On Biochar

23 05 2017

Last weekend, as the threat of looming downpours for much of Tasmania was forecast, I went to a biochar workshop organised by the Huon Producers’ Network, and I reckon it was the best thirty five bucks I ever spent……. I’ve read quite a bit on the matter, and have always been fascinated by Terra Preta. Having cut down some fifty trees to make way and building material for our new house, I’m not exactly short of biomass to get rid of…. I had four huge piles of the stuff, and unfortunately, sometimes even the best laid plans have to yield to reality and two of them have been burned to make way for ‘development’ on the Fanny Farm. Each time I burned the piles, I got the guilts knowing all that resource was going to waste and contributing to climate change, but having inadvertently put several tonnes of wood in the wrong place (designing my patch is an evolutionary process) and having no quick means of moving them, I just put a match to it. At least, the ash went on the current market garden patch……Image result for biochar kiln

I had some expectations of what I was going to be shown, but they were all thrown out the window…. I had been expecting to see kilns such as the one at right which are all enclosed for the purpose of starving the fire of Oxygen so as to pyrolise the wood and make charcoal. My friend Bruce in Queensland has been making charcoal this way for thirty years to satisfy his blacksmithing habit (and those of many others I might add), and he has this down to a fine art. But it appears there’s a revolution underway…..

The presenter on the day was Frank Strie, who thirty years ago emigrated from Germany with his whole family to Tasmania. “We started to plant lots of different fruit trees” Frank says on his website, “such as Cherries, Apricots, Peaches, Plums, Prunes and various apple and pear trees. And of course, we wanted to grow our own vegetables. Also, about 20 years ago we established a Hazelnut Orchard, which covers nearly one third of the property.” It’s all organic of course, and he sounds like he’s pretty good mates with Peter Cundall, Tassie’s gardening guru…… See his Terra Preta website.


“The baby”

The fact that he brought three kilns on a trailer and the back of a ute all the way from Launceston just shows how versatile and portable his gear is.

The new kilns are open topped, and most interestingly, funnel shaped. They make the process faster – like maybe half the time or better – and allow for activation of the charcoal (which is what turns it into biochar) all in one go. Being able to just tip the finished product onto the ground instead of laboriously shoveling it out of the kiln looks good to this old man with a bad back as well.

Andrew, a local also known as Stretch – and so tall he can’t fit in photos – was also there to ably assist Frank; he’d organised20170520_121304 lots of firewood and stacked it in piles of graded sizes along with cardboard and kindling. We actually got three kilns started; from a smallish one designed for hobby gardeners, to something that will make a cubic metre at a time (and double up as a BBQ!) to the farm sized device I could probably use but can’t afford….. though there is now talk of buying one as a community resource which is a darn good idea!

The idea of the funnel shape is that as the air outside is heated, it rises up the sides, and when it reaches the lip, a vortex effect is created causing the air to be sucked into the kiln speeding up the burn. The ‘big one’ even comes with a skirt that acts as a venturi, speeding up the air as it is squeezed between the kiln and skirt at the lip of the kiln. The effect was clearly visible, though nigh impossible to catch in a still photo.


The ‘smothering’ effect is created by simply adding more and more firewood to the pile. Before combustion is complete, the fire is quenched (with water on this particular day, but normally a liquid fertiliser would be used) from the bottom up. The bottom of the kiln is plumbed to a pipe which can be used for both removing excess liquid, or adding it under pressure from an IBC on, say, the back of a ute. On the day, Frank used a garden hose, because we could not do what he normally does because of where we were….



On the day, the kiln was not filled to capacity due to location and time constraints, but you can clearly see the results. The big kiln even comes with a winch to tip the biochar out for easy work, and if it wasn’t for the fact I’m far too busy house building and counting my remaining pennies, I would buy one tomorrow,

To learn more about biochar, here is an interesting link supplied by Frank that anyone keen on this process would find enlightening. I think this is definitely the way of the future, a bright light among all the rubbish we see every day about renewable energy and electric cars. This has the potential to sequester huge amounts of Carbon, and even more importantly, prepare farm soil for the post oil era looming on the horizon.

Origins: Exclusive Worldwide Premiere

16 11 2014

Published on Nov 13, 2014

Watch the exclusive worldwide premiere of the Origins film from November 13th – November 22nd. Get Details: http://origins.well.org


Get in quick to see the whole documentary before it’s pulled from youtube…….  uplifting, factual, imspiring, totally worth spending the 1 hour 40 minutes to watch or 1.6GB to download as I have……

Share widely, the word has to get out.

Boundless Plains?

8 09 2013

Another guest post from Mark O’Connor……  I wonder if our new PM knows this….??

Those who talk about Australia’s “boundless plains”, and the vast population these ought to sustain, need to check

Mark O'Connor

Mark O’Connor

out the maps below produced by Dr Chris Watson during his career as a CSIRO soil scientist. Chris Watson’s 3 maps are shown here by permission of the author.

The first, titled Climate-Rainfall, shows in deep green those few parts of Australia that have sufficient and reliable rainfall to be ideal for agriculture.  This map may not surprise those who know a bit about geography. Note that it represents not total rainfall but rainfall suitable for agriculture. Thus much of the Northern Territory has quite high rainfall, but concentrated mainly in 3 months and followed by a searing drought. Such rainfall is not very useful except in areas where large deep-water dams can be constructed.


The second map, titled Soil Fertility,  makes a less obvious point. Australia’s ancient continental plate has very few volcanic areas. Hence only the portions shown in darker brown have rich volcanic or alluvial soils.


But the real issue, is how much of Australia has both factors: reliable rainfall and good topsoil, such as much of the Ukraine or France has? Map three, titled Rich Land,  shows (in dark blue-green) the miniscule areas that have both.


For discussion of these issues and of the maps, see Overloading Australia, pp. 6, 15, 84-88, 97. Note that maps represents the average climate of the C20th. Global warming may shift rainfall areas, and increase evaporation rates. Modelling by the ANU’s Climate Change Institute and by CSIRO indicates that the areas suitable for agriculture will decrease. See for instance the maps on page 16 of Australia’s Biodiversity and Climate Change: Summary for Policy Makers.

On the delusion that Australia is a “vast land with a small ageing population” (editorial in the Australian, 26 July 2008) see Overloading Australia pages 1, 75, 84 and 210. On the bizarre maps of Australia produced by boosters eager to show that its “gigantic inheritance”  could hold more people than all the major nations of Western Europe put together, see An Historical Geography of Modern Australia by Joseph Michael Powell, pages 131 ff. (See Powell’s text on Google Books).

Professor Henry Nix of the ANU’s Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies estimates Australia has 77 million hectares of potentially arable land, including marginally arable — making about 3.5 hectares  of (mostly indifferent) arable land per person.  From the current land use, he estimates Australia could feed about 50 million people.

However this involves maintaining the present heavy use of oil-based fertilisers that allows Australian farmers to produce crops like wheat from infertile soils. If Australian agriculture is to pay its costs, or provide net export earnings, much of the crop must continue to be exported to pay for the fertilisers and imported oil required to grow it. Very high future oil prices could make much of Australia’s wheat land unviable, as could continuing erosion, salinification and acidification.