Artist Jim Mason was creating flame-throwing robots for Burning Man when the city of Berkeley turned off the power. So Mason and the artists he worked with needed an alternative to getting power from the grid. They tried solar energy and diesel generators without luck. Then Mason discovered an old manual from Sweden that explained biomass gasification and All Power Labs was born.
Today All Power Labs sells a gasifier that makes electricity, heat, and biochar out of wood and nutshell waste. They call it the Power Pallet.
At this point, you might be thinking, "Great story, love the flame-throwing robots, but why does this matter for the environment and what is biochar?" Turns out, biomass (organic matter used as a fuel) is Drawdown.org's #34 climate change solution and biochar (a soil amendment that sequesters carbon) is #72. You might not use a biomass gasifier in the near future, but you may start seeing biochar at your local garden supply store soon.
Two Drawdown.org solutions to climate change
Here's what Drawdown has to say about biomass and biochar.
Biomass can aid the shift away from fossil fuels and buy time for flexible grid solutions to come online, while utilizing wastes that might otherwise become environmental problems."- Biomass, Drawdown
When feedstock comes from agricultural or urban waste, converting it to biochar is a means to sequester carbon, increase fertility, and produce energy. Theoretically, experts argue, biochar could sequester billions of tons of carbon dioxide every year, in addition to averting emissions from organic waste.”- Biochar, Drawdown
What is biochar?
I'll explain the benefits of biochar and how to use it in your garden below. But first, here's the best explanation I've found regarding what biochar actually is.
Biochar is a charcoal-like substance that’s made by burning organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes (also called biomass) in a controlled process called pyrolysis. Although it looks a lot like common charcoal, biochar is produced using a specific process to reduce contamination and safely store carbon."- Regeneration International
Why do biomass and biochar matter?
So biomass and biochar can both help drawdown climate change according to Drawdown.org, but they don't get much press. For a little perspective, utility-scale biomass generated 58 billion kWh of energy in 2018 in the U.S. That's 1.4% of total electricity production in the United States according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That's about the same amount as utility-scale solar, which generated 64 billion kWh and 1.5% of U.S. electricity. (An additional 30 billion kWh of solar energy was produced by small-scale rooftop solar photovoltaic systems.)
I'll bet you've heard of solar energy but not bioenergy, am I right? But if we are going to get to a circular economy, we need more ways to turn waste into useful products like biochar and fuel.
Using waste wisely
All Power Labs machines use waste to generate electricity while producing biochar as a co-product. Disposing of dead and diseased trees and off-cuts from lumber processing usually results in massive quantities of waste wood chips. The tree nut processing industry has millions of pounds of nutshells as well, far in excess of what they can cost-effectively compost. These waste streams can be turned into a source of value, while biochar produced this way does not result in any additional trees being unnecessarily cut down.
Biomass & biochar in Sweden
It may sound like a stretch to think of biomass powering microgrids and biochar being used on a large scale in the US. But remember that old biomass electrification manual from Sweden Jim Mason found? It explained how to make wood gas vehicles. Turns out there were about one million European cars powered by wood gasification during World War II because petroleum was used for the war effort. There aren't a lot of wood gas cars in Sweden anymore for good reasons, but Sweden continues to use biomass.
Biomass and waste were about a quarter of Sweden's energy supply in 2013 according to "The introduction and expansion of biomass use in Swedish district heating systems," in Science Direct. Sweden is also starting to use biochar on a larger scale.
In Stockholm, a utility-scale biochar plant uses garden and plant waste to make energy for the city's district heating system according to Stockholm Biochar Project by Nordregio.org. When residents drop off their garden waste, they can also pick up biochar. This program has been so successful, they are planning on opening five more biochar plants.
The benefits of biochar
Biochar resolves a dilemma: plant nutrients need to be water-soluble in order for plants to access them, but once they are water-soluble they are at risk of leaching out of the soil through run-off. Compost and co-composted biochar resolve this dilemma by retaining water-soluble nutrients in a way that plants can extract as they need it. The outcome is that the long term fertility of the soil is improved.
The benefits of biochar in the soil come from the fact that it is permanent soil organic carbon. Biochar does not decompose back into CO2, whereas compost actually keeps decomposing and disappears within a year or two.
When biochar is sent through the composting process, it doesn't decompose and the decomposing particles from the compost coats the biochar. Since the biochar doesn't decompose, it retains this coating and behaves like a permanent compost. The biochar helps the soil retain water and nutrients that then become available to the plants.
How to use biochar in your garden
The correct way to use biochar is to send it through the composting process, known as co-composting. Compost is usually made with green waste like food scraps and grass clippings, and brown waste such as wood shavings, manures, and newspapers. The green and brown waste that turns into compost is called feedstock.
To co-compost with biochar is to mix biochar with feedstock then let it decompose together. Use a ratio of about 1:9 biochar to feedstock. Allow that to sit in a pile or mix in a tumbler until it has reached peak temperatures and the organic material has decomposed. Now you have co-composted biochar. Apply the co-composted mixture to the soil.
It's important to note that biochar should not be added directly to the soil. The key to using biochar successfully is to combine the biochar with brown and green feedstock and let it go through the composting process together. Universities and farmers like Washington State University and Gill Tract Community Farm have described significant plant growth and increased soil health by co-composting with biochar.
All Power Labs
All Power Labs works with academic researchers, off-grid agricultural and forestry applications, and projects in developing countries.
If you're interested in buying biochar in the Berkeley, California area, their biochar is sold through the Local Carbon Network.
Now that you understand the biomass and biochar drawdown connection, listen to the full episode where Justin Knapp from All Power Labs explains what biomass and biochar are in more detail.
Some of the information featured in this article comes from the below video titled "Trash Powered" from A Reza & Company Production and Huffington Post.