Low tech biochar in Mongolian sustainable rural development

In his keynote address for the ‘09 Asia Pacific Region Biochar Conference, Professor Lehmann indicated that he felt that the greatest potential for global warming mitigation through the sequestration of biochar lay in the utilization of distributed feedstock. UB International (UBI) is a program dedicated to testing the concept that such feedstock can be utilized to significantly contribute to global warming mitigation through low tech biochar production in sustainable rural development amongst small scale farmers, herders and forestry workers and hopes to develop a network of sib-projects to first ground truth the concept and then begin its initiation.

The Mongolian Biochar Initiative (MoBI) is the first such sib-project and will test the UBI concept under a steppe/taiga environment with a transition in year 4 (to be continued as ongoing work) to a communities-mentoring-communities phase in keeping with UBI’s goal of initiating a geometric growth of biochar production and sequestration around the world from distributed feedstock so as to make a significant contribution to global warming.

MoBI originated as a consortium of 3 local NGOs – Mongolian Women’s Farmer Association (MWFA), which works with single women families in the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar, primarily teaching them to grow vegetables for better nutrition and added income; People Centered Conservation in Mongolia (PCC), which works with rural community development in general; and Snow Leopard Conservation Fund (SLCF), which is working with herding communities in snow leopard conservation efforts – and a research unit of the Mongolian State University of Agriculture. This consortium, MoBI, which has grown with the addition of several more organizations and is actively recruiting others for cooperative projects, is focused on testing and implementing the UBI concept in the Mongolian situation. A 4 year MoBI proposal to that end has been accepted by the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) as the Mongolia contribution to the IBI Nine Country Program and work has been initiated by one of the NGOs (MWFA) through a startup grant provided by the Australian embassy.

For more information contact Karl Frogner.

For information in Mongolian, please see the following:

2012 Update

The year for MoBI began with the Ag Engineering Department of Mongolian State University of Agriculture (MSUA, a founding member organization of MoBI) preparing, under the direction of Professor B. Munkhbat, an outdoor facility for running tests on the UB JR 200 l TLUD Biochar Oven test-bed and biochar production. He as well included low tech biochar oven engineering in their regular Ag Engineering course work by having students fabricated their own UB JR ovens. Some of these ovens were used in subsequent tests including runs in which probes were used to obtain internal temperature profiles of the oven feedstock chamber and afterburner (see production & application report below).

This was followed by the signing of an official Cooperative Program between the MSUA  and UB International (UBI, also a founding member organization of MoBI) to peruse overlapping goals of the basic MoBI objectives of implementing the UBI concept and specific goals of MSUA related to biochar (creating a research biochar production facility to facilitate their planed biochar grow-out testing program for steppe management, smallholder farming and reforestation as well as developing units for intermediate level commercial production).

The biochar production facility program is implementing a three pronged approach: 1. An integrated multi oven set of low tech, batch process, 200 l biochar ovens; 2. A mid tech, village to small business level continuous feed, rotary hearth, retort unit; 3. A mid tech, village to small business level continuous feed, rotary hearth, gasifier unit.

Various low tech oven designs for the first unit have already been developed (see production & application report below) and are being refined and are entering the char testing phase. This strategy is also being perused because it offers the advantage of exploring the economics of a dispersed production approach that may well fit feedstock availability characteristics of the Mongolian situation.

The two continuous flow rotary hearth kiln designs are currently in the initial design phase. They are being perused to allow the facility to have a higher unit production rate with greater flexibility of feedstock type and char consistency combined with flexibility of char characteristics. They are also expected to yield prototypes for commercial production of units particularly adapted to Mongolian fabrication technology and practices as well as being useful in the Mongolian economic situation. It is to be seen if one design has clear advantages or whether they have complementary differences that would justify developing both designs.

In additional to MoBI’s continuing outreach to individuals, NGOs and government institutions, a special test run of the new UB J-RO oven with interchangeable primary air port grids was arranged as a demonstration for personnel from the Ministry of Economic Development, Division of Innovation and High Technology.

A report entitled LOW TECH PRODUCTION AND APPLICATION OF BIOCHAR IN MONGOLIA was compiled on work that has been done by MoBI members on:

  • A comparitive one month October winter wheat grow-out with and without biochar,
  • A comparitive one season grow-out test with and without biochar using Impala potatoes,
  • The  hollow core biochar retort oven,
  • The low tech, natural draft metal box retort oven for fine gran feedstock such as sawdust & rice husk,
  • The UB JR test bed natural draft 200 l TLUD biochar oven and its derivitive, the simplified UB J-RO with interchangable primary air ports.

To view the full 15 page report click HERE.

July 2011 Update

The UB JR 200 l Natural Draft TLUD Oven: This winter we have been working on improving the performance of some basic 200 l biochar ovens. We feel that good low tech units in this size range will prove to be the ‘work horse’ units for biochar production for programs that hope to utilize thinly distributed feedstock for biochar production in sustainable rural development, particularly for those such as the UBI concept which aim to leverage this development into significant and timely climate change mitigation.

The core fired 200 l retort oven reported on earlier has been improved, including external integral insulation. One line utilizes a simple ‘3 stone’ fire for bottom and core heating (with pyrolysis gases burned in the core pipe) while a second line is developing a simple stove arrangement for better air management and eventually side heating by separating the insulation from the barrel side and affixing it to the outside of a lightweight cowling with a gap between the barrel and cowling that will serve as a ‘chimney’ for the primary fire and as an secondary fire box. Both designs produce good biochar but require about as much fuel wood as feedstock as well as the attention of an attendant throughout the firing, though a single attendant could attend to 4 or 5 ovens at once.

However, the large amount of biomass consumed in the external heating of the retort oven lead us to begin thinking of the possibility of developing a 200 l TLUD with its efficient use of the generated breakdown products in producing the char. Fortuitously, John Rodgers’ TLUD highlights this type of system. We’ve added upgrades to the air control system, while still keeping it low-tech and simple to construct and use. See pictures and simple instructions below. For additional information and detailed pictures contact Karl Frogner.

Only a power drill and a power grinder are needed to construct this oven, although the student who was doing the metal work had access to a welder and used it to put the handles on the slip rings on the primary air & afterburner air, the male slip coupe for the chimney and the handle for the chimney flue. Easy workarounds could be used if welding is a problem.

We’ve run two trials so far, both with cow manure that was air dried after being shoveled out of the cowshed. Both runs were smokeless. The first, in which a full load of hand  sized to 20-30 x 20-30 x 5-10 cm sized clumps of manure on down ‘burned’ down in 55 min, the second, a full load of fairly uniform 7-10 x 7-10 x 5-10 cm pieces together with the fines from chopping up the larger pieces, ‘burned’ down in 1 hr 40 min. There was no smoke throughout either run. The charing was complete throughout the charge in both runs, slightly oily on the ‘rub on the hand’ rub test.
Another run was made (I was absent) using birch branch & twigs segments (2 cm on down) about 10 cm long. The first time operators had smoke problems, probably caused by difficulties in finding the right air adjustment for keeping the afterburner lit in an exposed site on a windy day, but the char came out good I’m told. Devising a wind shield should not be much of a problem.

We are calling this machine the UB JR 200 l natural draft TLUD oven; or UB T-oven, the t-oven or even the Toven (toven) for short. But please, please, please – don’t call it a stove or a kiln.

I’m using the UB designation to recognize the part the local people in Ulaanbaatar have played in the creativity, work, and support in developing working 200 l biochar ovens, work that has been ongoing over the past several years – JR in recognition of John Rogers’ work in pioneering the low-tech, simple construction, 200 l (55 galon) ‘oil drom’ natural draft TLUD and his unselfish sharing of his work with the interested community. I use the designation ‘oven’ because the primary purpose here is to make serious weight biochar. That is, to bake appreciable amounts of feedstock into biochar, much as an oven bakes dough into bread. Of course there are technical names such as retort, kiln, gasifier, etc that can be used, but ‘oven’ gives a connection to the common man’s understanding. I feel that this latter distinction is important to distinguish these machines (ovens) from cook stoves and the framing that has grown up, that low tech biochar = cook stoves, as well as the more primitive and larger machines designated as ‘kiln’ by IBI. The oven designation is especially important for the recognition and understanding of programs such the UBI concept that are trying to get significant amounts of biochar in the ground in time to help in phase 1 climate change mitigation (see: Hansen, Woolf & Timelines for Biochar Potential: some thoughts. /regional/ubi).

From initial crude estimates we expect that a run should yield approximately 8 – 12 kg of biochar. A single operator using 5 ovens should be able to produce 100 kg in an 8 hr work day, while two operators working on a staggered shift using 7 ovens could produce 250 kg in a 8 hr work day. Such intensive usage would undoubtedly take a heavy toll on ordinary steel drums, but stainless steel barrels could be used for the feedstock chamber and the afterburner for greater longevity. Clearly, for use by most smallholders, biochar production with this type of oven will be feedstock limited, not equipment limited, quite the opposite from the normal situation for cook stoves.

We are very interested in developing these large TLUDs for getting serious amounts of biochar into the ground, leveraging smallholder benefits of biochar in sustainable rural development into timely climate change mitigation. UBI is initiating a sib-project based on a virtual community of people interested in low-tech biochar production, TLUD designers, and tinkers who would want to test, quantify and improve the design and or support this sort of work. Please let us know if you are interested.

Photos courtesy of Karl Frogner

June 2010 Update

We are happy to announce that Byatshandaa of the Mongolian Women Farmer’s Association has received a follow on grant from the Australian Embassy to continue her biochar work on field trials with potatoes and to add the trials to green house conditions in order to extend the short Mongolian vegetable growing season.

Read more about the UBI work with a Hollow Core Fired Biochar Unit.

2009 Update

The Australian embassy was pleased with the results of the training program and grow out work undertaken by MWFA and have invited a continuing proposal. Preliminary analysis of the grow out trial (potatoes, control vs 1 kg/sq m biochar from weathered, mixed pine and larch sawdust processed in a large open bay up draft kiln) yielded a 23% increase in potato yield. In addition there was nearly a 90 fold increase in soil bacteria in the experimental soil as compared to the control at the end of the grow out. Follow on experiments are planned for the next growing season.

The MSUA research group has begun work on improving and testing the two low tech biochar oven designs developed in ’08 at MWFA which was supported by UBI and PCC. These designs will be treated as open source and will be posted on the UBI web site (/regional/ubi). We invite any interested to participate in the improvement and testing of these designs.

students in EBA new local NGO (Mongolian Biochar Association (MBA) and a new University research group (Training and Research Institute of Forestry and Wood Industry, Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST) have joined the MoBI consortium. MBA’s primary interests lie in biochar production and application in reforestation and land reclamation. MUST is submitting a proposal for production and utilization of biochar in Mongolian forest management.

MBA together with MSUA have organized the MSUA Student Biochar Club. They will be involved in the improvement and testing of the biochar ovens. They also organized and participated in the local 1212 demonstration, together with other local environmental groups, to encourage significant progress at the Copenhagen meetings.

The UBI Concept

What is UBI?

The UBI concept involves utilizing the potential of small scale biochar production by third world farmers, forestry laborers, herders and micro-entrepreneurs for soil rejuvenation, reforestation, and income enhancement. Through a program designed to encourage a geometric growth of participating communities by harnessing this potential, a significant contribution to global warming mitigation is to be achieved in combination with ecologically friendly, sustainable rural development.

How is the biochar to be produced?

The primary thrust of the program is towards developing inexpensive, low tech biochar ovens (pyrolysis apparatus or kilns) of between 200 -2000 l (50 – 500 gallon) capacity for family level use. Additionally, under appropriate circumstances a village level or a mobile, moderate technology apparatus might be used.

How is the biochar used?

Initially the biochar would be mixed with the soil to enhance its texture and fertility. This may enhance its water holding capacity and retain natural and added fertilizers, often increasing their effectiveness two or three fold.  Since refractory carbon in biochar mixed with soil has been shown to remain there up to 1,000 years or more and the carbon in biochar comes from CO2 that was in the air and recently taken up by plants, it is the only proven, currently available technology for long term removal of atmospheric CO2. Thus, if biochar were to be produced in large quantities and added to the soil, it would not only increase the soil’s fertility, it would also contribute to global warming mitigation. It has been estimated that high technology biochar production from concentrated biomass sources in the US could offset 30% of the CO2 generated in the US from burning coal, gas and petroleum products. World wide it has been estimated that high tech biochar production and sequestration from concentrated biomass sources could offset up to 1/7th of the world’s human COpollution. If Professor Lehmann’s estimate – that the greatest potential for global warming mitigation through the sequestration of biochar lies in the utilization of distributed feedstock – then an UBI type approach utilizing low tech biochar production from distributed biomass resources around the world should be able to make a contribution similar to or greater than that from concentrated sources.

oven parts

Component parts (l to r): A. Primary air chamber with adjustable slip ring air intake ports; B. 200 l feedstock chamber; C. Afterburner (also with adjustable slip ring intake ports) with chimney.


Chimney damper.

with oven

The circled square pattern of 45 fixed air holes, each 13 mm in diameter, for primary air, on the bottom of the feedstock chamber. The names of those pictured l to r, are Boldkhuu & Bayarsaikhan Narmandakh. Both are graduate students at Mongolia State University of Agriculture helping with the 200 l ovens project. Nara is also Founder & Executive Director of the Mongolian Biochar Association as well as Translator and sometimes Liaison Officer for UB International.


Fully assembled UB JR 200 l natural draft TLUD oven


Burn line 20 min after spreading starting fire coals and putting afterburner/chimney in place. (Coals were spread approximately 10 min after igniting starting fire.) Note the smokeless burn.

How would income be derived from biochar?

Income would be enhanced through the increased productivity of corps raised on biochar treated soils. This alone would justify incorporating biochar production into sustainable rural development. However, if the goal is to maximize biochar production and sequestration in order to significantly contribute to global warming mitigation, a driver must be added to the concept in order to go beyond the 10 ton/ha that usually maximizes plant growth. It has been found that up to 10 times that volume can be sequestered without adversely affecting plant growth. Additionally, biochar could also be sequestered in non crop land.

Marketing carbon credits for biochar added to soil is to serve as such a driver. As envisioned in UBI, carbon credits earned by an individual small scale producer’s biochar production would be marketed through their local marketing organization. This marketing organization would also assure the sustainable production of the biochar and verify the quantity and quality of the biochar as well as its having been properly mixed into the soil for sequestration purposes. The local marketing organization and intermediary organizations would aggregate the individual members’ production credits for not-for-profit brokering on the open market, insuring an equitable share passed back down to the individual producers. To date such a straight forward pass-back of profit for primary work done does not seem to be the norm in the carbon trading markets. It will be one of the objectives of UBI to work with interested rural development and/or environmental organizations to facilitate the development of such market access in the current market as well as getting a significant place for representatives at the table in up-coming conferences where the rules for future carbon trading &/or energy taxes are made.

It should be remembered that when marketed for carbon credits the actual biochar itself is not sold. It need only be sequestered so as not to return to the atmosphere as CO2. Thus it can be applied to the soil to maintain or improve soil quality or be sold to large scale soil improvement projects.

How would UBI combat global warming?

While each low tech producer would probably produce a few to less than 100 tons per year, if practiced widely by small scale farmers, herders, forestry workers and entrepreneurs in developing countries, the aggregate tonnage sequestered could be large and have a significant impact in reducing net yearly COproduction. Demonstrating the concept in select pilot communities and then using these communities to mentor others, which in turn do the same, could start a chain reaction, which if properly encouraged could lead to significant production and sequestration of biochar from distributed sources of biomass. With properly designed programs and carbon offset markets it is thought that this production can rival or exceed that of biochar produced and sequestered from concentrated biomass resources and high tech pyrolysis equipment – and in an ecologically friendly, sustainable way.

While there are currently other rural development programs incorporating the use of low technology biochar and for-profit schemes utilizing high technology pyrolysis in conjunction with concentrated biomass sources, as far as we know we are the only program dedicated specifically towards initiating a programmatic geometric growth of small scale producers in order to maximize sustainable biochar production from the worlds distributed biomass, or for that matter, interested in maximizing production, not profit. This is envisioned as serving as a holding effort while serious efforts to reduce our carbon pollution get underway. We intend to ground truth the concept utilizing pilot communities in various biological and cultural environments, incorporating current and future research results. These communities will serve as the seeds for community-mentoring-community programs to initiate a geometric growth of sustainable biochar production and sequestration from distributed biomass. It is our intention to promote this process until it comes to the attention of the large NGOs, GOs and IGOs with the resources necessary to promote the growth to its sustainable potential and thus expand the window of opportunity for serious general global warming mitigation to take effect. The current insufficient effort on the part of the international community would seem to make this particularly relevant. Once that significant sustainable production and sequestration are achieved and CO2pollution has been abated through the efforts of the world community at large, the developed program can serve as an in-place system for removing the excess CO2 that has accumulated in the atmosphere that will continue to endanger both terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems.

We welcome any interested projects, researchers or volunteers that would care to join with us in making this a significant contribution to global warming mitigation and sustainable rural development.

For more information contact Karl Frogner