Low tech biochar in Thai sustainable rural development & global warming mitigation

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 Thai Biochar Initiative (ThBI) is one such sib-project and will test the UBI concept under the diverse tropical ecological and social environments present in Thailand. After an initial period of ground-truthing selected adaptations of biochar production and application under local conditions, the program will transition 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 in a timely fashion.

The initial test site and pilot community are being set up at Pala Uu, west of Hua Hin near the Myanmar boarder in southern Thailand where Professor Thavivongse Sriburi (Director, Environmental Research Institute, Chulalongkorn University, & Director, ThBI) is setting up a research site for testing biochar as a soil additive in the local small farm cropping regimes. The local Village Headman, on his own initiative, came to our informal biochar production demonstration and indicated his determination to organize the first pilot community for ThBI.  In addition, a concept summary for establishing a site in NE Thailand has been prepared.

Biochar for rural development and global warming mitigation is a new field in Thailand and there is not a developed constituency for it. We welcome interested researchers, community developers, volunteers and funders to work with us.
For more information contact (English) Karl Frogner or (Thai) Thavivongse Sriburi

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 CO2that 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 CO2 pollution. 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.

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 CO2 production. 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.

To read more about making biochar with a Hollow Core Unit, click here.

For more information contact Karl Frogner