Biochar, as I wrote in the previous post, is identical to charcoal, at least when viewed under a microscope. What is different about biochar is that to be called that by the International Biochar Intiative, it must be used as a soil amendment for agricultural or environmental gain.
As I wrote in the last post, it is quite possible to make charcoal in your own back yard. But does it make economic and environmental sense? After all, making charcoal in the traditional way produces a lot of toxic gases and smoke and it also does not capture the bio-oil and syngas that can be captured by industrial processes. I suppose this is a personal decision to make but my decision would be to buy charcoal rather than to make it myself.
So if biochar is identical to charcoal, why not go out and buy a couple of bags of charcoal briquettes, grind them up, and incorporate them into your garden soil? There are three reasons why I would advise against doing this. First, charcoal briquettes have more than charcoal in them – most also have coal as a secondary ingredient. I don’t know the percentages of each ingredient in the finished briquette, but this site says that 90% of the briquette is composed of charcoal and coal. The remaining 10% consists of an accelerant such as nitrate, starch to bind the grains of charcoal and coal together, and lime to let the back yard chef know when the fire is ready for the meat to be placed on the grill. Second, who are you supporting by buying briquettes? What company makes the briquettes? Who owns that company? What politicians are supported by that company? And what store are you buying the briquettes from? Wal-Mart? Third, do you really want the toxins contained in the briquettes to be mixed in with your garden soil?
A better choice, it seems to me, would be to buy a product known as “lump charcoal”. It is manufactured by many different companies, including Cowboy Charcoal, which I mentioned in a previous post. But there are many other companies out there to pick from and you may find the Naked Whiz’s Lump Charcoal Database a useful tool to help you make a decision about whom to buy your charcoal from.
If you are environmentally conscious (which I hope all of my readers are!), pay close attention to where the charcoal is manufactured and take into account the shipping costs involved. If at all possible, buy locally. Try to determine how environmentally sensitive the manufacturer of the charcoal is. Buying from a company in the United States is probably preferable to buying from a company that manufactures charcoal in a foreign country, simply because there are more environmental restrictions here, even after President Bush decimated environmental protections, than in foreign countries. I hope.
Having said all this, why not buy biochar directly from a company that makes it in an environmentally sensitive manner and captures the bio-oil and syngas that is also produced in the manufacturing process? In a word, availability. There just aren’t that many companies that make biochar for sale to the general public. There are companies out there that are making biochar, including BioChar and another company that makes an unrelated product, called Biochar Plus. However, I read that BioChar is only available in a minimum quantity of 4 tons at a price of .50 per pound, which works out to $4,000. That is a rather steep price and I don’t know of a home gardener who could use that much. Perhaps a group of gardeners could get together to buy it in bulk? The idea of using charcoal as a soil amendment is growing rapidly and there is a lot of research, development, and infrastructure building going on. In a few years, you will probably be able to buy smaller quantities of biochar quite easily. Until then, if you would like to experiment with biochar in your garden, your only realistic and environmentally sound choice seems to be to buy lump charcoal, grind it up, and mix it in with your soil.
If anyone has more information, I’d be pleased to learn of it!
Update 1/24/2010: I received a comment from a company in India which makes biochar for home consumption. The name of the company is Indochar and the name of the person to contact is Manju Thiagu. The contact information is indochar (at) gmail.com. I am not endorsing this company, merely adding it to a list of possibilities. Caveat Emptor.