WINCHESTER — About 30 people gathered around a kiln at a Biochar Expo held at Umpqua Community College Saturday where tree branches and shrubbery were burned to demonstrate how easy it is to make biochar.
Biochar is charcoal added to soil to improve soil tilth for forestry and farming.
“One of the most interesting points I learned today is that you do not have to put biochar on your soil every year, you put it on and it lasts, and every year it gets better and better,” said expo visitor Peggy Gilbertson, who tends a garden, including 40 trees, in Roseburg.
The Saturday event was sponsored by the Umpqua Biochar Education Team who is currently working with the UCC welding department to make flame cap kilns to burn biochar that are about 4-feet by 4-feet square in width at the top and 2-feet tall that widen to 3 feet at the bottom.
“You burn from the top down,” said consultant Kelpie Wilson of Wilson Biochar Associates who led a demonstration. She loaded a flame cap kiln with branches that were similar in size. The pile was stacked with smaller pieces of wood and brush on top to start a fire at the top.
“It’s by cutting off the air to the bottom that you make the charcoal and by putting it out with water before it turns to ash,” Wilson said. The air is cut off by layering the wood in the kiln. The top of the pile was heated to 500 degrees Celsius with a flame torch that then burns downward.
This efficient method of burning produces little smoke and ash and retains carbon. Farmers in the Amazon rain forest of Brazil discovered biochar and have been using charcoal for thousands of years to retain nutrients in their soil that would otherwise be washed out by rainwater.
“We are hoping to start a new industry, because we think that everybody who is burning wood in their yard just to get rid of it and making a lot of smoke, can do a lot better with one of these kilns,” Wilson said.
Another demonstration showed how biochar could be made at home with a deep Weber barbecue grill. Several other backyard devices were also on display, such as a round metal “ring of fire” pit and “top lit up draft” device. The “top lit open burn” method was the easiest, since it burned a woodpile from top down with no device.
“The charcoal we make is lighter and fluffier, it’s more like activated carbon. Microbes like it and it has a lot of porosity and surface area,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t provide nutrients, but if you add nutrients to it, they stay, and they don’t leach out of the soil with the water.”
Biochar also increases the size of plant growth, sequesters carbon, conserves water, provides habitat for soil life and has disease suppressing effects. Biochar differs from barbecue charcoal that should not be placed in soil because it has oil for fuel, Wilson said. With biochar, farmers can also use less fertilizer.
“I learned the different ways to use the charcoal potentially to help with not just keeping the carbon out of the air, but also making the plants grow up healthier,” said expo guest Michael Burns, a UCC biology major. “The plants grown with the biochar were so much nicer and way bigger.”
Burns also learned that biochar could be used to filter out the zinc from stormwater that harms fish. Another student learned that making biochar could be a useful application for forestry, especially when burning wood piles.
“I’m a natural resource student, so learning about this for forest management is going to be important, especially for students who are going to be applying this technology,” said UCC student Alison Luce.
For more information, visit the Umpqua Biochar Education Team website at www.ubetbiochar.blogspot.com.