Biochar is a great learning tool

You have a chance to get your hands dirty.
It’s an art material.
It’s fun to make because you get to burn stuff.
It’s science, and you can do valuable experiments to see how plants grow when you add biochar and other amendments to their soil–and you can learn about the carbon cycle and biochar’s role in helping to slow global warming.

Teachers and students are starting to discover biochar as a wonderful new classroom project. Older kids are doing science fair projects. If your classroom is doing a biochar science project, or you know of a student who would like his or her work featured here, please contact us.

Teacher Resources:

NASA Biochar Educational Materials
Lead by Doris Hamill of NASA, this group of educational materials is suitable for grades K – 12 and covers all aspects of biochar–from properties, sustainability, production and use.

Green Teacher Magazine September 2012 article

Hands-on Learning with Biochar by Darlyn Wendlandt and Kelpie Wilson. Explore this type of charcoal and associated emerging technology that can absorb carbon in the atmosphere and help plants grow.

Smithsonian “DIG IT” Soil Exhibit

Soil is more than just dirt! Visit the Smithsonian exhibit website to find resources for educators and information about the Terra Preta soils of the Amazon.

Pili (Canarium ovatum) Shells Biochar as Home-Site Water Purification System for Water Contaminated with Insecticide (Malathion) report wins regional science fairs in the Philippines

groupA project team from Vinzons Pilot High School, IV-Ampere (the Philippines) composed of Mirasol M. Guinto, Mavy Ngo, Xeneth Avellana, Geraldine Ivy Ibasco and Belle Gail Gan was submitted as an entry to the Division and Regional Science and Technology Fair. On October 26, 2014, the research paper won the First Place under the Individual Category. Then on, November 19-21, 2014, it again won the First Place at the Regional Contest held at the RELC, Legazpi City. Furthermore, the Research paper is qualified to be an entry to another national science contest.

The project team used only locally available materials such as the pili shells, and had a highly effective result of  99. 931% elimination of Malathion insecticide residue. They hope their work will enable other poor families in distress create their own water purification systems using their equivalent local materials. To read the report in full, please download here.

The Water, The Waste and the Wetland Project wins at Colorado State Science Fair

Ms. Lenka Doskocil has conducted biochar experiments for 3 years in a row with biochar and won at the Regional science fair and placed 4th in her division at the Colorado State Science fair last year. Her first project was looking at beans in biochar, and this last year was using biochar in a wetland to filter acid mine drainage and agricultural waste water. A synopsis of the report is below and can be downloaded here.

This investigation was conducted in order to discover if the natural wetland filtering process improves the quality of contaminated water, and if so, does the addition of biochar or calcium oxide to a wetland’s soil enhance filtering success. Such an experiment is important because clean water is a limited resource critical to humans and the environment. As the human population grows, the amount of waste it produces also grows, much of which is then dispersed into rivers, streams, and lakes. It is essential to discover a natural method to deal with this problem.

“The Beauty of Biochar” project wins first place in Seattle Science Fair

Miss Bryn Templeton won First Place in the 8th grade category of the Catharine Blaine School Science and Engineering Fair 2012; the project then went on to place Best Overall in the 8th grade category of the district-wide Seattle Public Schools science fair in June 2012. Her project was titled, “The Beauty of Biochar”, and was initially winnerinspired by her science teacher’s mention of efficient stoves in developing countries.

Miss Templeton chose biochar as a subject after looking over materials from ETHOS 2012, and wondering what kind of carbon-negative impact could be had by pyrolizing everyday waste. With some help and a custom-built refractory-and-can retort, she tested grass clippings, pine needles, citrus peels, etc. She computed that 6 million tons of net CO2 emissions could be avoided in the USA alone by pyrolizing just lawn grass clippings and citrus industry juicing waste. Templeton found that her presentation introduced the concept of biochar to her fellow students and after her class presentation, she was eagerly asked by several students, “where can I get some?”.

A brief summary of her research follows:
“My hypothesis stated that the citrus peel would make the most biochar and decrease the most emissions due to its weight. Because a data’s value relies so heavily on the method of the experiment, I was extremely careful when measuring. My data shows that in fact, the eggshells made the most amount of biochar, yet the grass clippings could potentially save the most amount of CO2. This could be because there is just so much yard waste in the United States. It has nothing to do with the weight of the biomass, more the type of biomass you decide to pyrolyze. There were many failures in this project; in fact, I tried to pyrolyze coffee grounds and wood chips as well. They did not pyrolyze very well at all, which was because they were so dense. After trying several times, I decided to pyrolyze different things.

As well as completing this experiment, I have learned a great deal about biochar in general and how it could affect the planet. As is shown in my analysis, spreadsheets, and graphs, the Florida orange industry alone could be responsible for saving 1,512,000 tons of CO2 if they pyrolyzed their dry citrus waste. Added on to the 4,428,432 tons of CO2 saved from pyrolyzing dry grass clippings in the United States, you have a grand total of nearly 6 million tons saved from being emitted. If added on to, say, anything in the world that is currently being land filled or composted, there could be so much more that would be saved. And if everyone found it possible to keep pyrolyzing, we could cut down emissions by a colossal amount.”

Photos and diagrams are courtesy of Miss Templeton (from the top): science fair entry; retort diagram; pine needle char in can.

Research on the Effect of Biochar on the Root Development of Corn and Soybeans in Minnesota Soil and Sand

Eighth grader Teresa Howard performed in-depth research on the effect of biochar on the root development of corn and soybeans in MN soil and sand. She received analytical support from Catherine Brewer from the Biorenewables Lab at Iowa State University in Ames, IA. Ms. Howard attended the regional and state science fair with her research (see abstract below) or click here for the full research paper.

Biochar is the product of organic material, like wood, that is burned in a low oxygen environment. This results in a charcoal that acts as a carbon sink for high concentrations of environmental carbon dioxide. It is thought to serve a myriad of functions that aid in plant growth and development such as housing microorganisms and fostering their growth, and assisting in water and nutrient absorption and retention. The effect of three concentrations of biochar (1.5%, 3%, and 6% by weight) on the root growth of corn and soybean plants in Minnesota soil and sand was investigated. The dry root biomass of the corn and soybean plants was measured at 27 days of growth. Soil pH and electrical conductivity was measured in the soil and sand samples. Of the four trials conducted for each percentage of biochar, the corn in sand at 3% biochar resulted in the greatest dry root biomass weight. The trend for corn was an increase in root biomass with an increase in biochar up to 3.0%, followed by a decrease in root biomass with a further increase in biochar to 6.0%. The 1.5% biochar trials in sand had the greatest dry root biomass in soybeans. The trend for soybeans was similar to corn in MN soil, but differed in sand with the peak root biomass occurring at 1.5% biochar, followed by a decline with 3.0 and 6.0% biochar to below control root biomass. Soil and sand pH levels increased with biochar due to its basic nature. Root biomass for both soybeans and corn increased in accordance with pH up to a level of 3.0% biochar then decreased with an increase in biochar and pH levels. As the electrical conductivity in the soil and sand increased with an increase in biochar, root biomass increased up to a biochar level of 3.0% and then decreased as the biochar level increased to 6.0% and electrical conductivity increased as well. The exception was corn in MN soil where the electrical conductivity decreased in tandem with the decrease in root biomass peaking at 3.0% biochar. The data supports the idea that biochar does improve the root growth of corn and soybeans up to a certain concentration. It is possible that the increased pH and the increased amount of ions (as measured by electrical conductivity) available in the soil and sand due to the presence of biochar benefited the plants with increased uptake of nutrients, better water retention and increased microbial activity. However, at a certain point, the amount of biochar appears to have become a negative factor on plant growth. This could be a result of too many ions, increasing basicity of the sand or soil, too much retention of nutrients by biochar or potentially toxic ions or microbes present in biochar. I would recommend repeating this experiment with a greater number of samples to increase the statistical strength of the results, as well as increasing the grow time. Tests could also be conducted to determine the types of ions and microbes present in the soil and sand with biochar addition.

Biochar Program at the Dome School in Oregon, USA

The Dome School in Cave Junction, Oregon is a private school of 25 students aged 6-10 located in a rural setting. The spring 2010 program theme of biochar took a comprehensive “Molecules to Money” approach.

Beginning with the study of elements and molecules, we learned that carbon is in all living things and their food, including sugar! Modeling a carbon atom and a sugar molecule with gumdrops and toothpicks was an enjoyable lesson. From molecules, we moved on to the carbon cycle. What is carbon dioxide?  How can we detect it? A few easy experiments from Janice Van Cleave’s book, Chemistry for Every Kid answered our questions. The students learned that all living things are part of the carbon cycle and that carbon can be stored for very long periods of time.
modeling sugar  biochar stories
All living things have a story; so there are many stories to be found in the carbon cycle. Students traced a CO2 molecule on its path through the bodies of plants and animals, geological formations, human machinery and the atmosphere. Our human role in the carbon cycle is a very important part of the story and we learned that while modern humans mostly add carbon to the atmosphere, the indigenous Amazonians knew how to put carbon in soil where it could help feed them with abundant crops. We studied myths and legends from Amazonia and the children wrote their own legends about the origins of the Terra Preta. They used some of our homemade charcoal to create illustrations to accompany the stories.

We made charcoal in small “Top-Lit Updraft” gasifier stoves and some of the students constructed their own stoves from tin cans. This activity involves a lot of teacher supervision and should only be tried in small groups. Instructions for making the stove are on the Dome School wiki site, How to Make a Biochar Stove.
making TLUD  transplants
Because our biochar-making stoves were not completed until the end of the year and we needed biochar sooner than that, we used a commercial hardwood lump BBQ charcoal in our biochar plant experiments. Our biochar experiment revealed that at high concentrations, this biochar had an inhibiting effect on plant growth, most likely because the BBQ charcoal is high in volatile matter (sensibly, since this charcoal is made for energy and not soil). The volatile matter is like raw compost – as microbes consume it, they draw nitrogen from the soil, depriving the plants. However, when we used smaller amounts to transplant seedlings for our plant sale, we had good results. You will find a complete write-up on our biochar experiment and results at the Dome School wiki. See our guide: How to Use Biochar in School Experiments.

The Dome School Plant Sale gave us a chance to display our work to the community. The students sold the plants they had nurtured in the school greenhouse along with biochar art cards, bags of biochar and biochar tin can stoves. They took in more than $400 and each child received a profit of $10. This real-world exercise mirrors in many ways the struggles of the emerging biochar industry. Dome School students had to confront similar issues of how to characterize and label their biochar product, determine costs and set prices.

UPDATE: Team Wins More Prizes; Talks to German Parliament about Terra Preta

Bad Essen prize winners Carolin Mietrup and Torben Brill
The team was awarded a bronze medal for their combined project of earthworms and Terra Preta: “How can Earthworms and Terra Preta contribute to Climate Protection” at the 18th International Environmental Project Olympiad in Istanbul (May 19th to 22nd). The Terra Preta team has also been invited to present their project before the jury of the Federal Environmental Competition in Germany, which means that they have been short listed for 1st prize in that competition.

A few weeks ago the team also sent an email briefly explaining the concept of Terra Preta to all 600 members of the German parliament in Berlin. That got them an invitation to visit Berlin and explain it in more detail at a session of the Parliament’s environmental committee. We hope that this will give a boost to knowledge about Terra Preta to as many federal representatives as possible and maybe spawn some more projects in this field on a federal level.

Photo: Bronze medal winners Carolin Mietrup and Torben Brill

Different Methods of Biochar Production Wins Second Prize at German National Science Fair (“Jugend forscht”); Bad Essen, Germany

Biochar in use in a field.
Three students from the German grammar school in Bad Essen (State of Lower Saxony, where “Bad” is the German word for “spa”), Torben Brill, Sebastian Klefoth and Kevin Pawlak, will be competing in an environmental competition on the federal level here in Germany after winning second place at the district National Science Fair. The team, along with teacher Wolfgang Potratz, will present a combined earthworm and biochar project at the International Environmental Project Olympiad in Istanbul from May 19 to 22, 2010. The team was chosen to represent Germany by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

A lot of people were very impressed when the students produced biochar at the exhibition, using different methods, ranging from the barrel-in-barrel method to a version of the Anila Stove. In their laudatory speech the jury especially mentioned that the students managed to improve on some of the existing designs.  The barrel stove has a barrel-in-barrel method of producing 5 to 8 kilogrammes of biochar at a time. Although the fire is burning inside, there is no visible smoke. Only a little smoke is given off at the very beginning of the process and there may be a short while in between, when puffs of brownish smoke escape from the chimney. See the video below.

The project also highlighted the concept of Terra Preta, which was met with a lot of interest. To continue the research in Terra Preta, the students will cooperate with an agricultural training school in the north of Osnabrueck and the Osnabrueck University of Applied Sciences.taking the tempurature

For more information contact Torben

Photos courtesy of Wolfgang Potratz.

Top: Sebastian, Torben and Kevin (from left), students at Bad Essen grammar school.

Bottom: The temperature at top of Anila Stove can be 670°C or higher.

Michael Martin: Biochar Pot Trials In Pennsylvania, USA

Michael Martin wins first prizeMichael Martin is an eighth grade student at York Suburban Middle School in York, Pennsylvania.  Last summer (July 2009), he saw a program on the Discovery Network, Ecopolis:  A World of Trash which sparked his interest in biochar. Michael decided to do some experiments on his own to give biochar a try. Says Michael, “My grandparents have a lot of yard debris from trees and gardening and a burn barrel. I didn’t know anything about biochar before this so I wasn’t really sure if my results would match up to what I was reading. It was really fun to see the plants germinating and growing.  No question, biochar is a winner!! Go Green! (My grandparents really appreciate what I did because now they have a good way to use their burning residue).”

Based on the results of his experiments, he wrote up a project called “Biochar, Plant Growth, and Soil Nutrients” and submitted it to his school’s science fair. Local college professors judged the 7th and 8th grade projects and Michael’s was awarded a first place score of 100% and best of botany. At the county-level fair in March 2010, Michael won a first prize in the junior (7-8th grade) level at the York County Science and Engineering Fair. There were 15 first prizes out of about 150 division entrants. Photo courtesy of Michael Martin.

side by side experimentsThe purpose of Michael’s experiment was to determine if soil amended with different amounts of biochar would affect soil pH and retention of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. The experiment was also designed to compare germination and plant growth in biochar-amended soil with plants grown in unamended soil. Biochar was added to soil at the rate of 10 per cent and 20 per cent by volume. Unamended soil served as the control. Five seeds were planted in each of four pots containing the three types of soil. The seeds and  plants were monitored for forty-three days.

Photo: C is the control; A is the 10% biochar; B is the 20% biochar, courtesy of Michael Martin

  • Germination was recorded by day and soil type. Growth was measured every three days after a plant initially measured 1 cm. The germination of seeds in the control soil exceeded the biochar amended soils. 16 or 80% of the control plants grew compared to 10 or 50% of the plants in the 10% soil and 11 or 55% of the plants in the 20% soil.
  • Growth: The plants in the biochar soil were much larger than the control. On day 43, the control plants averaged 5.5 cm, the 10% soil averaged 7.8 cm plants, and the 20% soil averaged 8.9 cm plants.
  • Soils: Biochar also maintained or increased soil pH, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium with the greatest increase in phosphorous (which more than doubled) in both biochar-amended soils. The addition of biochar increased pH, produced larger plants, and maintained or increased soil levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium while seed germination rates lagged behind the control.

Biochar Projects at Heritage High School, Washington, USA

Under the direction of teacher Darlyn Wendlandt, Heritage High School students in the US state of Washington are making biochar and baking cookies with the waste heat from the process. They built a retort kiln from an oil drum with a brick enclosure. The welding class did the retort fabrication. Students produced a video report on the test firing and cookie baking that you can see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Gbc13nbgPQ

Wendlandt reports that students started the project for a contest called Imagine Tomorrow, but it has grown and will now be integrated into Heritage High School’s other green projects, including the Biodiesel and Composting programs. The students have high hopes for the usefulness of this project and hope that as a result, more people will understand the world’s energy challenges and attempt to combat them.

After the first successful firing of the kiln, additional projects are being planned. Students want to modify the vent to capture some of the gas and use it to heat the school greenhouse, and they want to try some new feedstocks, like the glycerin waste from the biodiesel process and paper garbage. The school makes biodiesel from waste cooking oil collected from the school kitchens.

Daryln Wendlandt is looking for help and advice for Heritage High’s Biochar project. She asks: “Do you know of any experiments that are using waste products like paper and cardboard? We are starting a large scale recycling program on campus and have found that you can’t recycle the cardboard “boats” that the lunches are served in because they are considered “contaminated” after they touch food.  I thought that we could use that type of fuel in our biochar process so that it doesn’t go into a landfill. Before we begin burning this stuff, we are trying to find out about chemicals or toxins that may be part of their makeup.

In addition to trying new feedstocks, the agriculture teacher will start a biochar soil testing experiment. The school hopes to use biochar on a large scale in the community garden planned to start this spring.

Wendlandt said the students are very interested in biochar. She said “This is more than just a science experiment. We want to implement this process as a permanent solution to school waste disposal. One of our goals is to help reduce costs of operating the school, by promoting sustainable energy, and save on waste disposal costs, since deep budget cuts have affected our school options and operations.”

Wendlandt is looking for help from those who have information and ideas to share. She also notes that teachers are not funded for these projects and provide most of the materials out of their own pockets. She is looking for small grants or other funding to keep the program going. You can contact Darlyn Wendlandt at darlyn.wendlandt@evergreenps.org or the entire class at: heritagebiochar@gmail.com.

working together

loading wood

Biochar Cookies

acob Gordon, Florida, USA: Research Project on Biochar Feedstocks

Jacob Gordon is currently in eigth grade at Westwood Middle School, and recently conducted an experiment that won first prize in Environmental Sciences in the Science Fair. He is next participating in the Regional Science Fair on February 25, 2010 at Santa Fe College.

Says Jacob: “I really want to see biochar become more popular and used, for maybe soon enough the word “biochar” won’t be marked incorrectly spelled on Microsoft Word or TextEdit. My grandfather, Alex Green, has been working wih biochar since the 1990’s, and continues to work with it today. He invented the Green Pyrolyzer Gasifier, a special version of the process of pyrolysis and gasification. He interested me in biochar when talking about it at family holidays. When I told him I wanted to base my science fair experiment on it, he was willing to help. He supplied me with a small pyrolyzer oven that worked throughout the span of my testing. I thank him for supplying me with the equipment and inspiring me to learn more about biochar. I am also starting a low-scale business in which I will sell biochar to people who would use for their yards or in potted plants, and my grandfather is giving me some biochar to help get it started.”

waste material resultsJacob’s project was testing which waste material would create the greatest amount of biochar. In his oven, he pyrolyzed saw dust, pine bark, horse manure, dead cherry leaves, pine needles, and newspaper. To conduct this experiment, he measured the mass of the product before and after pyrolysis, and calculated the percent yield, or percentage that came out of the waste material as biochar. He hypothesized that the pine bark would be most successful (highest % of biochar yield), due to its high carbon and lignin content. However, he found that the horse manure resulted in the greatest amount of biochar. Although it had the lowest carbon content than the other materials, it was 2.4% nitrogen, whereas the others had less than 0.1%. The amount of organic wastes in manure resulted in less becoming gas during pyrolysis. The least successful was the saw dust, with a small amount of carbon and no nitrogen whatsoever.

To see specific results from each of the feedstocks, click on one of the links below:

Jessica Kuipers and Jennine Boyce, Ontario, Canada: Making Biochar and Performing Pot Trials

Biochar Science DisplayJessica Kuipers and Jennine Boyce, are students at East Northumberland Secondary School in Ontario, Canada. They recently did a project on biochar with the main goal to “spread knowledge about Biochar and to show people how to make their own”.

The team created biochar in a barrel over a fire pit in the backyard using Ash, Cedar and Pine. They recorded mass and time change, in order to do later calorimetry. Then, using the biochar, Jessica and Jennine grew beans in 250mL of BioChar to 250mL of soil (a 50:50 blend). They ran 2 sets of data, one with 2 plants for each variation, and the second set of data with 5 plants for each. The result was that the Ash biochar had the best performance.

This project won first place at the Peterborough Regional Science Fair, and an Honourable Mention at the National Science Fair in Winnipeg Canada before being asked to go on to the International Science Fair in Tunisia in July.

Jessica noted that they got much of their project information from the IBI and CBI (Canadian Biochar Initiative) websites. For more information, please see the news article on the project Northumberland Newspaper by Bill Tremblay (credit  Andrea Ferguson/The Independent).

Misty Rhodes, Oregon, USA: 6th Grade Science Project on Biochar

Biochar science fair project by Misty Rhodes of Cave Junction, Oregon. Misty won 3rd place in the district-wide science fair for her 6th grade science project on biochar.