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Working with Biochar Stoves in Central America

The information below is provided courtesy of Scott Eaton who is heading a SeaChar project of working with pyrolysis stoves in Central America.  In early August 2009, he went to Nicaragua with a portable, efficient, pyrolyzing stove (photos and brief explanatory captions for the first model)

September Update

August 2009:

The primary purpose of this aspect of the project is to gain feedback on the kitchen-worthiness of the "Anila" design and to determine more accurate information on the following:Nicaraguan man with biochar

  • Wood fuel savings
  • Biochar production quantities
  • Carbon emissions reductions
  • Suitable crop and forestry wastes
  • Integration with composting and waste management systems
  • Local sourcing of materials

(For rough estimates of the Anila's fuel savings, biochar production, and carbon emissions reductions for a model Agros community and Agros as a whole, here's a Google spreadsheet - disclaimer: it's adapted from SCAD's Anila estimates, and somewhat rudimentary at the moment.)

This broad base of feedback and data can is intended to be collected during meal cooking/stove demonstration sessions. I will be living in peaceful agrarian communities where I already have established bonds and open lines of communication with families and community leaders. Through these introductory discussions I hope to directly acknowledge the largest hurdles to overcome in order to get the best stoves on the ground in future visits.

It's when I'm not cooking or involved in others' cooking that your donations can really make a difference. With your financial support, and technical assistance from SeaChar, we can put kilns in Agros communities that will serve as the foundation for "carbonerias" that will do the following:

  • Produce substantial initial quantities of biochar to incorporate into soils for model test plots. The initial plots will be monitored over the coming seasons for yield comparisons primarily to determine mineral fertilizer savings.
  • Remain on site after my departure for continued usage by community residents and integration into composting systems for further trials.
  • Provide a model for reproduction by community residents, and thus a tool for further grassroots technological and economic development. 

The scale of these trials will be determined primarily by the type of kiln we are able to construct, which is dependent upon how much money I can raise before I leave. SeaChar's founders have invaluable experience in designing efficient, high capacity, low-cost kilns based around materials readily available abroad, and will make sure we get the most bang for the buck. They're familiar with a broad spectrum of others' designs, from the cheaper ARTI kiln, to Kelpie's $365 Retort, to the more expensive Adam Retort, and everywhere in-between. With their help stateside over the following month, I'm confident I can get the best possible carbonerias up and running during the month and a half when I will be working (around the clock) in Nicaragua.

At this point it might help to offer a little relevant background, and explain how I'm looking forward. Two summers ago I worked with Agros in two of their nascent Nicaraguan communities to plan and design their agricultural infrastructure. This included the creation of construction documents, materials lists, and cost estimates for a coffee processing facility and composting toilets. Working with community residents to build one of the toilets was the real highlight, however, because the design has caught on and they've built more of them. I wish I could spend more time getting dirt under my finger nails on this trip, but in mid-September I'm beginning a two-year Master's program in Environmental Science and Management at the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara. One of my colleagues from my first trip to Nicaragua has offered his support to check the progress of this project in December, and I look forward to an even more productive follow up trip next summer.

This has turned out to be a rather long post for a project summary, but I hope it will inspire you to get involved. A couple people have offered up $100, and I hope their generosity inspires you. Please, if you have specific questions or comments, post them, email me, or call me. Thank you for your interest, and I look forward to your input.

Development Projects Coordinator, SeaChar

P.S. If you've offered financial support, you'll be contacted shortly regarding SeaChar's upcoming web-based donation collection service.

September Update

Field Update: SeaChar´s Central America BioChar Stove Pilot Project

Buenos dias from Matagalpa, Nicaragua!  One week into our partnership with Agros International and Groundwork Opportunities, there are promising signs of growth and progress for biochar producing stoves in Central America. The foundation for an understanding of the soil-improvement potential of biochar and combustion principles of the Anila stove has been laid, and the citizens of Agros´community of San Jose are eager to learn more about how SeaChar´s technology can directly improve their lives.  The smoke that constantly billows out from the kitchens of the 25 families in this community might soon be a thing of the past, and there´s hope that in the coming years, those burdensome fertilizer costs can be reduced signicantly. After the first round of stove demos, there are less concerns about usability, with one village resident commenting, "using this stove is completely easy." The stove and the biochar it produces are constantly referred to as "bonito," meaning "pretty" or "nice."

Men, women, and children all share a common curiousity, as the benefits of the stove can affect them all.  Even though the women do the great majority of the cooking, the men appreciate the fact that it burns so cleanly. When the first charred corn husks and other agricultural wastes came out of the stove, it was apparent even to some of the kids that this could easily be added to the community´s organic fertilizer mix (called "bocache") or used in their family´s composting toilet. The stage is being set for the first batch of Anila stoves to be produced locally here in Matagalpa, thanks to the financial support of Groundwork Opportunities. From there the community can experiment with a variety of different biomass uses in the stove and set up plots to measure soil fertility improvements using different charred agricultural wastes in various combinations. We have a lot to learn, and I have less then three weeks left to set the citizens of San Jose on the right track with this technology, but the only way to go is up.  Here´s to the promise of "el biocarbón!"  Look out for more updates in the coming weeks. Until then, Scott Eaton

SeaChar.Org, all photos courtesy of Scott Eaton.