Possible Ethiopian Dark Earths and B4SS progress in Jimma (April 2017)

Possible Ethiopian Dark Earths and B4SS progress in Jimma (April 2017)

Prof Berhanu Belay, local B4SS project coordinator in Ethiopia, moved from Jimma to Injibara since he has been recently appointed President of Injibara University. In April 2017, Ruy Anaya de la Rosa visited Prof Berhanu and saw the construction of Injibara University. Furthermore, they visited an area close to Injibara where several farmers have been managing acacia tree plantations to produce charcoal in earth-mound kilns, and about 20% of the charcoal residues (mostly in the form of powder) is incorporated into soils to grow cereals, such as teff and barley, intercropped with acacia trees.

Although the Ethiopian farmers in the region have not heard the word “biochar”, they have been adding charcoal to soils for many years. Berhanu and Ruy wondered if these soils could be called “Ethiopian Dark Earths”, as compared with “Amazonian Dark Earths” where the concept of biochar originated.

Ruy also visited Jimma University and saw positive results from the ongoing field trials and from the theses of three MSc students that the B4SS supported. The students have found positive effects from the addition of different biochar formulations to soybean, tomato and chili pepper grown in pots, and are currently preparing the manuscripts to submit to scientific journals for publication. Moreover, Jimma University is experimenting with biochar added to chicken feed. They said that the chicken houses where the biochar-feed has been introduced produce less unpleasant smell than the chicken houses that have not received biochar.

We also visited some B4SS participant farmers and Ruy was very happy to meet Ibrahim, a local champion farmer who has successfully adopted biochar production and use. Ibrahim received training in biochar production in Kon-tiki kilns from Jimma University and is now making biochar from different available feedstocks. Besides using biochar to grow maize and soybeans, as part of the B4SS project, he is adding biochar to more land and is also teaching neighbours and relatives how to produce and use it.

Finally, we travelled to a new site, about 25 km from Jimma, where biochar is being introduced by Jimma University to the local farmers since the current project farms are being threatened with the expansion of Jimma and may be converted into human-made infrastructure in the near future. The B4SS partners are working with the agricultural extension officer who organised the construction of a Kon Tiki kiln prior to our visit for us to demonstrate its operation. We used feedstocks that are locally available, such as leaves from the enset tree (also called false banana) and some cacti that are grown and placed as fences for cattle and properties. Several people from the community gathered to learn about biochar.

Many thanks to Berhanu, Milkiyas, Amsalu and Gebirieli for showing Ruy that the B4SS project in Ethiopia is making good progress!

Visit to the B4SS project in Kapsabet, Kenya (April 2017)

Visit to the B4SS project in Kapsabet, Kenya (April 2017)

In April 2017, Ruy Anaya de la Rosa and Edmundo Barrios, coordinator of the B4SS in Kenya, visited the project site near Kapsabet, Nandi Country, Western Kenya. David Lelei (ICRAF) and Henry, the local leading farmer, welcomed us at the B4SS demonstration site. David and Henry have collaborated with the farmers in the establishment of the field trials. Their work has been essential to explain the farmers the benefits and potential risks of applying biochar to their farms. Thanks to these champions, the B4SS project in Kenya is making good progress.

During the participatory workshop, the farmers selected the types of treatments and two main crops: maize and beans. The most common treatments applied at the farmers’ fields are: 1) control (no fertiliser application); 2) biochar from sugarcane bagasse applied at a rate of 10 t/ha; 3) diammonium phosphate (DAP) applied at the recommended rate; and 4) biochar + DAP. Some farmers who usually use manure also included a treatment with manure on their field plots. David Lelei explained that the demonstration site includes more treatments and crops than those being evaluated at the farmers’ fields.

The next morning, we went to 7 farms that are located in one of the water catchments and talked to the farmers about their experience with biochar so far. Although it had not rained much during this season and farmers are getting worried about the lack of rain, most of the farmers reported positive benefits from using biochar in the previous season. In fact, there were some farmers that wanted to add biochar to all their farms and not only to the small plots. From the previous season’s crop yields and observation of plant growth in this season, most farmers said that the most promising treatment is the biochar + DAP.

In the afternoon, we went to the second catchment and visited more farmers who reported similar results as those visited in the morning. Some farmers also said that, in general, there were more weeds in the biochar-amended plots than in the areas that received no fertiliser (control) or only DAP. One farmer, Harrison, said that biochar is beneficial to the soil because it retains moisture and releases it slowly to the plants when they need it. Furthermore, he wanted to know how to produce biochar himself or where to buy more biochar for all his land.

The following day, we visited the third catchment and had an spontaneous meeting with most of the participating farmers from all catchments. Many farmers reported that the maize plants growing on the biochar-amended plots have a darker green colour and thicker stalks. In many farms, this was noticeable. Also most farmers said that it was much easier to work with the soil that received biochar additions, due to the decrease in soil compaction. The treatments with biochar + DAP have consistently resulted in the highest plant growth. At the meeting, after the acknowledgements and the speech of the village’s chief, a female farmer thanked us about working with them to learn more about biochar, and now she is sharing her experience with others that did not believe that biochar application to soil could be effective in increasing plant growth. Special thanks to Edmundo, David and Henry for championing the B4SS project in Kenya!

Visit to B4SS partners in Oslo (March 2017)

Visit to B4SS partners in Oslo (March 2017)

Following the launch of the Stockholm Biochar Project pyrolysis pilot plant, Ruy went to Oslo and gave a lecture on carbon offsetting, footprinting and biochar at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. The next day, he presented the Biochar for Sustainable (B4SS) project to staff at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI). In an organisation, sometimes the only person that knows about a project is the main project leader (in this case Prof Gerard Cornelissen who is coordinating the B4SS project in Indonesia), and so it was a good opportunity for NGI’s director and colleagues to understand more about the global B4SS project. Thanks to Erlend Sørmo, Gerard Cornelissen and Jan Mulder for their active support and warm hospitality!!

Launch of the Stockholm Biochar Project pyrolysis pilot plant (March 2017)

Launch of the Stockholm Biochar Project pyrolysis pilot plant (March 2017)

On 29 March 2017, Ruy Anaya de la Rosa, B4SS project director, attended the launch of the Pyreg pilot pyrolysis plant that has been established as part of the Stockholm Biochar Project, which in 2014, won a €1 million award from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. The Mayors Challenge is a competition for cities to present revolutionary ideas that aim at solving major problems and that have the potential to be replicated in other cities. The Stockholm Biochar Project is expected to produce 7,000 tonnes of biochar by 2020 and sequester, based on their estimates, an amount of CO2 equivalent to removing 3,500 cars from the streets of Stockholm. Moreover, the Pyreg plant will burn the pyrolysis gases to generate heat and distribute it through the city’s district heating system to more than 80 apartments.

One of the most innovative features of the Stockholm Biochar Project is its potential to foster citizen engagement in fighting climate change. At home, residents will collect their biomass residues (tree prunings, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, etc), take them to the pyrolysis facility and, in turn, receive a bag of biochar, which can then apply to their balcony pots, window boxes and gardens to promote plant growth. They also receive information about how to use biochar and sequester carbon over long periods of time. According to a survey, 8 out 10 Stockholmers want to be more active in fighting climate change, and the Stockholm Biochar Project offers them a concrete way to do this.

Stockholm has already received almost 100 requests from other cities and organisations that are interested in duplicating the biochar project. Therefore, the Swedish team, led by Mattias Gustafsson, has published a manual with lessons learned and recommendations to bring biochar to your city.

In addition to the launch, Björn Embrén, Stockholm’s tree officer champion and one of the originators of the Stockholm Biochar Project, gave Ruy a tour around the city to see what they have been doing with urban trees. They are basically removing the soil around old standing trees and adding crushed stones (at different sizes according to the depth) with biochar enriched with NPK in an underground structure that includes a well to retain rain water.

Stockholm is mainly replacing old soil with the rocks and biochar mixture to prevent floods in the city (the structures are planned to be able to cope with a 20-year storm), retain water on site to use it during the dry seasons when it is required, and improve nutrient uptake by the trees as their roots do not have to fight compacted soil to thrive and the biochar provides nutrient retention. Furthermore, they are sequestering carbon in the soil in the form of biochar and are having very positive results!

Tack så mycket Björn och Mattias!!

B4SS mid-term project workshop in Thai Nguyen

B4SS Mid-term Project Workshop in Thai Nguyen (March 2017)


B4SS demonstration workshop in San Ramon, Peru (February 2017)

B4SS demonstration workshop in San Ramon, Peru (February 2017)

After attending the B4SS training workshop in San Ramon in May 2016, APRODES took the initiative to do the same training workshop with farmers in Anta, a province near Cusco, where APRODES is conducting a project to strengthen local farmers’ involvement and negotiating power in product development and commercialization of quinoa. With the biochar produced during the workshop, a field trial was established in a quinoa field that B4SS project director, Ruy Anaya de la Rosa, was invited to see. The 2,000 m2 field received about 1 ton of biochar that was produced from wood and straw mixed with chicken manure in a Kon Tiki soil pit kiln. Unfortunately, a comparative field trial was not included. Although we visited another quinoa field that was supposedly planted at the same time and seemed to experience less biomass growth than in the biochar-amended field, the effects of biochar in this quinoa field cannot be scientifically assessed for this season. Yet, this did not seem to bother other farmers who are eager to try biochar in their fields.

Then we went to San Ramon, the central jungle of Peru, to demonstrate the operation of Kon Tiki kilns to B4SS participant farmers that have not received training, and monitor the B4SS biochar field trials. At APRODES’ camp site, Dr Brenton Ladd opened the farmers’ workshop with a presentation of the potential benefits of biochar and the objectives of the B4SS project. Initially, 21 farmers were selected to participate in the B4SS project but this time 26 farmers showed up for the training since their peers have told them about biochar. The farmers were very receptive and even engaged in a debate among themselves about producing biochar only from biomass residues available on their own land. Two farmers discussed the possibility of adding coffee pulp to the biomass during pyrolysis in the Kon Tiki kiln to decrease the pH of the biochar.

After the presentation, Brenton produced biochar for the participants in a metal Kon Tiki kiln, and APRODES demonstrated the operation of a pilot biochar-making stove. The stove is out of scope in the B4SS project but APRODES considers that the potential for the successful adoption of these stoves in this community is very high since the people are already being sensitized about the benefits of using biochar for sustainable land management. Together with the participants, APRODES identified some characteristics in the design of the pilot stove that need to be improved. During the morning, APRODES staff cooked our lunch in a traditional pacha manca (earth oven), that farmers compared with the Kon Tiki soil pit. The food was delicious.

The following day, we went to Palma Pampa to see the experiment established in the land of señor Rogelio. As the student informed us, the experiment failed due to planting of the maize crop during the dry season, drought, fungi outbreak and constant attacks by lorikeets. The student working on this site has agreed to consider the lessons learned and repeat the experiment in the next planting season. To our surprise, Rogelio asked us to visit another plot where he is growing coffee with the biochar formulation that we gave him last time. He wanted to show us that the leaves of some coffee plants have been affected by a fungus, whereas there are no spots on the leaves of the plants that were treated with biochar. Rogelio will continue observing his own experiment, and will now also look more closely at the student’s biochar trial. Not far from Rogelio’s house, we went to see Dennis’ plot where he recently planted maize with biochar. Both Rogelio and Dennis are very active farmers in the community.

Finally, we went to Lurin to visit a chicken farm and the research station, which, after about one year, has grown into a full biochar demonstration site/factory. It was clear that Brenton Ladd has put a lot of effort into the development of this site. He has also created a partnership with a local poultry grower that provides him with the chicken manure required for designing his biochar formulations. The director told us that Brenton’s team goes to the farm every two days to remove the manure at no additional cost. The director explained that the fact that Brenton reuses the manure represents a value for them because they have no place where to dispose of this manure, which would otherwise attract flies, produce ammonia and pose health problems for the chickens and staff.

Brenton has also trained two local men, Eusebio and Johnathan, in biochar production and formulations. They are both very happy of working in the biochar site in Lurin and not having to spend hours in traffic to get to work in Lima and back home. This was also a good opportunity to meet the students who are doing their theses with the B4SS project and talk with Mariela Leveau about her presentation for the mid-term workshop in Vietnam. It was a pleasure to see that the B4SS project in Peru is progressing well. Brenton and APRODES have increased significantly the interest in biochar production and use since last year.

Improving the production of biochar from green waste in Lima (January 2017)

Improving the production of biochar from green waste in Lima (January 2017)

The principal research site for the Peruvian component of the B4SS project is in Lurin on the southern fringe of Lima, which is the second largest mega-city in a hyper arid environment after Cairo in Egypt. Although the environment is extremely arid, much of Lima is built in the rich valleys that receive alluvial runoff from the Andes. It is estimated that Lima has 3m2 of green space per capita. Multiplying this by 9 million (a low estimate of Lima’s population), there should be at least 27 million m2 of green space in Lima. At present, only 3% of the biomass residues collected from this green space (grass clippings, branch prunings, etc.) is recycled; the rest is burnt or sent to landfill. Therefore, the B4SS in Peru has focused on the development of an approach for the efficient processing of this waste stream. Our local partners have been trialing a simple classification of green waste in which large trunks and branches are converted into BBQ charcoal, whereas grass clippings and small branches are converted into biochar.

Fig 1. The B4SS research site in Lima

The technique for efficiently converting trunks and large branches into BBQ charcoal (Figure 1) was developed by Eusebio Ocana (el gordo) who has been working for the B4SS in Peru producing biochar, establishing experimental trials and securing the biomass feedstocks. The B4SS in Peru has found the portable Kon-tiki reactors (Figure 2) to be extremely efficient for converting municipal green waste into biochar because little or no processing of the municipal green waste is required before feeding the feedstock into the Kon-tiki reactors. A life cycle assessment, however, is needed to quantify the potential economic and environmental benefits of the green waste strategy that the B4SS is developing for Peru.

Fig 2. Kon-tiki reactors produce biochar from green waste in Lima

B4SS baseline survey, lecture and visit to IBI-Asia (November 2016)

B4SS baseline survey, lecture and visit to IBI-Asia (November 2016)

B4SS project director, Ruy Anaya de la Rosa, visited Nanjing Agricultural University (NAU) on 22-27 November 2016. Dr Xiaoyu Liu welcomed Ruy with a 3 hour presentation on the biochar-related activities that NAU has conducted since 2009. To their knowledge, NAU has been conducting the longest biochar field trial in China and has now expanded their research into almost all provinces in the country. It is very interesting to learn about the specific context in China for understanding that certain activities here, such as large-scale production and application of biochar-compound fertilisers, cannot be compared with the small-scale approaches implemented in the other B4SS participating countries. The project in China is a case study on its own.

Dr Xiaoyu Liu presenting NAU's biochar activities since 2009

The following day, Ruy gave a presentation on the carbon footprint of agricultural products and biochar to about 40 NAU graduate students and staff. The students showed great interest in understanding that all products and services have carbon footprints, and the consumer is typically responsible for the climate-change impacts that occur along the whole supply chain. Although the suggestion of becoming 100% vegetarian to reduce greatly their carbon footprint was not welcomed with joy by the Chinese audience, some students expressed agreement in reducing their meat consumption for the sake of their children’s future.

Ruy talks about the carbon footprint of agricultural products and biochar

In the afternoon, Prof Genxing Pan, Dr Xiaoyu Liu, Ruy and three students visited Qingeng company, which was under renovation due to a large investment recently made to increase the safety measures of the factory and improve the pyrolysis systems. We visited this company during the B4SS inception meeting, and so it was interesting to see how fast the biochar activities move forward in China.

Few kilometers from the Qingeng company’s site, NAU established the new Asian Centre of the International Biochar Initiative (IBI). This NAU campus will also include student and laboratory facilities, staff offices, kitchen, bedrooms, pyrolysis machines and a library with a range of biochar and bio-oils samples, including an exotic sample of a whole pig head-derived biochar. The Asian Centre of the IBI will help to promote biochar research and development activities in the Asian countries and serve as a platform for generating and sharing knowledge on the use of biochar for sustainable land management.

The next day, Dr Xiaoyu Liu, 5 NAU students and Ruy travelled by high-speed train from Nanjing to Huaibei, Anhui province, where the 20 participating farmers were selected due to their proximity to one of the established B4SS demonstration sites and their interest to join the B4SS. We were welcomed by two colleagues of Xiaoyu who work at Huaibei University and will serve as local partners for the B4SS project. Then we travelled by car to the village to interview the 20 farmers.

The 20 farmers were waiting for us in a building. It was extremely cold, they said that it was about 0oC, and there was no space heating available. Most farmers smoked one cigarette after the other to keep themselves warm. Because of this cold weather and the high speed of our Chinese colleagues, Dr Xiaoyu Liu and the 5 students interviewed the 20 farmers in about 1 hour. The farmers were extremely interested in the biochar-based fertiliser, and even more farmers were willing to participate but unfortunately we only carried 20 surveys with us. After the survey, we explained further the objectives and activities of the B4SS in China and they were very attentive.

Finally, we also visited the B4SS demonstration site and were very happy of having finished such an intense day of work.

Xiè xie Xiaoyu for such an interesting and active trip!

International biochar workshop and training course in China (October 2016)

International biochar workshop and training course in China

The international workshop on biochar and sustainable agriculture and the China-ASEAN technology training on biochar and sustainable agriculture were jointly held in Nanjing Agricultural University (NAU) on 19-25 October 2016. The objective was to share the knowledge and achievements on biochar technology for biowaste treatment and soil management in agriculture among China and the southeast Asian countries. Around 100 people from 15 countries attended the workshop and 35 people attended the training course.

Prof Genxing Pan welcomes the participants

This was also a great opportunity to officially launch the Asian Centre of the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) that will be hosted by Nanjing Agricultural University.

Prof Lehmann launches the Asian Centre of the IBI in Nanjing, China

Numerous renowned biochar scientists attended the event and shared their knowledge of biochar with an interesting presentation of their most recent research findings.

Local B4SS project coordinator, Dr Xiaoyu Liu, led the field tour in Luhe district, Nanjing, to show the participants the paddy fields that have been amended with biochar and biochar-compound fertilisers.

Dr Xiaoyu Liu leads the biochar tour

The workshop participants also visited the NAU demonstration plant of large scale biochar production, which is managed by Qinfeng company in Luhe district, Nanjing.

Participants visit Qinfeng biochar company in Nanjing

Many technology companies are developing and testing a range of pyrolysis systems for different purposes in China, and several engineers took advantage of this event to show their most recent developments in biochar production.

APBC 2016

3rd Asia Pacific Biochar Conference (October 2016)

Members of the B4SS Scientific Panel, Johannes Lehmann, Stephen Joseph, Lukas van Zwieten and Ruy Anaya de la Rosa, attended the 3rd Asia Pacific Biochar Conference (APBC) 2016 A Shifting Paradigm towards Advanced Materials and Energy/Environment Research that was held in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, Korea.

Prof Johannes Lehmann gave a plenary speech on biochar-microbe Interactions. Application of biochar to soil has often resulted in an increase in microbial biomass and scientists are trying to understand why. Recent studies at Cornell University and elsewhere confirm that biological nitrogen fixation in soil can be enhanced in the presence of some biochars. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi has been significantly promoted by biochar application, which has also resulted in greater phosphorous uptake. Some biochars have been found to enhance survival and infection of beans with rhizobia after repeated drying events. Prof Lehmann suggests that another field in which biochar is ready for wider commercialisation is the design of inoculant carriers based on biochar properties that enhance survival of beneficial microorganisms during storage and even after soil application.

Prof Stephen Joseph’s plenary speech was about the commercialisation of biochar for green agriculture in the Asian Pacific Region – a history of innovation over the past 10 years. Prof Joseph talked about the history of charcoal production from using simple traditional kilns and ovens to large scale modern pyrolysis plants. In the last five years, the number of pyrolysis companies and biochar-based products has increased probably due to government support and advances in research and development. Production of biochar in the Asian Pacific region now should be above 100,000 tonnes and there are over 40 companies selling technology and products. While there are many biochar-based fertilisers available (mainly in China), few studies have determined whether a return on investment would be made from using these products. Prof Joseph presented some case studies in which the return on the investment of the production of biochar-based organic and inorganic fertilisers was very attractive to farmers. He also discussed some other opportunities for investment and innovation to drive economic and environmental sustainability for the producers and users of the biochar-based products.

Prof Lukas van Zwieten gave two keynote speeches on 1) a field evaluation of biochars with contrasting properties: greenhouse gas emissions and soil functional change, and 2) can pyrolysis cookstoves improve (indoor) air quality and produce agronomically beneficial biochar? The research work of his second presentation began years ago when Brenton Ladd, coordinator of the B4SS project in Peru, contacted Prof van Zwieten to evaluate the feasibility of using biochar-making stoves for reducing deforestation and air pollution currently caused by burning wood in 3 stones cookstoves in the Amazons. A biochar stove that was developed in Vietnam (together with TNUS, our B4SS partners in Thai Nguyen) was transferred to Peru and further adjusted as per local conditions. Several challenges were found during the biochar-making stoves pilot project evaluated in that Amazon region in Peru and recommendations were made for identifying barriers at the early stage of project development. Prof Lukas’ keynote speech was basically the only presentation at the APBC 2016 that focussed on biochar-making stoves in developing countries.

Most of the research work presented at the APBC 2016 evaluated the adsorbent potential of biochar for its use in nutrient dynamics alteration, soil remediation, heavy metal immobilisation, phytostabilisation of mine wastes, and wastewaster treatment. Some of the effects of biochar on soil organic matter and soil biota were also presented as well as the persistence of biochar in soils. In the Asian Pacific region, the paradigm is actually shifting fast towards the engineering of biochar-based products for specific applications in energy production and environmental remediation.