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  Biochar News

   from USBI   


        April  2012  

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Welcome to the April 2012 US Biochar Initiative newsletter, a project of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions.  We welcome your support, ideas and donations to help us help you!  Visit us at 


Let us know what you and your biochar friends are up to.  With your permission, we can post that information on the USBI website so we can all learn from each other.  



There is an advantage to being involved in the start of a new industry that offers the world hope.  We can celebrate our pioneers.  You can see what we are made of by reading the interviews below of Kelpie Wilson, Erich Knight and Jeff Wallin.


Happy Charring, 


Gloria Flora  

Director, USBI

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USBI, a project of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions (SOS),
provides a national exchange of information and activities
in support of biochar research, development,demonstration
and commerc
ialization. It advocates for biochar research
and applications.

 We Gather,

 Celebrate ...


USBI 2012 Conference and 2013 Conference Proposals   

The Sonoma Biochar Initiative and the Sonoma Ecology Center will host on July 29 - August 1, 2012.  


Biochar LogoLet the celebrating begin!  Hurry up and register, for heaven's sake!  The Sonoma Biochar Initiative and the Sonoma Ecology Center in Sonoma County, California, along with a number of other partners, will host the 2012 national USBI Conference on July 29 through August 1, 2012.


Sonoma Biochar Initiative's Oren Wool says, "The 2012 conference will bring together growers, entrepreneurs, investors, scientists, policymakers, policy analysts, engineers, producers, users, and students on the topic of biochar."


Here is the registration page.  SBI expects the Conference to attract as many as 400 attendees from North America and International destinations.  For additional information, visit the SBI website at


Meanwhile, because of the great interest in these conferences, we are going to be doing this annually instead of every two years.  Our plan is next year's 2013 host will be at this year's conference to meet everyone and see how this celebration is done.  To contact us about being the 2013 conference host email us at The rfp can be found at RFP 2013 USBI Conference   

Interviewing Biochar Pioneers    
Three of our pioneers are spotlighted here: Kelpie Wilson, Erich Knight and Jeff Wallin.

Kelpie Wilson's sustainability focus was set in the 1970s.  Challenged by that decade's oil crisis, her ambition was to develop high mileage vehicles.  She started out as an auto mechanic and then became a mechanical engineer.  But her search for renewable energy slammed into the reality of the Reagan administration.  She was soon running what she calls "the 1990s best known grassroots forest protection group in the West," the Siskiyou Regional Education Project.  Another brick wall, the second Bush administration, found her a columnist for Truthout.  As a journalist, she went to Australia to cover the first IBI biochar conference, then called agrichar.

It was May of 2007.  She says there was a lot of talk about the ancient terra preta soils of the Amazon but "what convinced me early on was the other soils I knew about."  Prairie fires formed the rich black carbon soils of the Midwest over thousands of years.  The prairie grass smoldered deep in the root zone without oxygen, creating the same effect used today in pyrolyzers.  A similar result is found in the Russian steppes in the chernozem soils there, she says.  Her report on the conference provides an introduction to the excitement still building around the world about biochar.

Wilson says she tried making biochar in "little pyrolyzers and then I was really hooked."  She likes the many different scales of use for biochar and marvels at the amount of waste in our culture that can be used to make biochar.  She sees more and more decentralization ahead of us and a better way of life.  Her motto is "small is beautiful," but she wants big business to get involved in biochar too.

She now works for the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) as Project Development Director.  IBI's current work on establishing guidelines for biochar as a product will speed development of biochar.  She invites everyone to join IBI and experience the new membership system with social networking features on IBI's home page.  Together, she says, we can build a sustainable future.

Erich Knight is the connector of biochar people.  Kelpie calls Erich the "poet laureate of biochar." 

Erich says Australian atmospheric scientist Peter Read coined the term "biochar" about six years ago when what Knight calls the consilience began.  By that he means an agreement between different academic areas on approaches to carbon.  Biochar became the center of scientific disciplines working on carbon sequestration, soil remediation of contaminated sites, soil rebuilding, agricultural enhancement, the microbiology of the soil, modern pyrolysis, thermal conversion, biofuels and nano-level technology, among others, he says.

For Knight, biochar brought together "all the threads of my life."  He began coordinating a network of those interested in biochar.  The invaluable aggregated news and communication appears at  It began as a once a week service and is now hitting 10 to 20 times a day in service level.  He says available peer reviewed articles are growing exponentially.

"Although Japan and Australia are leaving us in their dust," overall, he says, he's happy with the U.S. progress.  He sees Europe as the proving ground for the growing industry.  The U.S., on the other hand, has only three biochar products approved by the USDA and an EPA and USDA carbon board working on protocols, he adds.

Knight says he's happy that "people at least are beginning to get beyond the idea that biochar is just burning stuff."  He points out that he has Jeff Wallin and Doug Guyer of EcoTechnologies to thank for funding his efforts from the beginning.

Jeff Wallin is the co-founder of The Biochar Company, located outside Philadelphia.  His area of expertise is finding money to achieve success in this start-up biochar industry.  He's had to do it twice.  In 2008, like the rest of the country, it became an illiquid market, which means assets became hard to convert to cash and credit froze.

Now, he has the third and fourth iteration of technology set up for his second run for biochar's future.  His company has the North American license for the Australian company's Black is Green (BIG) pyrolysis system.  It is a continuous flow, mobile, modular setup that can be seen here.  Hawaii and Alberta each will soon have a Biochar Company commercial operation setup of this system.

Also, The Biochar Company has joined the Whole Foods "Youth-Trade" initiative as one of the ten founding companies.  The Biochar Company's trademarked product to be carried by Whole Foods is called Soil Reef.  That product is an organic, farm-based compost with worm castings and sustainably-sourced biochar. Those ingredients are blended, aged and packaged to introduce people to the concept of a nurturing soil reef. 

Wallin says he's been "opening up the gates because so few others were doing it and it needed to be done."  The Biochar Company is doing a cutting edge, sustainable whole system approach to project development.  (To see Wallin's co-founder Lopa Brunjes do a youtube presentation at TEDxBerkeley go here.)

World Ag Expo 
Biochar was there

Several biochar organizations and companies attended the 45th annual World Ag Expo in Tulare, California February 14-16.  It was a solid square mile of industrial agriculture exhibits surrounding a 40 by 80 foot fabric dome (from Fabra Dome) of biochar activism.  Red Garner of Rugged Biochar in Idaho started the biochar ball rolling and Tom Miles (thanks, Tom!) sponsored USBI's attendance with Gloria Flora and Amanda Joy Ravenhill (Bay Area Biochar Association) working the crowd.

Inside the dome, visitors faced an attention-getting, massive wood chipper and a 10 x 30 foot mural of the Instructional Tech Center's (ITC) pyrolysis unit.  Tom Grisson from ITC was there to explain the unit. 

Biochar chemist Frank Shields' display was there, featuring his Bay Area soil control lab for biochar analysis.
  A description of his testing for IBI is found here.

Jeff Wallin from The Biochar Company was on hand to answer questions and energize the crowd.  Also present was Matt Banchero from the Sonoma Biochar Initiative.  Matt provided information on the USBI Conference in Sonoma, CA this summer, July 29 - August 1.  (See first story above.)

Phoenix Energy, , was next around the dome.  That company sells biochar and designs and builds small scale (.5 to 2 MW) gasification power plants integrated with the electrical grid. The company pyrolyzers are fueled by biomass (wood waste, agricultural waste, or other biological waste products).

Blue Sky Biochar's Michael Wittman ( sold a biochar soil supplement, organic and pelletized.

Trip Allen of Biocharm
sold trademarked pre-charged biochar soil amendments. Pre-charged means it has nutrients added.
Valerio Navarro of Living Elements stopped by for a day. She uses biochar in her green roofs and urban landscaping projects.  Her low water use plants, potted in wood blocks enhanced our exhibit space.

This event is billed as the largest ag expo in the world with more than 300 exhibitors and maybe 100,000 visitors for the three-day event.  Although not a presence like the monster John Deere machines parked in a several-block-square area, biochar held its own.


  We Study ...  


Josiah Hunt, a TEDx presentation 

A clear biochar explanation from Hawaii


Here is a recent video, an outstanding presentation from Josiah Hunt in Hawaii.  Thanks Josiah!  


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Hal Collins at the University of Washington    

The ARS/USDA focuses on biochar.


Hal Collins, a soil scientist with the USDA Agriculture Research Service, describes himself as "inquisitive."  Mustachiosed, blond, green-eyed, this West coast scientist focuses on below-ground productivity.  "Biochar, as a soil resource, is handicapped right now by a lack of available product," says Collins. He looks forward to biochar becoming more mainstream, so the availability of biochar will grow.

He anticipates climate change will become more discussed and biochar will help with that because it is a recalcitrant carbon, a very stable way to sequester carbon and will help the world with dealing with climate change.

Two areas of research have captured his attention.  First of all, he says, one study looks at how herbicides are mediated by biochar.  Atrazine, for instance, is retained and immobilized by biochar.  This herbicide, widely used, for instance, in central Wisconsin where potatoes are grown, has reached the groundwater there.  Biochar would help protect that groundwater.  Secondly, Collins describes the research on manure lagoons.

One study has a 4000-cow Washington state dairy farm using its anaerobic digester to obtain methane.  It then sells the electricity it creates with the methane.  The remaining fiber in the manure is pelletized, made into biochar and put back in the manure lagoons where it removes 32% of the phosphorous.  That biochar is then used as an alternative for phosphorous fertilizer.

Pretty slick, hey?  Collins points out that soil activity is the most complex interaction known. And biochar provides a home for the micorrhizal fungi that form a major part of the soil.  A teaspoon of soil, he says, has more than 4000 genomes, more than all of the animals on the African Serengeti. 


Jim Amonette at the Department of Energy   

Climate change and biochar are his passions.


Jim Amonette, one of the earliest U.S. leaders in biochar, works as a soil chemist with the Department of Energy at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state.  He has a passion for biochar, calling it one of the few things that will help lower the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Climate change has his attention.

He says today's public opinion is definitely at a tipping point, one that needs attention in the next ten years, hopefully, the next five years.  He draws an analogy to the state of American public opinion before Pearl Harbor over whether to join Europe and Asia in a war against the Fascist states.  With the attack at Pearl Harbor, the great debate in America ended and American public opinion became focused on winning WWII.  The mobilization was phenomenal.  That level of mobilization needs to happen again to fight climate change, he says.

The insurance companies are well aware of the problem as they see the increase in violent storms and the changing world climate conditions.  The big banks also know about this as a tipping point, he says.  It is, he thinks, only a matter of time before public opinion and those interests prevail over the fossil fuel interests.  But that will that change come in time to make a difference?  "Here's the deal," he says.  "There's a race between 1) a sudden disaster involving climate change that might, for instance, involve Greenland ice blocking the Gulf Stream and freezing Europe, and 2) a slower, more sinister change that involves the release of methane stored in ice at the bottom of the oceans."  The sudden disaster would likely mobilize public opinion in the same way that Pearl Harbor did and give us some chance of winning the fight.  Amonette is hoping it doesn't get to the slow change because with ocean methane release, there is no way to stop it and the resulting 10 to 15 degree F increase in earth temperature would likely persist for hundreds of thousands of years.

For biochar's role, Amonette visualizes setting up a dozen field sites globally, working to develop the best pyrolysis processes and biochars from local feedstocks, and then testing them for crop responses and environmental impacts on the soils located at each site.  In less than a decade, we would know where and how to implement biochar for maximal effect, he says.  He thinks biochar will work well to improve yields from highly leached, acidic soils in the Amazon, parts of Africa, and the SE part of the U.S., and is ideal for high-value vegetable crops in California, Australia and parts of China.  He will be attending the IBI biochar conference in Beijing and considers understanding how biochar interacts with soil to be cutting edge work in soil chemistry.

Sustainable biochar is the goal, he says, using waste materials as feedstocks.  In addition to improved soil fertility and CO2 sequestration, biochar will also prevent mass migrations and support social stability.  The trick is to change the productivity of the soil so that there is a more rapid payback in productivity that will encourage economic movement toward biochar.

Amonette doesn't know what it will take to focus Americans.  You can imagine him scrunching his six-foot-tall, thin body towards you and squinting his hazel eyes.  Maybe it's "a road to Damascus kind of thing," he says.  "It has to hit Americans, like it hit me in 2005; it's a conversion of thinking."

Here's a link to a biochar article by Amonette and his co-workers Dominic Woolf, Alayne Street-Perrott, Johannes Lehmann, and Stephen Joseph: 



   We Test ...


Josh Kearns on drinking water, pesticides and biochar 

The University of Colorado-Boulder has research on pesticide removal from drinking water using biochar.  This is a follow-up, including a video and a handbook. 


In response to the October 2011 newsletter, USBI got an email from a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado-Boulder.  Josh Kearns is in Environmental Engineering for Developing Countries there and, in an interview, reports that he has been doing research on biochar for household water treatment. 


The resultant biochar reduced the common pesticide 2,4D levels in water to 3 or 5 micrograms per liter from a 100 micrograms starting level.  He makes the point that U.S. levels of 70 micrograms and International levels of 30 micrograms per liter are the standards for drinking water levels of 2,4D contamination.  He considers 3 or 5 micrograms a highly successful result.


Kearns says NGOs and missionary groups in developing countries are "generally blind to chemical contaminants in drinking water," concentrating instead on pathogens.  He says, after using the biochar he proposes in the simple filter system, it is then buried as a soil amendment.

He has worked in Thailand in the Burma border area since 2006.  He says four  thousand-year-old Sanskrit documents describe the use of charcoal for purifying water for religious purposes.  He and his colleagues like the local, low-tech environmental quality of these simple filter solutions to contaminated drinking water.

Unlike his simple solutions, he says the "activated carbon" in commercial drinking water purification products usually uses chemicals, lignite or bituminous coal to create "activation" on an industrial scale.

He shares a wonderfully clear video on production of gasifier biochar to be used for water filters.   He also provides a link to a handbook that is found on the Aqueous Solutions website. 


Other resources:

There are a number of research papers available from Cornell University and other scholarly sources on the USBI website: 


World-wide, the interest in biochar is heating up, 


USBI Newsletter Archive:seven 

June 2011 USBI Newsletter 

August 2011 USBI Newsletter 

October 2011 USBI Newsletter 

December 2011 USBI Newsletter

February 2012 USBI Newsletter  



Here are youtube biochar presentations by Gloria Flora from March 2011 (Please consider sharing your biochar photos/videos on this new youtube channel; use our website or this contact email to talk with us about that): 

What is biochar? 

Who thought of biochar? 

Biochar done sustainably  


Also, there is a EcoTechnologies Group video on youtube from September 2010 showing a biochar trip to the Amazon that includes climbing down ladders into Terra Preta pits.   


Here's a wonderful BBC video of Jason Aramburu, CEO of re:char and a member of USBI's advisory board, in W. Kenya talking about biochar:   


We Work ... 

 USBI Feedstocks 


The Montana bitterroot flower

Help "feed" USBI with contributions of articles, ideas, donations, gifts of planted trees and book purchases. 


We'd love to hear from you.  And please share this with friends.  


 Until we have our on-line store set-up, email your order to   

 Or, order by mail to USBI, P.O. Box 1424, Helena, MT 59624  



Arbor Day gifts of trees planted in the Helena National Forest     

USBI has arranged with the Helena National Forest to plant up to 2000 trees in the Cave Gulch - Maudlow Tosten Fire Rehabilitation area of that forest.  Depending on the variety they plant (ponderosa pine, douglas fir, lodge pole pine, or spruce), this could cover five to ten acres.


Some nonprofit organizations sell trees as fundraisers and suggest charging $6 for a tree that you then have to plant yourself.  We propose to sell a $5 PLANTED tree to you to give to loved ones.   


When you order (please note we can't promise a specific species), you can use the post office box or the "ask_us" email link above.  You can also use the Donate button at the top of this newsletter or this link  and then go down to the "designation" box to chose "gift trees".  If you want us to send the recipient of the gift a card from us, please also go to the "ask_us" email link, above, or use that service at the link just above.    


Is this a deal or what?  And you are helping the earth in the climate change challenge.   


Books Available - PRICE REDUCTIONS!  

The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change by Albert Bates (New Society publishers, BC Canada, 2010)

Our price: $15.00

List price: $17.95

S&H: $2.50  

$17.50 total   


Biochar for Environmental Management edited by Johannes Lehmann and Stephen Joseph (Earthscan, London/Washington, D.C., 2010)

Our price: $58.00  - $6 LESS THAN AMAZON!! 

List price: $80.00

S&H: $5.00  

$ 63.00 total  


The Biochar Debate: Charcoal's Potential to Reverse Climate Change and Build Soil Fertility by James Bruges (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2009)

Our price: $12.00  

List price: $14.95  

S&H: $2.50

$ 14.50 total    

Thanks for all you do!



Director, U.S. Biochar Initiative


In this issue:

2012 National USBI Conference at Sonoma, CA

Biochar Pioneer Interviews: Kelpie Wilson, Erich Knight, Jeff Wallin

World Ag Expo- biochar was there

Josiah Hunt in Hawaii, a TEDx presentation

Hal Collins, studies, ARS-USDA

Jim Amonette, studies, Dept. of Energy

Josh Kearns, practical video and handbook on biochar drinking water filters

Arbor Day gift: a tree planted in a National Forest for a loved one and the Earth

Archive of past USBI newsletters

youtube videos on biochar