.” Biochar changes the soil structure in ways that appear to be very long lasting and stabilizing. “Even nearby soil amended with the same amount of regular compost fails to exhibit comparable behavior,” Liu says. “Conventional compost seems to keep decaying to gases, whereas biochar compost tends to remain as stable solids. The explosion of soil fungal activity may be stabilizing the material. Water retention and utilization efficiency appear to be significantly higher.”

 

Left: This artichoke plant received compost prepared with biochar when it was planted last year. It grew to three times the size of nearby plants not given co-composted biochar and yielded eight times as many artichokes. Right: Jon Hoffman carries the day’s harvest to the Gill Tract Community Farm’s Sunday produce stand, where community members pay what they can afford for the organic produce. Photos courtesy of ALL Power Labs

Liu charts growth differences in the Gill Tract pumpkin, broccoli, and artichoke experiments at 500% to 1000%. “The artichoke plants that got co-composted biochar grew to be three times as large as the non-biochar plants and yielded eight times as many artichokes. The broccoli plants this year gave likely the largest yield of broccoli the farm has yet witnessed.”

Biochar remains in the soil permanently, and while Liu says it’s too soon to say whether the higher growth rates will continue year after year, he adds, “We honestly believe that with yields like we’ve seen, co-composted biochar represents the best chance for locally produced organic produce to compete against conventionally grown produce on the basis of high yields and low inputs rather than merely appealing to conscience for the environment and fear of pesticides.” ♦

—CAK

To learn more about ALL Power Labs, its biochar, Power Pallets, and aim toward a “personal-scale waste-to-energy” system, visit allpowerlabs.com and also plan to attend one of the open house events, held on the second Friday each month, 5–7pm.
Visit localcarbon.net to find out about how to get involved with local biochar co-composting trials.
To learn more about Gill Tract Community Farm, visit gilltractfarm.org.

 

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