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Backing biochar: the Australian Government’s role

Evelyn Krull, a research scientist at the CSIRO, asked in these pages whether biochar could save the planet. Eighteen months have passed and although research efforts continue, still no meaningful quantities…

It may not be a silver bullet, but biochar has a lot to offer farmers (and the atmosphere). sillypucci/Flickr

Evelyn Krull, a research scientist at the CSIRO, asked in these pages whether biochar could save the planet. Eighteen months have passed and although research efforts continue, still no meaningful quantities of biochar are being produced. This promising approach is making no contribution to offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. Given the benefits of biochar, why is it taking so long to diffuse?

Biochar is made through pyrolysis, where waste biomass such as cattle manure is turned into energy (syngas) and biochar by heating it slowly without oxygen present. Biochar can be added to soils to enhance their physical, chemical and biological function to improve productivity, while sequestering carbon in the soil for hundreds of years. However strict criteria for sustainable biomass sourcing and low-emissions production technology must be applied. If they are not, its environmental benefits can be eroded, if not completely negated.

It isn’t a universal “magic bullet” that can solve global warming, but it should be part of a range of carbon emissions reduction and sequestration programs. Using biochar as a tool for reaching targets has particular relevance in Australia with its strong rural industries and degraded, carbon-deficient soils.

The co-product of converting biomass into biochar via modern slow-pyrolysis technology is syngas. In industrial biochar production facilities, syngas can be used to fuel the process, with the excess going to generate renewable heat and power for external use. As the biochar sector scales up in a sustainable fashion, it could create huge benefits in terms of enhanced agricultural yields, co-generation of renewable energy, organic waste recycling, and climate change mitigation via carbon sequestration in soils.

Win-win for farmers

Farmers are an enormous potential constituency for biochar. They have everything to gain from replenishing degraded soils, enhancing the soils’ water retention and decreasing requirements for fertiliser inputs.

They can also benefit financially from the carbon sequestration if they participate in the Carbon Farming Initiative, which has “biochar application to soil” on the Positive List.

Take the case of Australian coffee grower Jos Webber. In collaboration with the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Webber has been experimenting with different methods of using biochar. He told the ABC’s Science Show, “those [coffee trees] that were treated with the poultry biochar and compost mixture” were the ones that were growing best. The worst were those without any soil remediation at all.

Analysis of biochar impacts on plant productivity conducted by Jeffries et al, show statistically significant increases across many trials. Recent results, such as those achieved by apple growers in the Huon Valley in Tasmania, continue to add to the evidence base supporting biochar application. The science is building to support the effective and prescriptive application of biochar to ensure positive plant productivity.

Targeting biochar application on high value-added crops such as coffee and olives will achieve quick pay-backs. This could encourage early biochar takeup by horticulturalists, followed more broadly by farmers all around the country.

We need a national biochar strategy

Widespread acceptance of biochar is unlikely to happen without a national strategy to promote its diffusion. This is manifestly lacking in Australia.

Biochar’s future currently relies on small companies developing the technology for biochar production into a standard, scalable format which can be built and replicated all around the country. But it’s hard work setting up the robust supply chain needed to get the finance for implementation. The projects need financial backing, sites, sustainable biomass and commercial partners that can build and operate the facilities and retail the biochar and energy products produced. The challenge is aligning the timing and value proposition for all of these moving parts, especially for the first time.

The problem is that the benefits are large, but spread across several sectors – while the costs are concentrated for a few pivotal providers. Government needs to step in to aggregate the benefits and reduce the costs and risks for the early movers.

A national strategy should facilitate bringing together aspects of the supply chain so the risks of first time projects can be managed. The strategy should streamline project delivery so that a replicated roll-out can be achieved around the country that delivers the significant contributions to emissions targets possible. This involves promoting agricultural issues such as soil fertility and restoration as well as issues relating to waste management and climate change.

A program focused on the real benefits associated with soil fertility enhancement, waste removal and energy co-generation, funded at a level of $2 billion rather than $2 million, would be appropriate. Although biochar is on the Governments radar it is too often overlooked as a tool for delivering targets. For example, biochar did not even rate a mention in the Energy White Paper released last week.

Come on Joe, Greg, Kate, Penny and colleagues – this is a case where Australia really can provide world leadership, and in the process greatly enhance our own national interests. Can the government help industry join the dots and enable biochar to make its mark on environmental sustainability in this country?

Join the conversation

80 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    In my opinion biochar is a solution looking for a problem. If the approach takes forest wood to open fields it is merely moving the carbon from one place to another. I suspect the large amount of diesel used in doing this or plowing the char into the soil is conveniently understated.

    I agree that charcoal can be a soil improver particularly when given time to mix with acidic compost. I think the best approach to carbon sequestration is to leave coal in the ground. For example the undeveloped Galilee Basin is carbon removed from the primordial atmosphere a quarter billion years ago. We're kidding ourselves that we can dig up up millions of tonnes of that carbon, burn it then offset that with a spot of biochar here and there.

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    1. Adriana Downie

      Senior Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to John Newlands

      Thanks John - it is absolutely key to ensure biochar systems are supported by rigorous life cycle assessments that account for the alternative use of the biomass and the fossil fuels used to collect it. In many circumstances across the economy we are seeing waste biomass material that is already aggregated going to landfill or low value applications that could be beneficially reused in a biochar production facility. One example is kerb-side collected green waste.

      The ability of modern slow-pyrolysis technology to produce electricity from the syngas produced provides an option to displace coal generated power, hopefully resulting in the coal being left in the ground. Obviously this is only one tool to be used and to leave all of the coal in the ground biochar needs to be complemented with energy efficiency, other renewable power generators etc

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  2. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I believe anyone involved with bio char have no real interests in the land, just accessing grants to - try to - validate their 'worth' to the community.

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    1. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Not really Daniel... I'm talking about using waste ... diverting it from our streams and creeks ... not importing vegetation... I'm talking about turning a costly waste disposal problem into an asset. Making our use of agricultural land more productive, profitable and resilient.

      I don't know the numbers for the energy inputs vs outcomes of a biochar operation - be interested if anyone's got any numbers.

      But I suspect that anything would be better than trucking in many thousands of tonnes of super each year ...just to grow grass, in those years where the rain will let us.

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    2. Adriana Downie

      Senior Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Daniel -
      Importing vegetation does not have to be energy intensive. In some cases, such as Peter describes, the biochar production facility can be placed at the waste transfer station or at a poultry shed. This would actually save the cost and carbon liability of sending it to a landfill or elsewhere. It is absolutely agreed that the life cycle of the biomass for biochar production has to be sustainable.

      The pyrolysis process itself is net energy exporting. The energy in the biomass itself is…

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    3. Barry Batchelor

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Hi Daniel. I have run and developed my business BlackEarth Products without a single cent of tax payers money, have not chased grants or hand outs. I have built my business around a sustainable production model, locally sourced chemical free feed stocks, high quality technology with low emission solutions. I am not trying to validate my 'worth' to the community. I am developing a sustainable profitable business which produces high quality environmentally sound products.

      At the end of the day gardeners, horticultural and agricultural businesses will only support Biochar if it works for them and creates positive results.

      Biochar will not always work well in all soils, but that goes with most soil additives. Proper soil analysis should always be taken from commercial sites with proper agronomic advice on how to best improve that soil type. From my point of view Biochar should always be blended and applied with a range of nutrients that suit the application.

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  3. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Most interesting piece of gear this.

    I live in a curious little town in horse and cattle country. Essentially my neighbours here grow grass for a living. Literally.

    The place has an Aboriginal name meaning "bare hills" - no trees. It is a heavily metamorphosed region covered with a layers of "soil" which is a fine flinty silt - water repellant, devoid of carbon or any organic matter, unyielding, compressed and hateful. It grows grass, lucerne and the like (with the "help" of super in…

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    1. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      So let me get this straight Peter ... you want to import vegetation in, in various forms (fuel intensive), super heat it (fuel intensive) and then plough it in (fuel intensive) to add dry bio char matter to an already dry (from your description) 'soil' ...

      Does that sound logical ?

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    2. Adriana Downie

      Senior Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter - Yes the challenge is bringing the different sectors and interests together, and this is where we see a national strategy could be helpful. We need to more effectively join the dots between one mans trash and another mans treasure.

      I think that the establishment of a number of holistic demonstration sites around the country that have independently verified greenhouse gas balances and productivity outcomes is essential to understanding the potential that biochar may have and also to provide a model for rolling it out. The question is...who should provide the funding for this demonstration work? Once demonstrated the business case should of course stand up in its own right, however the technology is slow to diffuse because funding for this needed demonstration phase is difficult to come by.

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  4. Alastair Breingan

    Retired

    I suspect a key area is at the small scale, where a lot of biomass is burnt in piles because its easy. This causes fire risks (especially this year) and unnecessary emissions.

    In my own case I have a constant supply of biomass too large / rough to compost and would be keen to try producing small amounts of biochar (we also have a large veggie garden and orchard).

    Has anyone published designs / plans for a unit capable of handling 200 -500 kg at a time which is simple to build? The only ones I have seen seem to be 1970's era "alternative" designs. Not so much interested in collecting syngas, just using it to fuel the process.

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    1. Barry Batchelor

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Alastair Breingan

      I have done a bit of work around a tlud gasifier design which I have posted plans for. It up scales ok, but I always suggest starting small to gain an understanding of how they work. As I now have access to flue gas analysers it is allowing me to develop and improve flue emissions for my next step in this open source style project.

      http://www.biochar.net/fatboy-gasifier/
      http://www.biochar.net/fatboy-v2-gasifier/
      V3 is on the drawing board.

      For those interested in biochar news I am always updating my blog. http://www.biochar.net/

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  5. account deleted

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    I used to own a small timber-milling business which produced around 1000 tonnes of waste a year from logs. I tried quite hard to get some support from Government to develop a gasification process to dispose of that waste in a low-impact way, but there was no interest at all. In fact, the usual response was to warn me that I was facing regulatory impositions in doing so. Most of the waste ended up as firewood.

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  6. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Adriana … you suggested to Peter the challenge being “bringing the different sectors and interests together, and this is where we see a national strategy could be helpful”
    And then to me “Importing vegetation does not have to be energy intensive; a biochar production facility can be placed at the waste transfer station or at a poultry shed” … Adriana, I disagree with “scientific evidence supporting the potential 'worth' of biochar to both farming and urban communities is rapidly growing", on an…

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    1. Adriana Downie

      Senior Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Daniel - the EROEI for biochar production systems is actually very good...if the biomass is sustainably sourced, such as from residues etc.

      It is very hard to justify not implementing waste management solutions that deliver environmental outcomes because we might use up all the waste. That is exactly the objective. We would need a lot of biochar production facilities operating to get even close to this situation. If competition does emerge for these feedstocks then this is good news for biochar producers, as it indicates that the value of carbon, soil amendments and renewable energy are also moving up. If society values these resources then we may get to a point where one has to pay to get access to 'waste'. This again would be a great outcome and one that biochar systems can help move us towards.

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  7. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Peter,

    It is about cause and effect ... why grow grass there if it isn't 'sustainable' ?

    Bio char is just another ethanol; an energy intensive government subsidised project under the guise of addressing environmental issues …

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    1. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Sustainable? As a recovering economist who's been studying and working with "sustainability" in one form or another for over 30 years I have no idea what that word actually means. Particularly in this context.

      One thing I really do "know" is that we are wasting valuable resources - no, not just wasting them - it is costing us money to waste them and has massive environmental consequences. Good economics hates waste.

      Not the least of these consequences is that we are limited to watching…

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  8. Peter Lang

    Retired geologist and engineer

    This is an interesting topic. But until researchers can come to grips with the concept of costs, benefits, cash flow and profit for each essential participant in the chain, then these ideas that academics come up with will go nowhere. Worse, they could cause us to waste and enormous amount of money that could be much better used elsewhere.

    So, authors, can you please present the cost and benefit analyses, and explain how each participant in the train can be viable and economically sustainable…

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  9. John Mathews

    Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management at Macquarie University

    Adriana and I are suggesting that it would be smart for Australia to target some projects where we stand to reap some national benefit without adding to global warming concerns – and biochar that is sustainably produced, at zero net energy cost, is just such a case. The debate in Australia tends to veer off into unprovable assertions about long-term climate change impacts of various policy initiatives while ignoring our national interests in improving agriculture – forestry, horticulture as well as broad-acre crop farming. Biochar is one of these sensible innovations that scores well on all these issues – but as we stress in the article, it needs some government input to get over the initial costs, risks and uncertainties. Some well-designed local projects, of the kind suggested by Peter, Craig and Alastair, are just what is needed to help launch a national conversation re biochar and its potential.

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    1. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to John Mathews

      John Mathews,

      You said: "Biochar is one of these sensible innovations that scores well on all these issues – but as we stress in the article, it needs some government input to get over the initial costs, risks and uncertainties."

      But how do you know this? How do we cut through the researcher's biases? We need proper cost benefit analyses. If we don't do that we cannot know whether your belief that biochar is sensible is correct or not.

      We have a very long list of dreadfully bad, uncosted, projects. The National Broadband Network and renewable energy programs are two very obvious ones that come to mind. There are many others.

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    2. Adriana Downie

      Senior Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to John Mathews

      Peter - yes we do need proper cost benefit analysis. Unfortunately until we have a few case studies established to use as the basis for these it will all be theory and susceptible to 'biases'. The challenge is getting over this hurdle of commercial-scale demonstration.

      There are already a number of biochar pilot plants operational and these have allowed for verification of the cost's and benefits involved. The cost benefits of biochar systems can stack up with the revenues of biochar sales, electricity sales, waste management charges and environmental offsets (REC's etc). However to make a business case around these for the first commercial scale projects is difficult as you need returns that justify the risk of doing it for the first time.

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    3. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to John Mathews

      @Peter Lang Your claims are completely at odds with reality. Australia spends about $12 billion annually on fossil fuel incentives and subsidies. That is over ten times what is being spent on renewable energy incentives.

      So your claim of badly costed and the need for cost benefit analyses shows that you have a blinkered view. You are quite happy to aim at projects you don't like, but not willing to concede that money is being pissed up against a wall to prop up industries that should and are on their way out.

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    4. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to John Mathews

      Tim Scanlon,

      It's been pointed out to you over an over again that your claims about subsidies for fossil fuels versus renewable energy are wrong. Firstly, since we are talking about electricity you need to include the subsidies for electricity only. Secondly, you must normlise for the amount of electricity actually generated by renewables (about 3% for non hydro renewables, 90% for fossil fuels), and you need to include the cross subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables (e.g. for transmissions, distribution and retailing). Suggest you redo your estimates on that basis.

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    5. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to John Mathews

      Adriana Downie, you said:

      "Unfortunately until we have a few case studies established to use as the basis for these it will all be theory and susceptible to 'biases'. "

      That is an excuse for avoidance. Pushing your belief is subject to strong biases. I'd suggest, because of that, it is essential that competent people to do some cost benefit analyses on this before the government throws more money at subsidising such schemes.

      Here is an example of what can be done very simply as a first…

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    6. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to John Mathews

      @Peter Lang Do you mean I need to redo the figures that come from the fossil fuel industry itself or the independent reports that concluded the same figures?

      Telling me I'm wrong doesn't make me wrong. http://www.acfonline.org.au/sites/default/files/resources/G20_fossil_fuel_subsidies_25-6-10.pdf http://www.smh.com.au/environment/billions-spent-on-fossil-fuel-incentives-20110228-1bbsn.html
      http://www.crikey.com.au/2012/06/20/agreement-in-rio-but-fossil-fuel-subsidies-debate-gets-dirty/?wpmp_switcher=mobile http://www.isf.uts.edu.au/publications/riedy2007subsidies.pdf
      I suggest you start getting your figures from the original government and industry finance reports, rather than whatever conspiracy site you are currently favouring.

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    7. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to John Mathews

      Tim Scanlon,

      You have no idea what you are talking about. You tell me not to quote the fossil fuel industry. I am not. I am quoting from official government reports: Australia, OECD, USA, IEA, EIA. However, your references are to Australian Conservation Foundation, Crickey and a Greenpeace study. What a joke. Is that where you go to get authoritative, unbiased, reliable information? From now on I’ll recognise that that is the sort of rubbish you base your beliefs on.

      If you read the…

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    8. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to John Mathews

      @Peter Lang That wasn't a Greenpeace study, it was the Institute for Sustainable Futures. The ACF report is actually just accumulated data from the tax office and the OECD. The two news articles reference stuff that is behind paywalls. I linked to those reports to make it nice and simple for you, since I know how you don't like to read much actual data.

      The figures that you supposedly quote (without reference or link) are supposedly from the same sources that the references I provided cite. Thus, one of us is misquoting the data, but I did provide links and the documents I cited had the references to the original data. Where were your references again?

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  10. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    To Adrian and John …
    So let me get this right, you both believe bio char will not add to global warming and purport a zero net energy cost’ So where and when is an neutral (reversal of the 2nd Law on Entropy) EROEI on a bio char process ?
    I believe it is You who “tends to veer off into unprovable assertions about long-term climate change impacts of various policy initiatives while ignoring our national interests in improving agriculture”

    Bio char is Not a sensible innovation. Bio char convention (talk-fest) costs have to added to the EROEI cost analysis.

    People need to realise this proposal is a modern day ‘emperor’s new clothes’ fairy-tale …

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    1. Adriana Downie

      Senior Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Daniel - no we are not planning on re-writing the laws of thermodynamics to make biochar systems stack up. The biomass itself has an energy value - a portion of that energy is used to drive the process, a portion remains in the biochar, and a portion is available for export. When we do life cycle assessments of the process we find that the net inputs of fossil fuels for transporting, processing etc do not completely offset the greenhouse gas savings achieved by offsetting fossil fuels, improving organic waste management, displacing fertiliser use etc.

      If we compare alternative applications of the biomass such as composting where the material still needs to be transported, processed, applied etc. we find that the net greenhouse gas savings for the biochar system are large.

      It does seem sensible to us to recycle waste organics into value-added products like biochar and energy.

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    2. Paul Whyte

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      I thnk the missing point for you Daniel is that the energy value of bio mass his high and that as this is burned there is a large amount of energy released to powert the process. I would call the pyrolisis -oxygen reduced combustion that leaves bio-char as well as making syn gas.

      If you think that biochar productions is external heat of wet biomass in an exclusion of oxygen then yes that is not so efficient. The design of bio-char production is well past simple pyrolisis. It's a dry bio-mass…

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    3. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Paul, you've missed some key problems. Forest mulch, or tree chip, is very wet indeed - up to 100% by weight. It takes a lot of energy to dry that, whether in the form of specialised equipment for the purpose, or in simply turning it over to allow air drying. It has to be kept in waterproof conditions and then it has to be fed to the reaction vessel.

      In addition, it tends to be of the wrong size and shape to pyrolise readily. It's flat and planar for the most part, which means it forms mats and…

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    4. Paul Whyte

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Craig, I recommend that you read the reference that I gave to correct your many errors. What you are aware of you may be correct in talking about.

      You are have ever trying to talk about something that you are not yet experienced at. You have admitted your self that you tried some thing and walked away.

      The TLUD gasifier is a biochar maker that is not as you falsely claim a slow combustion stove. Please read the reference and not just make things up.

      I was discussing from my experience…

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    5. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Paul, you're simply talking gobledegook. What you're producing is oxidised charcoal and ash, not highly reduced charcoal. To produce reduced charcoal you need to keep oxygen away from the feed. If oxygen is present the feed burns, it doesn't simply pyrolise.

      To correct your misunderstanding in regard to moisture content, it is measured as the mass of water per dry mass of substrate. A piece of material that weighs 200g when wet and 100g when oven dried at 103C is said to have a moisture content…

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    6. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Oh, I forgot to mention, the pyrolyser I have used is a downdraught forced draught unit, which draws the heat from the combustion zone through the pyrolysis region and operates on a continuous feed. I'd suggest it was considerably more efficient than your combustion stove. It was based on the modified FEMA design and had additional facilities for ash removal and gas recovery. The gas production was what I was interested in, not the ash.

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  11. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Peter Lang & Daniel,

    I'd have a sneaking suspicion that by your views any project or initiative that is requiring public seed money is - automatically - "uneconomic", by definition.

    In other words it's not so much the specifics of biochar that you criticise but public investment in any shape or form - from NBNs to universities and schools. It's all a symptom of "waste" and inefficiency.

    Seems more ideological than scientific.

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    1. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter Osborne,

      I'd suggest your comment is making unsubstantiated assumptions, as usual, and has more to do with your own ideologically motivated reasoning than mine. As you've demonstrated so often, no point in trying to correct you on what you believe to be true.

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  12. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    Adriana and John, I take issue with the "win-win" claims.

    You would have no doubt read Mark Peoples' work on this topic https://senate.aph.gov.au/submissions/comittees/viewdocument.aspx?id=8eaf8150-a292-46ca-a3fd-47f64e3dc1c8 and my own soils professor Bob Gilkes http://www.sciencewa.net.au/topics/agriculture/item/1552-biochar-efficacy-on-soil-nitrogen-questioned.html?tmpl=component&print=1
    All of this work has shown that different soils require different kinds of biochar so that negative impacts…

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    1. Adriana Downie

      Senior Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Tim - there is a lot being learned about how to prescriptively apply biochar so that positive results can be consistently achieved. In many cases the biochars in scientific studies that have given negative results there are very good explainations for. For example, adding an alkaline biochar to a soil system that was already contrained by being too alkaline makes the problem worse. It is important that the biochar is directed to address a soil constraint otherwise it is likely that if there is nothing…

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Thanks for the reply Adriana. Both our points are pointing to why I'm not keen on rolling out nationally, I see a lot of work to be done in research and field trials. Having worked with farmers, they are not fans of presumptive claims, especially when they are being asked to invest money and take risks.

      I know the CSIRO and Paul Blackwell did a lot of work in my part of the world in the 90s and battled to make things work with biochar. The couple of farmers I know who were involved in trial work have already drawn their conclusions, so the process has to be A1 before adoption phases would have any leverage.

      On the SA No-Till Association, how have they done things (any links)? Is WANTFA going to be brought into that (I assume this is GRDC funded work)? We also have to remember the difference in the age of soils when looking from the east coast to the west coast, situations are hugely different.

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  13. Bruce Dickson

    Aerial Geochemist (retired)

    Just a couple of notes on biochar. Firstly, there is no method available to measuring soil carbon in-situ over broad areas. That is why soil carbon is not part of Kyoto agreement - it can't be measured except by spot sampling. A responsible government should not consider paying for something it can't determine is there or not. And if we are looking for long-term storage, we need to measure to confirm that storage is occurring.
    Secondly, and here I may be wrong, but I think the article mixes two…

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Bruce Dickson

      I agree Bruce, this is the points that Gilkes and Peoples refer to in the comment I made.

      Also, I was involved in some trial work to determine how much testing was required to accurately determine soil carbon for the top 10cm of soil. This was necessary to figure out how much the soil has and how much it has changed. You were looking at a prohibitively large number of samples to measure the soil, both cost and sampling wise, and this was only for the top soil.

      A better method I have seen, which I believe several Japanese companies are investing money in, is satellite monitoring. Currently ground-truthing is being performed to be able to to assess changes in soils and plant material via satellite imaging. This can then be used to estimate all sorts of things. In about 5 years there will be foreign companies and governments with a better idea of what crops and what soil conditions (and yields, etc) we have than our own people will.

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    2. Adriana Downie

      Senior Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Bruce Dickson

      Bruce - one of the advantages of biochar carbon sequestration is that the biochar can be measured before it is added to the soil. Assumptions about its rate of decay in soil can be applied so that credits can be calculated. There are a number of turn-over experiments underway by the NSW DPI and others that are developing good correlations with rates of decay and measurable properties of the freshly made biochar. These methods will hopefully be accurate enough to avoid the very expensive ongoing soil…

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  14. Erich J. Knight

    logged in via LinkedIn

    The Australians and Europeans are at least a decade ahead of the US in this Biochar platform for biofuels. However we are catching up fast, we don't have a carbon farming initiative like y'all have, and the USDA budget for Biochar research was only $2.5 million this year but companies like Cool Planet Energy Systems have already had their tank ready fuel approved for California gasoline blending.

    Below is a letter I just sent to the Virginia Department of Agriculture highlighting the application…

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    1. Adriana Downie

      Senior Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale - yes composting is a great option and I don't see that we have an either/or choice to make between compost and biochar. In a lot of markets, such as Sydney and Melbourne for example, the market is saturated with compost products and diverting some of the wooder fraction of the organic waste stream that doesn't compost well into biochar products makes sense.

      Biochar of course has the energy and long-term carbon sequestration benefits that compost cant deliver.

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    2. Frank Strie

      Ecological Forester, Farmer, Biochar Consultant

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Good morning Dale and everyone interested in responsible resource management.

      Happy do take part in the discussion and to provide links to further information sources, including overseas.
      It would be great if our party political leaders and representatives in Canberra and the Australian State Parliaments would be able to work together rather than fighting all the time, it would be a huge advance for our society and generations to come.
      First of all, a big thank you to Dr Adriana Downie and…

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    3. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale - Good composting requires dedicated and knowledgeable operators at scale and is prone to marginal outcomes where these aren't in place. Char additives are complementary to this approach both in terms of handling tougher woody residues and within the process itself as it can improve both the final product as well as provide a degree of odor control.

      Where everything is in place a combined system probably gives one of the best resource outcomes when considering issues such as nutrient recycling. The reality is that what can be done here is largely already being done and any conventional improvements just fiddling at the edges.

      Beyond this biochar seems to have the edge, particularly where we can get the plants on farm or close to them.

      Hi Frank! - Long time no hear, been looking for your contact details, you might recall we met at the first FSC conference held outside Canberra (2002?). Love to catch up, you can reach me at realpowersystems at the email above.

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  15. Peter Davies

    Bio-refinery technology developer

    The recent Melbourne Cup included a horse in the field called "Usual Suspect" at around 60:1 odds, my eldest son wanted to back him because we had a lot of experience with other "Usual Suspects" in the bio-energy industry and whilst there were better horses in the race my boy quipped that if there was also a Government Grant available he was a definite shoe in...

    The claim that nothing is happening at scale is not entirely accurate, anymore than the suggestion that the problem lies with obtaining…

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  16. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Peter,

    It's a curious business this and peculiarly Australian I suspect. You're far from alone in this "senseless waste of public money"... "all theft after all"...

    Go on strike. Say NO to taxpayer waste! Spit on their handouts and welfare systems. I'd rather starve on my feet than live on my knees. Even down to sacrificing our own children to the outstretched arms of fiery Molloch. (That's a stoning offence by the way).

    The Government decides to "give money away" and we condemn…

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    1. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Hi Peter,

      All this talk of the US and dogs reminds me of the pup Dad got during the first Gulf War, he called him "Scud" because you could send him around the sheep but never knew where he would hit, although he was capable of doing a lot of damage when he did.

      Having had experience with the Australian version of handing out taxpayers dollars I would have to say we are very fortunate not to have had the problem of actually getting a grant ourselves (nor have any of our children). I strongly…

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  17. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Peter Ormonde … as one gets older, patience gets shorter and the propensity to find the chink (in any proposition) seems easier … the ABC had a program ‘angry old men’ and I’d probably be a front-runner for it … so with the introduction, brace yourself …

    A ‘recovering economist’ is like a still drinking member of AA.

    You say on one hand, that you have studied and worked with ‘sustainability’ (then start channelling your feminine side) and say you don’t know what the word – sustainability…

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    1. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Carrying capacity. Couldn't agree more.

      We're lucky here - we know pretty accurately what a long-run sustainable "carrying capacity" is ... Quite a few short of 500,000 or so at best.

      That buys you 50,000 years or so - but stable? no not really. Ask the megafauna? Ask the plants what were once where now only grass and roo habitat remain.

      But of course some bugger with flu is going to decimate you in a week. They've got horses and guns and trackers. Not as resilient as all that then…

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  18. Ken Fabian

    Mr

    As a means of dealing with green waste biochar deserves some recognition. As a carbon sequestration method, I'm not convinced. A bit like the way recycling (as most of it is done) puts a delaying step or two between new materials and landfill without preventing it ending up there, carbon in the form of soil biochar won't be prevented from becoming CO2, just slow the process. Making a variant of coal and shallow burying it can't provide a viable alternative to reducing the amount of coal dug up and…

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    1. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Ken Fabian

      Ken - Your story about the small business experience trying to do something better and hitting barriers they should have been assisted with getting over is not an uncommon one. In our own case about 4 years ago we wrote to our local Federal Member asking if there was any programs available in the hundreds of millions being announced for climate change projects to assist us having our own exciting technology breakthrough independently tested and validated as we could not afford the $50,000-$100,000…

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    2. Frank Strie

      Ecological Forester, Farmer, Biochar Consultant

      In reply to Ken Fabian

      There are valuable sources of information available to anyone interested:
      This report was produced via DPI NSW:
      http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/447857/DPI-BioChar-in-Horticulture.pdf 117 pages
      I notice that here in Australia the research was conducted around using / testing fresh Chars of various feedstocks.
      Yes it is Biochar research and science, but not yet real Terra Preta research and development.
      As a ProSilva Forester I compare it like the science and management…

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    3. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Ken Fabian

      Hi Frank,

      Thanks for the call, it was good to catch up. Yes there is a photo of one of our earlier mobile gasification units in the DPI report you have referenced. We have come a lot further since then, and the system is now maturing into a hybrid gasification/pyrolysis approach with a multi function secondary retort integrated with our successful downdraft gasifier design. Field testing starts before Xmas.

      I agree about the cost burdens imposed for emission management of slow pyrolysis systems…

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  19. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    @ Peter Davies.

    It is no less difficult to get an idea off the ground in this country than to produce the idea itself. Harder.

    Unless you are willing to mortgage your house again. That's all banks lend on here. They do not back "ideas".

    Neither do governments in the main - other than in research grants.

    See what they're actually saying about your proposal is: convince someone else - get a partner with $100,000,- and come back when you've tested it. We don't do that very well here…

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    1. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Go steady Peter, too much reality is bad for economists, especially recovering ones.

      Pretty much agree with everything you said even if a bit understated, except the headlines... Our vision of those is more along the lines of:

      "Small Biochar Company Saves Planet Despite Government Policy Not Because Of It!"

      You see despite the odd rant I am pretty well adjusted for a bitter and twisted individual and I don't ever recall lying in bed in a "woe is me" funk brought on by the injustices we have…

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  20. Frank Strie

    Ecological Forester, Farmer, Biochar Consultant

    Here the missing link to the International Biochar Initiative mentioned above:
    http://www.biochar-international.org
    There are:

    Project Profiles
    Regional Biochar Groups
    Member Bulletin Board

    Main Menu
    What is Biochar?
    Biochar Standards
    Sustainable Biochar
    Biochar Technology
    Biochar and Soils
    Biochar Protocol
    Biochar Policy
    Biochar Commercialization
    Biochar in Emerging and Developing Economies
    Biochar Conferences

    Resources
    Biochar Updates/Blog
    IBI Publications
    IBI Newsletter
    For the Press
    Biochar Bibliography
    Research and Higher Education
    Biochar in Schools
    Community Biochar Projects
    Hot Topics in Biochar

    That should help...

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  21. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    @ Peter Davies.

    That's a shocking bloody story. My collision with reality has been somewhat less life-shattering.

    Raises an interesting point doesn't it how we think about the consequences of our "industry" and modernisation. How we ignore - or polish away - the costs in our cost/benefit analyses.

    Economists and the like can sit down and rattle off a number - only z deaths a year compared to y from something else. Looks obviously better doesn't it?

    But those little numbers hide a host…

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    1. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "Shocking story"? I hadn't ever looked at it in those terms. What I related was the sanitized version, the reality was much worse, starting with the fact the injuries went untreated for the first two years because of a "Cowboy" doctor who hid his mediocrity behind a wide hat of incompetence (he did his hospital rounds wearing a white stetson and engraved cowboy boots, I am always suspicious of such people who aspire to have a relationship with a cow in their fantasy life). I could write a book and…

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  22. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Cows? In personal life? Erk. Particularly not the appalling whining braying Abareeden Agnus - the cattle of choice in these parts.

    Now up in an earlier haunt they ran Brahmins - or Brahmans as the yanks misspell it. Absolutely majestic beasts. Not quite enough to make me come over all Hindu but truly stunning animals. Every home should have one.

    There was a huge fella up around the corner from me... a sandy coat with these vertical charcoal ripples down it - and a black head and shoulders…

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    1. Frank Strie

      Ecological Forester, Farmer, Biochar Consultant

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Some more examples of modern pyrolysis technology and the use of biochar from around the world:
      Here in Demark linked and aimed at organic food production and distribution:
      http://blackcarbon.dk/Unit.aspx

      BlackCarbon unit (BC300)
      The BlackCarbon unit at Barritskov in Denmark is a CHP unit that converts biomass into biochar through pyrolysis, releasing bioenergy in the process.
      The BlackCarbon unit is a pyrolysis-based CHP unit with a Stirling engine. It converts fuel equivalent to 250 kW…

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    2. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      @Peter O,

      Appreciate the comments and link, the broad conversation reminds us that there is more to life and also importantly that it is interconnected.

      Pic's (Products of Incomplete Combustion - not the fierce people who bothered the Romans which was my first thought). We only know of one other biochar related company in Oz who seems to have solved this problem without resorting to a mega bucks in gas cleanup gear.

      www.bigchar.com.au These guys are also now kicking goals overseas.

      Gas…

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  23. Frank Strie

    Ecological Forester, Farmer, Biochar Consultant

    Here a video and article about Biochar production in one of two Pyreg Pyrolysis Plants presently in operation in Switzerland,
    released this week, (not in English but in Swiss-German) the motion pictures however work for any interested person around the globe:

    Video: http://bazonline.ch/wissen/technik/Gute-Luft-dank-Kohle/story/21277752

    Wenn Kohle das Klima schützt Von Jan Derrer. Aktualisiert am 15.11.2012 11 Kommentare
    Im Kanton Zug soll Pflanzenkohle für bessere Luft und bessere Böden…

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    1. Frank Strie

      Ecological Forester, Farmer, Biochar Consultant

      In reply to Frank Strie

      These days things can get much faster as things are very interesting shared amongst more and more people around the world, here via Paul Anderson of the Illinois Biochar Group 11-16-2012, reporting here from attending the Summer School on Biochar in Podsdam Germany.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FKupp1Ud9Q
      This is the kind of momentum discussion amongst young (and still young in mind and spirit) that will create the discussion within society that will inform the administrations and guid industries to go for best practice processes.
      The negative (boring) attitude is being desolved by real life interactions. Thank you for sharing your findings Peter.

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    2. Frank Strie

      Ecological Forester, Farmer, Biochar Consultant

      In reply to Frank Strie

      http://www.atb-potsdam.de/Hauptseite-deutsch/ATB-aktuell/Veranstaltungen/biocharsummerschool2012/documentation.htm
      Use the above link to find the Presentations, Lectures and much more

      Here the Report
      The 1st International Summer School Biochar “bio:char crossroads” took place in Potsdam, Germany on September 9-16, 2012. Organized by the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering in the framework of COST Action TD1107 “Biochar as option for sustainable resource management”, it was also supported…

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    3. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Frank Strie

      Here is some practical work being done in Australia, pity the university side took such a narrow view though, they might have learned something new.

      http://www.greeningaustralia.org.au/uploads//Our%20Solutions%20-%20Toolkit%20pdfs/VIC_Bio4_News_May_2012.pdf

      See also: http://www.greeningaustralia.org.au/index.php?nodeId=228 the char pic at the top of the page is from our process.

      Frank, we shared because we consider it important to do so, but we are not naive.

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    4. Frank Strie

      Ecological Forester, Farmer, Biochar Consultant

      In reply to Frank Strie

      Some of you may have not yet seen the Biochar Video released recently, Published on Sep 18, 2012 by AGDAFF

      Biochars produced from animal manures, council green waste, rice husk materials as well as a range of agricultural residues such as sugarcane residue are being field tested at a number of locations in NSW.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3pLXIMdPXQ&feature=youtu.be

      Category:
      Science & Technology

      http://www.daff.gov.au/climatechange/climate/communication/factsheets-case-studies-and-dvds/transcripts/transcript-of-the-biochar-video

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  24. Peter Davies

    Bio-refinery technology developer

    Further to all the good links from Frank on work around the world you might be interested in the news that Real Power Systems successfully demonstrated two different industrial module gasifiers capable of biochar production concurrently at different sites last Wednesday as part of Renewable Energy Day 2012 (http://rdaact.org.au/serree/reday2012/ ). Feed back was very positive on the day and visitors were amazed at the clean, transparent flare and lack of odor from the systems whilst running. The ability to travel and operate multiple systems on site is an Australian first and demonstrates the capacity of such plants to be deployed at farm and industrial scales. No Government grants were involved in achieving this milestone.

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    1. Erich J. Knight

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Yes, these mobile units look very promising, if I recall correct, delivered to the US they cost only $150,000. This is no pyrolysis unit waiting on the laboratory bench, these guys are market ready, Bush tested, and ready to roll, literally.

      My problem is I barely have $15,000, or I would be there with this reactor.

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    2. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Hi Erich,

      Thanks for the comment, I see from your LinkedIn profile you are in Virginia, in a little land just across the pond really, doesn't the internet shrink the world?

      Not sure of your source for pricing but we are not selling systems at the moment but only offer on a serviced lease, this way we are still carrying the technical risk and it is more difficult (and much more expensive due to lease penalty clauses!) for the unscrupulous over here to cut one up and attempt to reverse engineer…

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    3. Frank Strie

      Ecological Forester, Farmer, Biochar Consultant

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Hello Peter and Erich,
      Good to exchange across the waters.
      Keep up the information flow Erich, I like your many contributions to the global biochar debate for some years now.

      Thanks Peter,
      Just read the media release from the Minister Ferguson:
      "...Once developed, the gasifier will transform various types of biomass, such as agricultural waste and mallee, into gas that can be fed into an engine to generate electricity.

      “Unlike other competing technologies that need to have more than one…

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    4. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Hi Frank,

      Yes, when we started we had similar design goals with the focus only on energy, and we achieved this early, our thinking has evolved though with the revelation of the true capacity of our system and the real needs of the world. Not only are the stated project goals too narrow for the University funding provided by Minister Ferguson but their published thinking is several years behind what is actually required for the potential synergies that should be captured.

      Now don't get me wrong…

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    5. Erich J. Knight

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Sorry Peter D.,
      I jumped to a conclusion thinking that I knew about all the mobile units in Australia, I thought there were only two, Dr. James Joyce and his BigChar unit (now with three in the US) and the Earth systems people below, I was wrong. I have never seen your website or pictures of your machine.
      I thought you were these guys and commented accordingly;
      Earth Systems, AU. with a 1/2 Ton/hr mobile system, $150K, innovative feedstock & char processing;
      http://www.esenergy.com.au/services/mobile-pyrolysis-plant

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    6. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Hi Erich,

      No problem, you were right the first time even if you don't yet know it. Can't say I share your enthusiasm for Earth Systems, last thing I heard was they were using diesel burners to run the system, though that may have changed, but they are a good example of what can be done with a Government gift of $1.4 million.

      I can't imagine what James would have made of BiGchar with access to funds like these. Like us he is honest and genuine and we have been really pleased that he is finally getting success.

      We referenced him in an earlier post. Of course also like ours his process is continuous and capable of a much wider range of feed stocks. I had thought James had provided the numbers and background on us you had quoted earlier.

      All the best.

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    7. Adrian Morphett

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Thanks for the comments Erich! Yes - myself and a colleague at Earth systems were the developers of one of the Australian mobile technologies you mentioned. Quickly correcting some comments above - yes it uses a small amount of diesel to operate (small on-board generator - have to get the power from somewhere in the bush, and ignition point for afterburner so there's no smoke during operation) - but it is minimal. Otherwise, like all other well designed pyrolysis technologies, it utilises the pyrolysis gases evolved from the biomass to provide the thermal energy required for the process.

      This technology was developed specifically for the Victorian based North East Catchment Authority (NECMA) who currently conduct open burns of waste willow and poplar they remove as part of their ongoing riparian river operations. The technology and its application in this scenario is a good one as otherwise the biomass would definitely end up in the atmosphere. Adrian

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    8. Erich J. Knight

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Adrian,

      I am wondering what type of turbine generator you are using? Does it run on syngas alone, and if so, what are you doing with the tar and oil from your syngas cleanup?

      Can you adapt your reactor to condense out wood vinegar?

      Also, if it is possible to give a simple equation on the life cycle analysis of your machine. Something like the shorthand, ballpark equation;
      "1 ton of biomass (say 20% moisture) = ? MWh exported electricity + ? tons of Biochar yield".
      Accounting for any diesel fuel used at startup, and other pertinent input factors.

      Where in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, and who will be running this machine?
      Please inform us when the dates for demonstrations are available, I would just love to see this machine in action;
      AgriPower's Modular and Transportable System; http://www.agripower.com/

      Regards,

      Erich

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    9. Adrian Morphett

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Peter Davies

      Hi Erich. Uses a small diesel generator - doesn't run on the syngas. See our website for more details, and contact me directly if you have technology specific questions. Thanks Adrian

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  25. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    So we are going to dig up the mallee that holds the soil together in a unique system to burn it down to enrich the soil ... and what stops it being blown away again ?

    Peter Ormonde ... just saw your post ... reread my post about why bio char is a waste of anyone's money ... NBN ... two years behind and some billions over budget already; universities, where students indebt themselves to get an education to take up jobs that don't exist ... schools that indoctrinate rather than educate ... ummm, very scientific

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