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#1 erich



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Posted 27 February 2007 - 01:42 PM

Terra Preta Web Site at; Terra Preta | Intentional use of charcoal in soil

It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal, M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of G. I. T. , Dr. Antel of U. of H., Several Virginia Tech folks and many others who's back round I don't know have joined. Registration has averaged one or two per day over the last few weeks.

Welcome to the Website for the Terra Preta Discussion List: terrapreta@bioenergylists.org

This new addition ("Terra Preta") to the suite of bioenergy lists is going to strive to be the primary world web location for technical discussions on a new possible important use for biomass (that is described below). We have chosen the term "Terra Preta" (hereafter TP to save typing) as most of your search hits on these words will return valuable information. The term fits well-enough with the five other biomass-oriented discussion lists (bioenergy, stoves, gasification, bioconversion, anaerobic digestion) – all of which have the world-wide audience that we hope the Portuguese words for “Black Earth” will also connote. However, the topics to be discussed here are also known as "biochar" and "agrichar". Still other names will certainly appear and perhaps cause us to rename this site -which we are starting this day so that there is a convenient single site for dialog of the type found on the other "bioenergylists".

I have agreed to be the primary Terra Preta list coordinator at the request of Tom Miles and Ron Larson. Tom has been in this biomass discussion-list business since 1994 (mostly paying for everything out of his own pocket – Thanks Tom). I feel comfortable taking on this task because of the quality of Tom’s work and because the quality of the many list discussions have been apparent to me for many years. Ron and I have communicated a bit on Terra Preta topics for several months. I also agreed to take on this task because of words of encouragement that came out of Ron’s six-seven years as the first Coordinator of the successful “Stoves” list for which Tom has recently been the primary Coordinator. A recent TP paper by Ron from “Solar Today” magazine has been up on the “gasification” website for a few months –and now is as well on the TP web site. Ron reports that the TP topic was under discussion on “stoves” about 4 years ago – because of Ron’s own continuing interest in charcoal-making. One (two?) of my own recent internet letters is also up now on our own TP site– courtesy of Ron and Tom. The third Coordinator is >>>>>>

What does “TP” denote? By this term, I mean the intentional placement of charcoal in soil. Surprisingly, it is now becoming apparent that doubling and tripling of soil productivity can result. Surprising also that TP’s invention and proof of productivity improvements dates back several thousand years in Brazil. We hope that soil scientists around the world will contribute to this list with soil answers needed by those others of us interested in a very different aspect of TP soils. That different aspect is that the sequestered charcoal is taking CO2 out of the atmosphere – apparently at a lower cost than any other means of doing so. Hopefully, a large percentage of submissions to this new list will concentrate on TP’s climate benefits (and costs).

Lastly, on this list especially we expect to see a lot on production of charcoal – the third main aspect of TP needing your input. We expect some reading this to be skeptical that a fuel that worldwide is more popular than wood should be dumped in the ground at a time when we are hoping biomass can slowly replace our dwindling fossil fuels. Making this case, or disproving it, is the purpose of this discussion list. Let us hear from you. My job, which Tom and Ron say is easy, is to keep us on topic. They have committed to supply me a whole slew of TP questions that they feel are not yet well enough answered. Let us all hear your questions – and answers.

Erich Knight, Terra Preta List Coordinator
Ron Larson, Associate Coordinator
Tom Miles, Bioenergylists Administrator tmiles at trmiles.com

Erich J. Knight

#2 erich



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Posted 27 February 2007 - 09:14 PM

The best TP blog , where , I think, I first saw the Glomalin discovery;

transect points: Hypography Science Forum Upgrades Terra Preta Discussion

#3 Michaelangelica



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Posted 28 February 2007 - 02:03 AM

Apart from hypography the next best TP discussion on the web
View topic - charcoal agriculture - Biochar - Amazonian Dark Earth - Permaculture discussion forum

The Permaculture site is apractical gardening/farming site specialising in useful plants. Very good if you want to learn about growing things, buy a chook, propagate something, get a rural job etc

#4 Michaelangelica



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Posted 01 March 2007 - 06:55 AM

The politics of Terra preta
Muck and Mystery: Slow Train

I have seen groupthink, in action, not a pretty sight. Some say it was the reason for the CIA Bay of Pigs invasion under Kennedy

#5 Michaelangelica



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Posted 03 March 2007 - 09:36 AM

Some Q & A on The Horizons TV programme on TP
BBC - Science & Nature - Horizon - The Secret of El Dorado

The transcript
BBC - Science & Nature - Horizon - The Secret of El Dorado
a programme summary
BBC - Science & Nature - Horizon - The Secret of El Dorado

#6 erich



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Posted 04 March 2007 - 11:49 AM

Hi All,

The most comprehensive Soil science data base of peer reviewed papers concerning soil Charcoal, by Dr. Danny Day :

_Welcome To Carbon Negative_ (Welcome To Carbon Negative)


Dr. Day added this post to the TP mail list after I posted about his data base;

"For clarification: this site is restricted under fair use quidelines and no
transfer of ownership or abuse of copyright materials will be allowed. (view
only). It is limited, password protected and free for registered
non-commercial use. Data cannot be referenced.

We really want to say thanks for work shared by registered users and those
who contribute tirelessly and generously to the advance and understanding of
this work.


Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens
E-mail: shengar at aol.com
(540) 289-9750

#7 Michaelangelica



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Posted 24 April 2007 - 03:02 AM

Here is a set of recent abstracts related to charcoal in soil, which you may, or may not have seen

access via the following link.:turtle:

#8 Michaelangelica



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Posted 05 May 2007 - 11:55 AM

Kelpie Wilson's article on IAI plus discussion
The CO2 sings 'Bury me, buuuu-reee me, bury me, across the world' | Gristmill: The environmental news blog | Grist

#9 Michaelangelica



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Posted 08 May 2007 - 12:17 AM

Saving The Planet While Saving The Farm, How soil carbonization could save the planet while it saves the family farm | Terra Preta

If you are seriously interested in TP you should look at the archives at

Saving The Planet While Saving The Farm, How soil carbonization could save the planet while it saves the family farm | Terra Preta

#10 Michaelangelica



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Posted 08 May 2007 - 04:27 AM

I don't seem to be able to access this article

Wiley InterScience: Journal: Abstract
user account | Terra Preta
Long term effects of manure, charcoal, mineral fertilization on crop production ... Science, and Technology of Charcoal Production · Biocarbons (Charcoal) ...

Can anyone else?

Please check the IAI reports on that new thread for the latest news.

#11 Michaelangelica



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Posted 10 May 2007 - 06:29 PM

Good Blog

The reason TP has elicited such interest on the Agricultural/horticultural side of it’s benefits is this one static:

One gram of charcoal cooked to 650 C Has a surface area of 400 m2 (for soil microbes & fungus to live on), now for conversion fun:

One ton of charcoal has a surface area of 400,000 Acres!! which is equal to 625 square miles!! Rockingham Co. VA. , where I live, is only 851 Sq. miles

Now at a middle of the road application rate of 2 lbs/sq ft (which equals 1000 sqft/ton) or 43 tons/acre yields 26,000 Sq miles of surface area per Acre. VA is 39,594 Sq miles.

What this suggest to me is a potential of sequestering virgin forest amounts of carbon just in the soil alone, without counting the forest on top.

DesMoinesRegister.com Blogs » Blog Archive » Amount of biomass & carbon cycle response

Another good blog

In the Bolivian Amazon region, the land is a savannah, interspersed with “islands” of forest. When these forests were investigated, it became clear that they were places where people had lived in large numbers, for the soil was bursting with shards of pots, including huge vats that had been used to cook meals for hundreds of people. These archaeological sites were hundreds, even thousands, of years old. Moreover, there were stripes connecting them that could be seen from the air. These had been roads in ancient times.

Next the scientists explored the inland regions of the Brazilian Amazon, where they found large areas where the soil was remarkably different from the usual yellow dirt. As much as ten percent of the land is actually rich, dark soil called “terra preta.” As the photo shows, this soil is often two feet deep, and occasionally even two meters. It is full of pottery shards dating back possibly even 9,000 years, plus food scraps and other plants that had been used as much. This rich soil had been created intentionally by the inhabitants, and it remained rich throughout the whole period since then.
. . .
There’s an even more astonishing discovery, too. In the areas where the owners are mining the ancient terra preta soil and selling to their neighbors, the old terra preta regenerates itself! A farmer digs into the soil but leaves 20 cm of it, which he allows to rest for about 20 years, with new vegetation falling on it. At the end of this time, the dark soil is the same as it was before the mining took place. Apparently there are some kinds of micro-organisms in the soil that allow the soil to grow.

Metta Spencer's weblog: Hooray for the Ancient Amazon Farmers
If I am duplicating post let me know I am being abit swamped with info of late.
yet another blog

The difference between terra preta and ordinary soils is immense. A hectare of meter-deep terra preta can contain 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes in unimproved soils from similar parent material, according to Bruno Glaser, of the University of Bayreuth, Germany. To understand what this means, the difference in the carbon between these soils matches all of the vegetation on top of them. Furthermore, there is no clear limit to just how much biochar can be added to the soil.

Claims for biochar's capacity to capture carbon sound almost audacious. Johannes Lehmann, soil scientist and author of Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties, Management, believes that a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions!

WorldChanging: Tools, Models and Ideas for Building a Bright Green Future: Terra Preta: Black is the New Green

#12 Philip Small

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Posted 11 May 2007 - 12:37 PM

Excerpted from Climate Feedback (blog): Solutions in the Soil

... various reports on the conference on biochar/agrichar/terra preta nova/what-you-will that just ended down in Australia. If you're not up to speed on this, the general idea is that people could help solve a great many problems by enriching soils with reduced carbon in charcoal-like form. This gets rid of the carbon for a long time (charcoal is very refractory) and improves the soil in various not yet fully understood ways. ... There's what seems to be a thriving discussion board on the subject at Hypography. And we have an article on the subject in Nature this week ...

...The conference was opened by Tim "Weather Maker" Flannery, which is a pretty big name for a new field to manage to attract, I'd have thought.

...One interesting aspect is the idea of tying this issue to the issue of crappy stoves that drive indoor air pollution and waste a lot of energy.

... calculations for carbon sequestration by photosynthesis suggest that converting all US cropland to Conservation Reserve Programs — in which farmers are paid to plant their land with native grasses — or to no-tillage would sequester 3.6% of US emissions per year during the first few decades after conversion; that is, just a third of what one of the above biochar approaches can theoretically achieve. ...

added: The author of the post is Oliver Morton, Chief News and Features Editor at Nature. The post is mirrored at his blog on Heliophage.

Heliophage ..." is loosely associated with my book Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet, which will be published in July 2007 by 4th Estate and HarperCollins. It tracks events associated with the book, news that might be of interest to people interested in the subject matter of the book."...

Considering how well terra preta fits into the heliophagic theme, Oliver Morton will have more to say on the subject.


#13 Michaelangelica



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Posted 25 May 2007 - 03:51 PM

Long Live the List!
By Erin
There are 3 main renewable energy discussion lists and others that cover a variety of topics: Biomass Cooking Stoves for developing areas of the world, Biomass Gasifiers (mainly for heat and power) and Terra preta -using charcoal to ...
Code Knitter - Code Knitter

Terra Preta Postings
By arclein(arclein)
This is a list of posts dealing with terra preta in particular and is meant to help you navigate through the development of my thinking. There are other posts apropos to the subject, but this should get you through it.
Global Warming - Global Warming

Linking corn culture and pine beetles
By arclein(arclein)
In our earlier posts, we have extensively developed the thesis that the adoption of terra preta corn culture globally will not only sequester all the excess carbon but also manufacture high quality soil in a previously unanticipated ...
Global Warming - Global Warming
Arclein on global warming and renewables
By arclein
... have a free distribution to get the audience created. A principal theme in my Blog has been the coming terra preta revolution in sustainable agriculture. If you are not familiar with this check titles in my blog for corn and biochar.
SustainabilityForum.Com - Your... - SustainabilityForum.Com - Your Global Sustainability Community!

Excited geology
By Oliver
It's interesting stuff which I point you to in part because how microbes do their stuff is something it's important to understand, in part because this sort of thinking has relevance to the Terra Preta stuff I was extolling a while back ...
Heliophage - Heliophage
NSCSS.org :: View topic - Soil concept named top green idea in 2006
Terra Preta - The Black Earth I've saved the best for last. Terra preta is new to Western science, but it is an old technology from the Amazon that ...
Terra Preta soils - can the NT reach this level of improved soil ...
By Peter H(Peter H)
Amazonian Dark Earth, or "terra preta do indio", has mystified science for the last hundred years. Three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous, and twenty times the carbon of normal soils, terra preta is the legacy of ancient ...
AboveCapricorn - AboveCapricorn

Rural Network
Alfred Harris is a structural biologist with research and commercial interests in biocarbons (charcoal) and their ability to reduce fertiliser requirements ...

Clean Tech: EcoGeek Karl Schroeder on Investments in Environment ...
By The Green Skeptic(The Green Skeptic)
Karl Schroeder: Agrichar is a modern version of "Terra Preta" which was used centuries ago in the Amazon basin to allow the nutrient-poor soils there to produce lavish crops. It's basically a burn-and-bury process that sequesters carbon ...
The Green Skeptic™ - The Green Skeptic™

[quote] Sequestering Carbon in YOUR Soil - Are There $$ In It For Me?
Sequestering carbon in soil is not a new concept. It happens naturally, but can it be enhanced on farm and can it actually make some dollars for me, on my farm?
The NSW experience is worth examining in some detail, as a similar system could be useful in the tropics as well. There are a number of links with details on the scheme
The Carbon Farmers - Features - The Lab - Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Gateway to Science
provides access, as well as several additional links, with more information. AboveCapricorn



Trees versus crops. Carbon levels in forest soils are usually much higher than those under agriculture. Pic: Brian Murphy

the following is from
The Carbon Farmers - Features - The Lab - Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Gateway to Science
A good article to read
How soil loses carbon

Professor Alex McBratney from the University of Sydney has been studying soil carbon decline in the Namoi Valley, north western NSW.

The soils in this area have taken a beating, due largely to intensive cotton farming over the past 30 years. Once pastureland, the conversion to cotton crops has seen soil carbon levels decline from 1.5 to 0.8 per cent, he says. How does this happen? In healthy soils, carbon exists as long, sticky string-like molecules.

These strings twist around individual soil particles and literally bind them together. Soil micro-organisms tend not to bother consuming these large, unpalatable molecules, preferring fresh or rotted plant matter – the stems, roots and other plant parts which over time become incorporated into the soil.

But if the soil loses this plant content (because the stubble is burnt or removed), the soil microorganisms have no choice but to make a meal of the carbon molecules. Once the carbon is gone, the structure of the soil breaks down making it difficult to retain water and nutrients.

#14 Michaelangelica



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Posted 21 October 2007 - 12:53 AM

Friday Hope Blogging
By Phila(Phila)
While still under the radar of most policymakers, gasification and terra preta are starting to appear on the scene. In the US this year, Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) is promoting legislation that would give subsidies of up to $10000 for ...
Bouphonia - Bouphonia

mechabolic on worldchanging.com
By jim
jer faludi, a budding gasification and terra preta geek, wrote a great summary article on why gasification and terra preta are newly interesting. it was on the worldchanging front page earlier this week, ...
Tribe.net: Burning Man - Burning Man - tribe.net

#15 Michaelangelica



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Posted 24 October 2007 - 03:01 AM

this is an interesting artivcle not so much for the article but for the questions asked about it
WorldChanging: Tools, Models and Ideas for Building a Bright Green Future: A Carbon-Negative Fuel
Read the replies here:-

Jeremy, nice post. But Worldchanging readers, please help me on this. This is not to criticize terra preta, but . . .

Why is the "nontechnological" capture of atmospheric carbon through photosynthesis, and the biological process (which is fastest in temperate perennial grasslands) of formation of stable soil organic matter (humus, glomalin, etc. etc.) so invisible to us?

Various strands of modern alternative agriculture (e.g. holistic planned grazing, Keyline systems, pasture cropping, permaculture, also including organic farming and no-till farming) have been shown to be able to build soil organic matter rapidly while maintaining production--not from external inputs, just from enhancing the biological processes on and in the soil. Soil organic matter is 58% carbon. All it would take to run atmospheric CO2 down below 300 ppm is a net average increase of 1.6% in the organic matter of the world's crop and pastureland soils. Many alternative ag people do this in a year or two in favorable environments with favorable soils.

Non-use is not what is required to do this, but intensive management, working WITH rather than against the basic eco processes of water cycling, mineral cycling, solar energy flow, and community dynamics. Most of our industrial or "robbery" agriculture works AGAINST these processes, making soil our #1 export, far surpassing even empty shipping containers. And releasing huge quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere as the soil organic matter is oxidized through tillage, ammonia fertilizer, and exposure of soil.

Soil carbon is the perfect opportunity to fix climate change. The carbon we capture from the air doesn't need to be tilled in or spread--the plants do it for us. And it's not a hazardous waste disposal problem, like it is for the carbon capture schemes.

Taking carbon from the atmosphere takes ENERGY. It's combustion in reverse. Technology can't do that. Why do we forget that photosynthesis is the reverse of combustion/respiration?

Some hypotheses for why we ignore the photosynthetic/soil carbon opportunity:

1. There are no pipes, valves, stainless steel tanks, or gauges involved. (We love technology.)

2. We feel good when we add things (e.g. biochar) to the soil, when we do work to achieve a result, even if it may not be necessary.

3. Biological processes such as the decay of shed grass roots into humus aren't sufficiently technological or visible to interest us.

4. When we think of photosynthesis, our attention is captured by the large, obvious plants such as trees (which are hokum as a carbon sink, because they rot or burn too quickly).

Terra preta is worth pursuing, perhaps particularly for tropical soils which metabolize organic matter quickly. But why can't we see the direct photosynthetic soil carbon opportunity?

more info: http:/managingwholes.net

Posted by: Peter Donovan on October 16, 2007 10:57 AM
(Modern pyrolysis techniques/ technology make it possible -MA


What's great about this is that putting biochar in the ground is permanent - that Terra Preta carbon was put there centuries ago. On the other hand, if you just use organic material, you are just churning atmospheric carbon, not permanently sequestering it. When organic matter decomposes, it produces gaseous carbon - methane and CO2, which is held in the soil by inertia mostly. When somebody tills the soil it just 'burps' back out. But if it's in the form of activated charcoal, it stays put. That is a net reduction in atmospheric carbon.

Posted by: Clark on October 16, 2007 12:47 PM


Here's a video of Chicken John Rinaldi's gasifier-powered pickup truck at Burning Man:
Chicken John For Mayor - INNOVATIONS
Chicken John is a friend of Jim Mason's and a co-conspirator in the "power generation as art" movement. He's running for Mayor of San Francisco this November, and part of his platform is to build a large gasifier to generate electricity for the MUNI light rail system.

Posted by: Jeremy on October 16, 2007 1:15 PM


"Terra preta is worth pursuing, perhaps particularly for tropical soils which metabolize organic matter quickly. But why can't we see the direct photosynthetic soil carbon opportunity?"

Peter, can I add that it could be of use as a by product of weed control. We have major problems with ground fuel loads in summer, specifically from Broom (Cytisus scoparius) and Gorse (Ulex europeaus). Currently these are sprayed, but only where they are near towns.

Being able to talk organic matter which is not currently being utilised, ie weeds, and turning it into a soil ameliorant (?sp?), which can then be used to build up our nutrient poor soils down here in Australia, "sounds" great.

However, I totally agree with your comments regarding soil conservation through responsible land management. No till farming, appropriate grazing rotation, and basic biological farming techniques are an effective way to build up soils, and increase soil carbon content in the process.

As well, my dream of taking woody weeds and turning them into agrichar might run into some costing problems at the moment.

Posted by: Luke Bunyip on October 16, 2007 1:20 PM


The Ashden award winners you mention utilize anaerobic digestion to convert waste food and feces into gas. The bacteria in the digesters consume what little energy is left in the feces, or the loads of energy in the waste food, and exhale (exhaust? whatever bacteria do...) methane. It is not a partial combustion process like the gasifiers discussed throughout the majority of this article.

While the results of the bill could be admirable, the Colorado Senator is also pandering to those constituents who work for and contract from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, Colorado.

Posted by: Paul on October 16, 2007 1:22 PM


By the way, this just in:

The Gasification Technologies Council is having their annual conference in San Francisco, today and tomorrow. If you're interested in this stuff and live around the bay area, pop on over to it!

See GTC - Home Page.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on October 16, 2007 1:32 PM


Just a note: Peter Donovan's numbers are *way*, *way* off.

To remove 100 ppm CO2 from the atmosphere, it would require a build-up of ~200 Gt-C (billions of metric tons of carbon) in the soil. Right now, it is estimated that there are about 1200 billion tons in all of the soils in the terrestrial biosphere, not just the agricultural lands. So this a 16-17% increase in the soil carbon levels of all of the ecosystems, not just agricultural lands. If you had to do this on existing croplands (about 15 million square kilometers at last count), it require about a 100% increase in soil organic matter on all of the planet's farmlands.

While I like the spirit of his comments, the numbers are just wrong.

Posted by: anonymous on October 16, 2007 6:05 PM


Anonymous: Let me clarify. By a net increase of 1.6% I mean from say .5% to 2.1% organic matter in the top foot (more than a doubling in this case). Or to take another example, from 4% organic matter to 5.6% organic matter, or from zero to 1.6%. This would, averaged on the world's cropland and pastureland soils (figures from the World Resources Institute) take atmospheric ppm down by about 80 ppm. There can be no doubt that this would require a transformation of most existing agriculture.

Before 1830, it is estimated that many tallgrass prairie soils in the midwest contained 5-10% organic matter. Now, after years of corn and soybeans, quite a few are in the .5% range.

Many forms of soil organic matter are exceptionally stable. Rattan Lal of Ohio State estimates that the average residence time of carbon is 35 years in trees, 100+ years in soil organic matter. Barring sudden destruction by inversion tillage, which resembles fire plus earthquake for the underground bacterial and fungal communities.

When you consider the benefits of turning atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter--which alleviates drought and flooding, chelates heavy metals, salt, and other contaminants, improves water quality, food quality, all using abundant free solar energy--it's quite a deal.

For details on the numbers, see the papers of Dr. Rattan Lal, and Allan Yeomans's PRIORITY ONE (Priority One: Together We Can Beat Global Warming).

Posted by: Peter Donovan on October 16, 2007 6:47 PM


Sounds nice but theres a problem somewhere, I suspect its that the author hasn't included the carbon cost of running the gasifier.
Basically agrichar / terra preta is a very stable form of carbon created from a less stable form, vege waste. The reason some chemicals are more stable than others is that the bond energies/mol are greater in the more stable compounds, i.e. there is a net energy cost to producing argichar from organic waste. This energy will have to be supplied by conventional means.
Agrichar may well be a good way of locking up atmospheric carbon but it can't have a net liberation of energy associated with it as well.
For anyone whos interested in testing this argument try thinking about entropy.

Posted by: Steve on October 17, 2007 12:50 AM


Steve you have your thermodynamics backwards. If a compound is going from less stable to more stable you get energy. In this case from ligino-cellulose to char. Bond energy is the energy released when the bond is made not what is required to form the bond. Certainly outside energy is required to begin the charing process, but it should not overall (taking in to account energy gain from the methane/hydrogen released) be costing energy to produce the char.

Your comment on entropy is irrelevant. While the entropy of the universe is increasing. That of a system does not need to. This requires a flux of energy through the system. High quality energy in (light) low quality out (heat). It is perfectly reasonable to use some of the energy stored in plant waste to produce biochar and store some of the rest as fuel.

Wiser science gurus correct me if I am wrong.

Posted by: Andrew on October 17, 2007 7:18 AM


"I can't promise that using gasification for energy and using the resulting char as terra preta fertilizer will be a carbon negative fuel, because I haven't seen a credible lifecycle analysis of it. (If anyone has, please post it to the comments.)"

Dr. Johannes Lehman at Cornell University can probably get you the information you're looking for. Terra Preta is a specialty of his.

Everything I've read cites 20-50% sequestration of carbon over and above the CO2 that is produced by pyrolysis and the energy it takes to pyrolize the biomass.

The actual amount depends upon the biomass used and the temperature at which it is pyrolyzed. It is also confirmed to stay in soils and not break down for hundreds to thousands of years (depending upon the climate)-- longer than compost, or naturally accrued soil biomass. Of course, you can't be transporting the stuff around over large distances without "offsetting" the amount of CO2 that is actually sequestered. It would have to be both produced and used locally for maximum effect.

Again, if you want specific life cycle info, Dr. Lehman can probably help. Here's his webpage at Cornell:
Biochar home

I also wholeheartedly agree that we need to look at building soil carbon naturally and organically. I see both this and Terra Preta as tools in the toolbox that should both be used.

Posted by: Ed on October 17, 2007 2:44 PM



Yes, but that's a HUGE relative increase in soil carbon. Prairie soils might be able to go that high, but not all of the world's agricultural land. There's absolutely no way.

I agree with your overall point, but as a scientist who works in this field, I get a little irked when people don't present their numbers carefully or clearly.

Posted by: anonymous on October 17, 2007 6:19 PM


This is pseudo-science of the worst order. Global warming is being accelerated by the amount of carbon dioxide gas in our atmosphere, and carbon sequestration is a popular short-hand phrase for carbon dioxide sequestration. Burying charcoal in surface soil does not remove CO2 from our environment, CO2 is released when charcoal is made.

Basic high school physics - the principal products of combustion are CO2 and water vapor. There is no free lunch in physics, you don't get to have your cake and eat it too.

Woodgas is very interesting technology, but it is definitely a niche item. Brazil is already way ahead of the rest of the world with ethanol usage, which does not release fossilized CO2 that has already been sequestrated.

Posted by: Sean McLaughlin on October 18, 2007 5:59 AM


Charcoal is carbon. It comes from a renewable resource (biomass), that pulled CO2 from the atmosphere.

The charcoal is stable in soil for thousands of years. The NET result of adding charcoal to soil is increasing soil carbon. The carbon that is being added to soil, came from the atmosphere. Seems simple.

Plus, added carbon in soil has been shown to increase actual biomass and production capability of the soil itself- thus increasing the rate of biomass production, creating a positive feedback loop.

I don't know if it is good way to get energy- but it is certainly the best way I have heard to improve agriculture, and reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. That's good enough for me.

Posted by: Tim on October 18, 2007 8:00 AM


Sustainable farms and gardens already exist that do not use terra preta. Since the Carthusian monastaries of the European Middle Ages, herb and subsistance growers have known how to acheive fertility using a mix of dynamic accumulators such as sorrel, dock, plantain, dandelion, stinging nettle, chicory, chamomile, astilbe, and comfrey, along with seasonally rotating cover crops such as clover, orchard grass (coltsfoot), rye and buckwheat, and biomass producers such as turnips and oilseed radish. Has anyone demonstrated on actual farms that adding terra preta carbon increases humus production or yield over what dynamic accumulators, cover crops, and biomass crops are already known to produce? Is not, why such wild enthusiasm for the untried and the unproven?

Theoretical farming has a long way to go to equal the results of theoretical physics. I would like to see terra preta farms objectively evaluated in practice alongside sustainable farms based on other principles (e.g the natural farms of Masanobu Fukuoka and Kawaguchi in Japan or the Agroforestry Trust farm of Martin Crawford in Dover, England) rather than just assuming that terra preta farms will acheive excellence in sustainability because they sound "right." Many wonderful-sounding theories bite the dust when applied in the real world. Is the carbon product that comes from the pyrolizers really better than well-cured compost? Are there any commercial products for sale that farmers and gardeners can try for comparison to see if humus and soil fertility increase?

Bob Monie
New Orleans, La

Posted by: Robert Monie on October 18, 2007 8:08 AM


Sean McLaughlin -- the point of this is that the products of combustion are different than the products of pyrolysis. OK, so I just tried to write it all out in here and it was super ugly, so you might want to look here for the reactions involved in pyrolysis. The point, though, is that it releases gas much more useful than CO2 and also leaves the "char" or oxidized carbon as a solid to be used as a soil fertilizer.

Posted by: octopod on October 18, 2007 8:50 AM


I'm struggling here a bit. Say that I've got a few acres of land, and that the case you present convinces me enough to go for it. The acres are about half woods, so there's biomass by the cubic meter - downed trees, leftovers from the last corn harvest, grass clippings, leaves... There are also a few acres of production fields, and a decent sized garden, so lots of places to play... But what do I actually *do*? Do I build a gasifier? How? Or is a gasifier (a little?) different from a burner that makes charcoal?

What we need here is a "biochar for dummies" (or at least for people who've never built anything out of sheet metal). How do people like me, with plenty of good will and opportunity, but very little knowledge or experience, actually apply this?

Posted by: Scott Deerwester on October 18, 2007 12:38 PM


Scott: to make char, you need to burn/smolder the biomass in an oxygen poor environment. If you google "how to make charcoal" you should find some sites that will give you various ideas how to do it.

I think there may be some you tube videos on the subject too.

Sean: this isn't pseudo science. biomass pyrolysis sequesters more atmospheric carbon than the pyrolysis process produces-- including energy inputs. Plants grow, they remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Pyrolysis locks in a significant portion of that carbon in the form of char. The carbon stays in the soil hundreds to thousands of years longer than it does by composting, plus, it reduces needed fertilizer imputs in agricultural soils which reduces carbon emissions from fossil fuels used to make the fertilizer and apply it.

Posted by: Ed on October 18, 2007 5:08 PM


Here's a YouTube video by a guy who built a pyrolysing stove out of 5-gallon paint cans and tin food cans:

YouTube - Hybrid Stove Making Charcoal

There are other videos that

Posted by: Ed on October 18, 2007 5:17 PM


While it is possible.

This is where you start kicking in "Oppourtunity Costs".

First off, for instance lets say that biomass gets an average of 3-6% solar efficiency.

But why not go with the theoretical limit (i.e. virtually impossible) of 11%.

Then you run that through a fischer tropsch gasification process, leaving you with only 32% of that energy left.

And then you distribute that fuel, leaving you with only 88% of that energy left.

And then you run that fuel inside a conventional gasoline engine at 20%, but for kicks, why not use a diesel engine at 40%.

11% * .32 * .88 * .4 =
So we're looking at a maximum limit of somewhere around the range of 1.24% solar energy conversion into torque. With a more realistic range of 0.4-0.2%

Kinda crappy don't you think?


Especially when you compare it to say, a 50% efficient Luz2 style solar cocentrator.

With 85% energy kept after distribution.

And 90% of the energy turned to torque by an electric engine with regenerative braking.

50% * .85 * .9 = 38.25%


Now ask yourself, is photosynthesis really up to the task of providing the energy?

Then ask yourself again, could it be done better, cheaper, and faster without biomass.

Frankly, oil is a biofuel.
It just had millions of years to accumulate.
Almost all of which was from wild algae in the oceans.

Trying to make that all back in real time with terrestrial crops is just asking for failure.

Not to mention that by keeping biofuels alive, we have to deal with all the dramatic emissions increased causes by current biofuels.

The risks and costs heavily outweight the benefits of biofuels.

Certainly research could change that, but considering we got 20x more federal resources pegged in biofuels research than Solar, it's just disgusting.

Frankly, all non-R&D subsidies for biofuels should be scrapped and put towards more realistic solutions.

Posted by: David Ahlport on October 18, 2007 10:50 PM


For people interested in finding out more about biochar, who is working on it and where, I direct you to the website of the International Biochar Initiative This organization began in July 2006 and has been instrumental in serving as a platform for the international exchange of information and activities in support of biochar research, development, demonstration and commercialization.

Posted by: Ellen Baum on October 19, 2007 4:40 AM


David: you can't forget a couple of important points:

1. that biochar added to agricultural soils reduces the need for fertilizer inputs. Since it stays in the soil so long, this is a huge amount of money-- and energy savings-- over the long run.

You're looking at only one portion of the process instead of looking at the potential for optimizing for all the components: biofuel, improving agricultural productivity which will reduce fossil fuel use, restoration of depleted soils which will, when restored, begin removing carbon from the atmosphere; and the heat that is generated from the gasification process that would have industrial uses-- like combined heat and power. Then there is the value of soils restored with char of cleaning up surface water.

2. We need to remove carbon from the atmosphere as fast as possible to address climate change. It has been argued that it's not unrealistic to have enough pyrolysis plants worldwide to remove 9.5 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere annually-- more than is now emitted. Combine this with efficiency plus other renewables (wind, solar, tidal, etc) and we could make significant dents in the carbon concentration of the atmosphere within the lifetimes of today's young children.

There has been a lot of work done already on the energy returns, etc. Since you're into the numbers end, it may be helpful for you to dig through the literature on the subject. I haven't gotten into the technical end myself, but the work is there.

Posted by: Ed on October 19, 2007 12:44 PM


More information than you want

Posted by: Duane on October 21, 2007 7:03 AM


photosynthesis releases 2.66 grams of oxygen for every gram of carbon fixed from the atmosphere.

When you pyrolize or partially combust (gasify) with oxygen-starved air input, you get producer gas plus char.

So for every gram of carbon in the char you have 2.66 grams of oxygen in the atmosphere (for us to breathe).

And terra preta is perfectly suited to combination with all those other sound farming systems like keylines, alley cropping, intercropping, agroforestry, Zai holes and lots more. Use every trick in the book and be happy ever after.

My own small experiments have shown that it is highly advantageous to prepare sugar water (molasses will do) and soak the char prior to digging into the soil. Soil life just loves this.

Here is one way of making char from rice husk plus cooking gas.
Continuous-Flow Rice Husk Gasifier for Small-Scale Thermal Applications (19kW) | BioEnergy Lists: Biomass Cooking Stoves

Posted by: diazotrophicus on October 21, 2007 12:12 PM
Please join in the discussion here

Posted by: Michael Angel on October 24, 2007 12:56 AM
:goodbad: :goodbad: :goodbad: :goodbad: :goodbad:

#16 Michaelangelica



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Posted 24 October 2007 - 07:26 AM

Any new Zealanders about?

AGMARDT launches soil initiative


Trustees agreed at their 6 June meeting to create a small working group tasked with stimulating engagement and debate on the importance of soil to our society and its potential role in mitigating climate change.

The group will initially focus on the mechanisms and practices that would enable New Zealand to grow more soil than it uses post 2012.
Storage of carbon in the soil is seen as a key contributor to achieving carbon neutrality and, amongst other topics, the potential of bio-char will be examined.

#17 Michaelangelica



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Posted 04 November 2007 - 04:30 AM


It is facinating that Blogs are in the forfront of new ideas rather than media, government, universities etc.,

A Brave New World.

Sept 2008 Biochar conference in Newcastle UK
By Dave Lankshear(Dave Lankshear)
The ability to improve soil quality has been most dramatically demonstrated in the Terra Preta ("dark earth") soils of South America, where fertile islands of char-containing soils, dating back thousands of years, are found throughout ...
Eclipse-chat - Eclipse-chat

A Carbon-Negative Fuel"Impossible!" you say. "Even wind and solar ...
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But listen to people working on gasification and terra preta, and you'll have something new to think about.A Carbon-Negative FuelFree e-book on biofuels and water"I know! Let's use all our food AND drinking water to make SUV fuel! ...
Biox Process and biodiesel - Biox Process and biodiesel

linkfrenzy @ 2007-10-22T09:33:00
By linkfrenzy(linkfrenzy)
Amazonian Dark Earth, or terra preta do indio, has mystified science for the last hundred years. Three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous, and twenty times the carbon of normal soils, terra preta is the legacy of ancient ...
LinkFrenzy - LinkFrenzy

In which I ramble while medicated.
By Eaho Laula(Eaho Laula)
Okay, skeptics, get cracking: I read this article on gasification/terra preta today, and either I'm to muzzleheaded to see what's wrong with it, or this chap's come up with something really, honest-to-Pete viable as a cheap alternative ...
...a nameless country populated... - ...a nameless country populated by transparent badgers...

Terra Preta for Carbon Reduction
By Philip Proefrock
The terra preta has a high level of nutrients, with three times the nitrogen and phosphorus and twenty times the carbon of normal soils. But producing fertilizer is not even the most interesting part of agrichar. ...
Green Options - http://greenoptions.com/feed

A Carbon-Negative Fuel
By saltyveruca
"Impossible!" you say. "Even wind and solar have carbon emissions from their manufacturing, and biofuels are carbon neutral at best. How can a fuel be carbon negative?" But listen to people working on gasification and terra preta, ...
Propeller.com Science Stories - Home Page » Propeller

Terra preta: a fuel that could be also carbon negative?
By Xavier Navarro
Terra preta is a very interesting type of soil that you can find in the Amazon, and is supposedly manmade. Although it's unknown how it was made before the Europeans arrived, there's a modern method to obtain it: burn biomass so it's ...
AutoblogGreen - AutoblogGreen

Negative Carbon Output
By Adam Clare
Because terra preta locks so much carbon in the soil, it's also a form of carbon sequestration that doesn't involve bizarre heroics like pumping CO2 down old mine shafts. What's more, it may reduce other greenhouse gases as well as ...
Things Are Good: good news - Things Are Good: good news

Carbon-negative fuel?
By Cory Doctorow
We've mentioned terra preta before: it's a human-made soil or fertilizer. "Three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous, and twenty times the carbon of normal soils, terra preta is the legacy of ancient Amazonians who predate Western ...
Boing Boing - Boing Boing

Count of tillers in Charcoal treated and control Paddy Fields
By Dr. N. Sai Bhaskar Reddy(Dr. N. Sai Bhaskar Reddy)
Count of tillers in "Sri" Paddy - Variety Sona Masuri - Farmer P. Narasimha Reddy, Kothur Village, Midjil Mandal, Mahabubnagar District, Andhra Pradesh, India Samples - Random 10 nos. Avg Max Min Alkaline soil treated with charcoal 43 ...

A Carbon-Negative Fuel
"Impossible!" you say. "Even wind and solar have carbon emissions from their manufacturing, and biofuels are carbon neutral at best. How can a fuel be carbon negative?" But listen to people working on gasification and terra preta, ...
Digg / upcoming - Digg / All News & Videos

Renewables - Oct 16
Statt, Energy Bulletin. A carbon-negative fuel (gasification and terra preta) High hopes for renewable power from Earth's depths Lovins: Global warming and peak oil are irrelevant (efficiency)
EnergyBulletin.net Latest News - EnergyBulletin.net | Peak Oil News Clearinghouse

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