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Biochar revolution

Local permaculturist Wayne Wadsworth wants to see more research conducted into the making of biochar.
Local permaculturist Wayne Wadsworth wants to see more research conducted into the making of biochar.

While many people are trying to avoid carbohydrates, local permaculturist Wayne Wadsworth can’t get enough of them. He’s on a mission to transform our economy from one that’s reliant on hydrocarbons into an economy based on carbohydrates. Wayne has been looking at new ways of creating energy that don’t rely on burning fossil fuels and believes, with more research into some old concepts, we can create healthier soils and at the same time produce wealth from waste.

For the past few years Wayne has been experimenting with ways of using organic, woody waste to create biochar. Biochar is a type of charcoal produced when a biomass (such as woody waste) is heated to 400 degrees in a process called pyrolysis. As the biomass is heated, greenhouse gases such as methane, produced during the process, are contained in the closed-system pyrolysis ovens and burnt up, rather than being released into the atmosphere.

“It’s like baking a cake in an oven with little oxygen so the cake doesn’t ignite,” Wayne said.

Biochar is a stable form of carbon that takes a long time to break down. It acts as a soil conditioner and can stay in the soil for thousands of years, locking carbon in, unlike organic materials that rot and break down quickly, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Wayne believes that not only can biochar help with sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, but it could help change our society’s reliance on oil through the production of biogas for fuel, while improving soil quality for more efficient farming.

“Biochar has billions of holes over an enormous surface area,” Wayne said. “If you mix biochar with manure and compost, it provides a home for the microbacteria and fungi that are necessary for soil to break down organic matter into plant food… and it helps retain moisture too.”

Biochar has actually been around for a long time, and humans are only now recycling and relearning about this old idea. The natives of Brazil developed it 2000 years ago and the substance, called terra preta (meaning black earth), has been dug up out of ancient, healthy rainforest soils in Brazil.

“Tropical soils are generally not fertile, but the Amazonians made the charcoal and chopped it into their soils, creating soils that are still good hundreds of years later,” Wayne said.

Recent research at the Tamworth Agricultural Institute has found that biochar has the potential to increase water efficiency in pastures.

NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) research hydrologist Dr Malem McLeod said initial results had indicated that 10 tonnes of biochar per hectare, together with fertiliser, were up to 17% per cent more water efficient than those without biochar.

While healthy soils need at least 3% carbon, in Australia we only have 0.5% carbon in our soils.

“Adding biochar to our worn out soils will get them healthier,” Wayne said. “If a cane farmer made biochar with his woody waste instead of burning it, then added it back into the soil, the crops would be improved and no carbon dioxide would be released in the process.”

Wayne’s experiments with biochar began a few years ago when he was working in the Maldives, setting up the Waste To Wealth permaculture centre. To help the local community deal with the tonnes of woody waste they were collecting and burning every week, he experimented with building versions of biochar ovens. When the resulting biochar was mixed with mulch, the community was able to use it to build up land on the low lying island.

“I realised then what the potential for what biomass farming could be,” Wayne said. “Biomass is anything that grows. The more you have, the more energy you have. If we can produce large amounts of biomass on small sections of land, we can turn it into biochar and energy.”

In some of his early experiments with using his pyrolysis ovens in the Maldives, Wayne and the other people working on the project were initially surprised at the amount of noise and heat given off by the process.

“When the oven went off like a jet, it gave us a surprise and I realised how much energy there is in wood,” Wayne said. “I looked for a way to tap into that energy source and make heat into electricity.”

Wayne discovered that there was already a device that could do just that, called the Cyclone Waste Heat Engine.

“It’s about to go into mass production in China,” Wayne said. “It can be used to capture any waste heat, even waste heat off a truck’s exhaust pipe. It can also use solar heat or furnace waste heat, or a small biochar system.”

Wayne is a dedicated permaculturist and believes localising production of our water, food and energy, and being more efficient in everything we do, is the key to creating a sustainable society.

“Our basic needs are housing, water, energy and food,” Wayne said. “If we localise them, people would be more secure, responsible for their own needs and creating their own wealth.”

Wayne discovered permaculture in 1990 after he returned to Australia after a cultural exchange in Cuba. He saw Bill Mollison (one of the founders of permaculture) on television, and was inspired to enrol in a permaculture course.

“I had been thinking of ways Cuba could maintain its energy needs after the collapse of the Soviet Union had left Cuba with no supplies of oil,” Wayne said. “I had resolved to help Cubans look at solar energy and then I discovered permaculture as a good holistic system of food production.”

Wayne followed the path of permaculture and travelled around Australia and the world establishing permaculture farms and energy-efficient houses while passing on his knowledge to others. He went on to work in El Salvador, setting up a sustainable farm where local people were trained in permaculture so they could go on to establish their own farms.

“My politics used to be based in globalisation, but now they have changed to localisation,” Wayne said. “Our food is transported thousands of kilometres around the world and we are putting so much carbon into the atmosphere; we need to use resources more efficiently and create a different economy.

“We need to turn off the coal and oil industries where most of our carbon pollution problem comes from. Instead of mining for our energy needs, we need to farm. Anything you can make out of oil, you can make out of plants.”

Wayne’s vision for the future involves getting farmers to grow biomass such as bamboo and hemp, which can also be used for food production and as fibre for industrial plastics.

“Bamboo will give you 10 tonnes of biomass per hectare and can keep growing,” Wayne said. “If we replace oil hydrocarbons with it, we can switch the economy from the hydrocarbon economy to a carbohydrate economy.

“In our society, our waste creates problems and we should have a solution. In nature there is no such thing as waste; everything is recycled and has a use. Biochar is part of the solution and it needs to be made and used locally. All farmers have woody weeds like lantana or camphor that can be turned into biochar. Farmers could get carbon credits for creating green energy through pyrolysis and get carbon credits for sinking carbon.”

In the future, he envisions some local industrial applications for biochar, including building a biochar oven at the local tip, and using the tonnes of woody mass that are taken to the tip every day to produce green energy, as well as selling biochar mixed with compost.

Wayne has also researched heating biomass to create biogas, which is already being used in cooking burners in some third world countries. The biogas is created in a gasification unit, (similar to a closed system biochar oven) that is fuelled by a small amount of woodchips. The process makes cooking more efficient by using 90% less fuel to produce sufficient cooking heat.

Wayne believes the biochar revolution has begun. As the old concept is being rediscovered, more and more people around the world are embracing biochar and beginning to experiment with it to design better systems. In the Northern Rivers, a number of locals have been experimenting with building biochar kilns and are keen to pass on their knowledge to other interested people.

A Biochar Hands-on Education Camp will be held soon at Eagle Farm Eco Park at Tyagarah Airstrip, where the farm’s owner, Dieter Horstmann, has built a large biochar oven. The camp will allow people to get hands-on experience making low cost biochar kilns and gasification stoves for small and medium scale use.

“Biochar is evolving,” Wayne said. “An International Biochar Association has now been set up and people are continually experimenting with improving efficiency.”

If you would like to attend the Biochar Camp, it runs from Saturday, April 30, until Wednesday, May 4. Presenters at the workshop include Dr Hugh McLaughlin, an expert on biochar production and characterisation; Dr Paul Anderson, an expert on micro gasification and TLUD stoves; and Dr Paul Taylor, physicist and local author of The Biochar Revolution. For bookings and further information, phone Paul Taylor on 6679 5259 or 8005 0514, email potaylor@bigpond.com or visit the website www.biochar-books.com.


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