Turning up heat on biochar
EVENTS locally over the past year have provided passionate biochar advocate Dr Paul Taylor with optimism that the industry has a bright future in Australia.
Dr Taylor, who along with his wife, Renate Kraus, owns and operates the renowned Mt Warning Bed and Breakfast Retreat, says the past 12 months have been "most rewarding" in watching the interest in biochar surge, not only in the Northern Rivers but across the country.
"People often give me a blank stare when I mention biochar, but it is simply charcoal that is intended to go into the soil where it has some amazing benefits for soil and the environment," says the retired astrophysicist.
Charcoal is the carbon-rich material made from heating wood or other plant material in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere.
As a soil additive, biochar offers numerous potential benefits. It increases the capacity for soil to hold nutrients, enhances crop yields and captures and stores carbon for the long term.
Unused biomass such as sugar cane trash, macadamia shells, green waste and sawmill scraps is heated with none or little oxygen present in a biochar oven where the temperature can reach 500C.
The biochar-heating process releases energy-rich gases and preserves the char which can be ground up and mixed into soil to increase its fertility.
And there's money to be made from the process. A tonne of biochar could retail for $2000 or even more if packaged for specialty uses such as growing orchids or pot plants!
Biochar can greatly reduce the amount of water and fertilisers needed as well as making healthier, stronger more nutritious plants and veges.
Dr Taylor graduated from the University of NSW with the university medal, obtained his PhD at the University of Colorado and worked at Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT).
In late 2010 he published The Biochar Revolution, a guide for anyone interested in biochar or concerned about environmental issues.
"I have always been concerned with the environment, so when I came to the Northern Rivers in 2003 I believed this could be a really sustainable area; this could be a showcase to the world," Dr Taylor said.
He conducted climate-change workshops and soon realised if we were really going to avoid a climate catastrophe we needed not only to cut emissions but also restore the soil so that it can preserve its carbon and even bring back excess carbon from the atmosphere.
"We emphasise sustainable biochar," Dr Taylor said.
"This is not about buying huge plantations or taking over natural forests; this is about using waste biomass and turning it into viable end products which then help the soil, help our food productivity, help with the climate problem and bring environmental, social and economic benefits."
Last year in Byron Bay Dr Taylor hosted a five-day interactive biochar boot camp from April 29-May 4.
Since then a half-dozen individuals on the Northern Rivers have set up businesses either manufacturing biochar or biochar ovens.
In Queensland at Maleny, a biochar production company, Big Char, has a contract to supply a major fertiliser business with 700 tonnes of biochar per annum which is mixed into the fertiliser to enrich it.
Dr Taylor is off to Maleny on March 10-11 to host a biochar seminar for the Bamboo Society of Australia and then on March 21-22 at Byron Bay he is organising another hands-on workshop.
"We'll be teaching people how to make and operate biochar ovens from recycled material such as 200 litre drums and how to prepare and condition the biochar for optimum benefits in the garden or farm," he said.
"Bamboo is a particularly good source of biomass as it is fast growing and grows in abundance the Northern Rivers climate - it is sued in Japan to make excellent biochar."
It you are interested in attending the seminar and/or workshop, give Dr Taylor a call on (02) 6679 5259.