Re: Mainstreaming biochar awarenss... still failing?


As always, thanks for your thoughtful responses to my from the hip comments. Still, I will try to disagree, albeit gently, below, although I will admit that, no, I just banged out my response to the article without a thought to copying it for myself and posterity. Sorry, if they don't publish it, it will gone forever.

Re your thoughts and questions, first, many of your observations both go way beyond my ken and point to the huge divide between developed and developing world.  My reference to $2-$3 a tonne is strictly to the expected cost of production in the developing world at facilities such as large timber mills. I know from personal experience that biochar can be produced in the field by small farmers around the world for $165 a tonne or less, approximately $55 a tonne of CO2 sequestered, atomic weight. This price is, I suspect, quite high, as it is the Thai price. I will be in Ghana in December and will have a rural Ghanaian price then. By then, I should also have a Malawian price. My bet is that they will run about $100 a tonne or $35 per tonne of CO2 sequestered. 

These are current prices at farm gate. I have no idea how they might be discounted looking into the future nor do I have any idea what various environmental or climate or government schemes in the developed world might make this char worth. Here the stuff is just fancy charcoal. As a practical matter, however, I have never seen carbon capture prices at a commercial scale much below $32 a tonne, the best asserted price I have seen for the dubious practice of pumping liquid CO2 down old oil wells. Whatever the MIT Technology Review may reveal about future possibilities for new technologies, I have not seen any I would invest in yet or that I would bet on operating commercially within a decade. In the interim, there are billions of tonnes of crop waste to char in the developing world at very low costs.

Regards your gentle chiding:
a) There is not a race. There are no other real contenders - and still biochar is largely unknown. In this, I am not kidding. There may be interesting carbon capture R&D taking place, but there is nothing out there now nor is there anything on the horizon. Commercialization of better-than-biochar carbon removal technologies is a distant future prospect, real but distant future - as in gigatonnes of additional CO2 added to the atmosphere. Forests? Oceans? Dead or dying. No future hope.

b) There is no reason for biochar to be a loss-maker. The failure to make markets in decontamination (consider the post-Florence mess of coal ash spill to say nothing of acid discharge from mines around the world), filtration (and not necessarily for drinking but for irrigation), industry (following Haliiburton's switch to biochar as its feedstock for carbon black or biochar nanoparticles for computer cartridges), etc.) is not proof that biochar needs to be loss-making.

c) True, biochar will take off when there are financial incentives. Remember switch grass! But if we wait for the politicians and policy makers, the Greenland icecap will slide into the sea.

d) Biochar is just not THAT complex. Yes, yes, yes. But when you are talking about 90% of the arable land in the world, it is very hard to imagine doing harm by adding biochar. This stuff is not Iowa. Acrisols. Lithosols. Nitisols. A loot of what is farmed is classified as too bad to farm! Add too much biochar? If only. And there are innumerable other ways to use biochar up besides putting it in the soil. Biochar is a great cement additive and cement is a huge climate change problem. Why not figure that one out and add a few million tonnes of char to big building projects? Just bury the stuff. What the hell. Biochar is 20% the volume of urban landfill. Pyrolyze it and bury five times as much for the price. Bury it on top of old dumps and it will collect GHGs for you. Bury it around them and it will soak up leachates. But don't bar its use in all manner of practical, dumb applications because it's complicated.

e) These guys don't have to follow the rapid production of articles. Most of it is what Kuhn called "normal science" that is, the extension of stuff we already know. There are very, very few important breakthroughs that change our understanding of biochar's essential functioning. These get a lot of play and anyone in the world climate space ought to catch them. The rest are for the specialists. 

f) So it is difficult to model biochar? This may or may not be true, I am in no position to comment. But what if it is? So what? We pay modellers to model, whether it is hard or not. The real question here is how important are models? To put it differently, do we have to wait for the model before we take action? Yes, that seems to be the case today. We have models that show us that continuing to add CO2 to the atmosphere is bad, so we have developed policies to slow our emissions. Unfortunately, although we know perfectly well that there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere, without models of how exactly removing CO2 from the atmosphere would help us, we cannot develop policy to support that end.

As we head off the cliff, I must say, that I find this incomprehensible understood as "making no sense in the real world." I understand that it makes perfect political, bureaucratic and funding agency sense, but while as a trained social scientist I "understand" this, I still find it incomprehensible at a gut level.

And I still do not understand why the large "development" organizations with a mandate at least to think about the developing world, do not have biochar promotion policies. Talk about an audience that we have failed to get to.


Dr. D. Michael Shafer
Founder and Director, Warm Heart

+1 732-745-9295 | +66 (0)85 199-2958 | d.michael.shafer@... | Skype: d.michael.shafer53

61 M.8 T.Maepang A.Phrao 50190 Chiang Mai Thailand

On Wed, Oct 3, 2018 at 2:27 AM Ronal W. Larson <rongretlarson@...> wrote:
Michael, cc Trevor, list:

1.  I just checked the site ( and mine were still the only two comments.  But my first took awhile.  Just in case they don't choose to publish yours, if you saved a copy, could you send it to this list?

2.  I was really delighted to see your "$2-3 a tonne"  value below for the cost.  That is a great number, but I think that was only the outlay.  The net value is still unknown (because there are many years of reduced costs for fertilizers (maybe irrigation) and improved yields).  

Can you make a guess at what those improved NET economics might be - over say 30 years - from your Warmheart tests?  

If you can do this for discount rates of something like 0, 3 and 10%? - that would be great.  Or just give a few out-year estimates for one tonne biochar made and applied - and we can play around with the real negative costs (that may be in the range of hundreds of dollars per tonne).  I know this is difficult at this time - but a range of estimates will help the biochar industry a good bit - from you or anyone.  There's very little such data in what I am reading.  Getting within a factor of two accuracy will be sufficient.

3.  You ask  below:  "How can we have failed so completely and absolutely?" 

I have to disagree a bit (again in the spirit of being "very gentle") - for these reasons:

a.   I am pretty sure biochar is leading the carbon negativity race.  BECCS, DAC, etc aren't doing anywhere near as well.  There is certainly a race - and biochar is NOT losing.

b.  There is no reason that we should expect any CDR approach to do so at negative costs.  Biochar is the only one I know of that can (as you are saying above).  

c.  Biochar will really take off when financial incentives or official goals (like the 2045 date from Governor Jerry Brown) are available.

d.   Biochar is NOT a simple topic.  It is relatively easy to add too much and get negative results.  The Science behind a perfect biochar for a given combination of char, soil, species and weather is becoming better known - but I don't think we are there yet, except for a few combinations.

e.   Those expert in policy topics (such as the three WRI) authors are unlikely to also have the skills/motivation.expertise to follow the rapid growth in biochar knowledge (coming in at the rate of about 4 peer-reviewed papers per day).

f.  It is orders of magnitude more complex to computer model biochar compared to BECCS (including just the out-year unknowns - much less the many different soils and crops).  So BECCS appears to be a leader, when just the CCS part of BECCS isn't happening and might never.

g.  etc.

Thanks for (both) your commendable indignations.


On Oct 2, 2018, at 4:08 AM, 'd.michael.shafer@...' d.michael.shafer@... [biochar] <biochar@...> wrote:

Trevor, thanks for the lead. Like Ronal, i left a comment. But with you, I am more than slightly outraged. Ronal is very gentle with WRI and in my comment I don't mention them at all. But this article is an outrage. Forests? Are you kidding? This is published in a Singapore, for God's sake. Indonesia and Borneo are burning. Where, exactly, do they see a huge resurgence of forests? The oceans? Don't they read? High-tech carbon removal solutions? Where? Have I missed something really big? Has someone got a scale plant going somewhere that I don't know about? is there someone out there sucking CO2 out of the air at $2-3 a tonne the way I can charring corn stalks? What world do these guys live in? 

to put this in perspective: How can we have failed so completely and absolutely.

No, this is not about feedstocks, charring temperatures or residence times. This is about the basic black stuff.

How is it possible that in 2018 a major, global environmental organization, to say nothing of a major eco-business publication not even mention biochar?

Dr. D. Michael Shafer
Founder and Director, Warm Heart  | Skype: d.michael.shafer53
61 M.8 T.Maepang A.Phrao 50190 Chiang Mai Thailand

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On Wed, Sep 26, 2018 at 2:58 PM trevor@... [biochar] <biochar@...> wrote:

Biochar still in need of headlines or high profile advocates?

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