HomeBioCharBiochar: Make It or Buy It?

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.


Biochar: Make It or Buy It? — 16 Comments

    • Thanks for the comment, Tom. I haven’t done any more research on biochar since I posted in 2009, so it is always helpful when visitors add to the store of knowledge. I checked out the site you recommended and thought it was well put together and offered a lot of useful information. In particular, I thought the videos that demonstrate how to make biochar out of scrap wood were quite useful.

  1. Hi Jeff!

    I’d actually have to disagree with you on your definition of Biochar. According to the International Biochar Initiative, you may be correct, but the Biochar I’ve worked with is actually different than charcoal in a way. “My” Biochar is made with very little oxygen in a closed oven during the burning process. This produces a slow-burning charcoal different from typical charcoal. Whether or not it affects soil differently than normal charcoal I do not know, but it releases less CO2 into the atmosphere when burned and is therefore more sustainable to make than regular charcoal.

    It may be prudent to call my version of Biochar something other than “Biochar” if there is already an official definition of the word, but I’ll leave aside the semantic discussion for now. 🙂

    Thanks for the information!

    • Hi Becky,

      Semantics aside, I think what you are making is traditional charcoal, which is the same as Biochar, as long as it is used for a soil amendment and not to cook food with. I’m no expert in making charcoal – you’re better than I! I’m glad you found my post, with its links, of some use. If you find information that you think may be useful to others, feel free to comment again.

  2. Hi Jeff! Occasionally last winter I needed to give the kids an opportunity to do something dangerous and productive. After reading about biochar in Mother Earth, I let them gather prunings and blown down branches and then burn them in some of our garden beds. Seemed like a win-win. We’ll see what the longterm results yield. I think I understood the method to involve letting the burnt mass smoulder, not burn out. We are just trying to figure it out as we go along.

  3. Hi Jeff,

    Have I told you about the Factor E Farm project before? These folks are developing an open-source farm–all of the tools necessary to build a resilient community free online to be used and modified. They already have plans for a tractor and compressed earth block maker and are working on sawmills, solar generators, and biofuel systems. I follow their blog regularly at http://openfarmtech.org/weblog

    Here is their wiki entry on biochar: http://openfarmtech.org/index.php?title=Biochar. I’m going to add a link to this page to it to get your info and the VA Tech and other links from the comments.

    • Hi Mark,

      Those are some really interesting links! I’ll have to look at them in more detail when I have some time. Yes, you had told me about the Open Source tractor before, but I wasn’t aware of these links – there is just so much information out there and only 24 hours in the day! That’s why it is so nice to have multiple minds and eyes out there sorting through all of the information for information worth pursuing! Thanks for the contribution!

  4. Gardeners and farmers sometimes burn over areas for planting. Is this creating bio-char? I burned a big brush pile on my garden last winter. I’d cut down some little wild cherry trees that were threatening to shade the veg. It felt wasteful to send all that energy into the air. The potatoes growing over that area are the biggest. Most of the biomass around here goes to compost or the wood stove. Interesting topic, thanks.

    • Biochar is really just a new word for charcoal. I surmise that because charcoal has coal in it (I wasn’t aware of that until I did the research for the post) that the new word was invented to reflect that biochar is what is also called “lump charcoal” and that it is used not for smelting iron or heating or cooking but as a soil amendment. Thus “bio” + “char”. When biomass is burned in the open air, most of it is reduced to ash, which obviously is not the same as char. While ash is a good fertilizer, it is not the same as biochar. When I have the time, I’ll create another post that goes into what to do with the biochar once it is in hand.

  5. I had never heard of biochar, Jeff, but find this very interesting. Thanks for posting all this information. I look forward to the time it is made affordable for the average home gardener. Until then, I guess I’ll enjoy my compost. It’s free!

    • Hi Beth,

      Biochar is just a fancy name for charcoal buried in the soil. I’m sure that, over time, you could accumulate charcoal from celebratory bonfires in your neighborhood, crush it, and add it to a portion of your garden. It would be interesting if you just applied it to one small area to see for yourself if it made any difference. I’ve read that if you soak the charcoal in compost tea it makes it more effective – there are micro-organisms in the compost tea that take up residence in the pores of the charcoal.

  6. Dr. Agblevor at VT has his mobile pyrolyser running at a poultry farm in Dayton, VA.

    All the poultry litter biochar he is making is going to VT for agronomic research.
    Dr. Roy Maguire is doing this field research.

    There is real magic coming out of the Asian biochar conference.
    15 ears per stalk of corn with a 250% yield increase,
    Sacred trees and chickens raised from near death
    Multiple confirmations of 80% – 90% reduction of soil GHG (Green House Gas) emissions.

    The abstracts of the conference are at


  7. I spoke with Jon Nilsson of the CarbonChar Group, in their fourth year of field trials at Virginia Tech. He said the 2008 trials at Virginia Tech showed a 46% increase in yield of tomato transplants grown with just 2 – 5 cups (2 – 5%) “CharGrow” per cubic foot of growing medium. http://www.carbonchar.com/plant-performance

    • Very interesting, Erich! I had read previously of the efforts of researchers at Virginia Tech in this field but it seemed to be a well-concealed secret – it was hard to find out more information. For instance, I read of the development of a mobile pyrolysis machine but could find few details. I wonder, given that there are quite a large number of people who would be interested in biochar who live within a 50 mile radius of Blacksburg, why more people are not aware of this research? Or is it just me, since I do not live in Virginia? Maybe I’m the proverbial “rock behind the door”?

      I checked out CharGrow on the web site you provided and there isn’t much information about it, except to say that it is biochar with a microbial inoculant. No price – just a contact form. Maybe my readers will be curious enough to submit their contact information so that they can perhaps buy some of the product and try it out on their gardens in Floyd County.

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