Sunday, December 16, 2012

Charcoal - Past, Present and Future By Thomas Reed

Charcoal - Past, Present and Future
By Thomas Reed
Tom Reed demonstrates principles of gasification at ETHOS*
Charcoal cave art, at Lascaux, Roufignac in France (15,000 to 9,000 BC)
The evolution of Humans and Charcoal is intimately intertwined, important still today, and probably more important in the future.

PAST:  While Mother Nature produces generous supplies of wood that can be used for cooking and heating, wood can't be used for indoor heat and cooking because the smoke will cause lung disease and early death.

Early Humans likely understood this 100,000 years ago or wheneverSimians evolved controlling their environment and living in caves.

Cooking and heating your cave\home with charcoal is pretty straightforward.  Reducing metal oxides to metals has driven a great deal of charcoal use, leading to the deforestation of large areas - like Alsace Lorraine during the Napoleanic wars, to make bronze for his cannons.

The Indian tribes living on the headwaters of the Amazon developed a civilization dependent on converting biomass to "Terra Preta", black soil. Archeologists believe that half a million Indians converted large areas of terrible laterite soils into high
Productivity Terra Preta, probably by pit burning.


TODAY charcoal is used primarily for weekend barbecues, and to make activated charcoal for medicinal purposes.  (Home heat only (in Japan), and metals are now made using coke from coal.)

FUTURE USE:  Charcoal has been discovered  to be a wonderful soil amendment, doubling or tripling the yield from poor soils.  Few farmers are aware of this and even fewer are making and using charcoal.

We could begin using charcoal as a soil amendment if we had the political will.  Each ton of charcoal put into the soil keeps 3.7 tons of charcoal from entering the atmosphere.

(Wood contains 50% carbon.  Charcoal from that wood only contains ~20% carbon.  Therefore for each ton of charcoal made there will be 1.5 T tons of CO2 in the off gases if they are burned. But if the charcoal had NOT been made, 2.5 tons of CO2 would eventually have entered the atmosphere.

However, if the off gases from making the charcoal are used for cooking or making electricity, the whole process would not put any excess CO2 to the atmosphere, since that amount of cooking or electricity would have contributed an equivalent amount of CO2 to the atmosphere from fossil fuels.)

Humans have been adding CO2 to the atmosphere from coal and oil.  100 years ago there was only 0.03% CO2 in the atmosphere and it now risen to 0.04%. It is projected that we may already be suffering global warming of a few degrees and if we stay on the same course it will increase dramatically as China and India begin consuming fossil fuel like we do.

Personally, I believe I am experiencing global warming here in Barre, Mass.  I was surprised last year that we had no sub zero days and very little snow.  As of today, Dec. 11, 2012, the temperatures have seldom dropped below 40 F, rain or shine.

However, global warming due to CO2 may not be linear.  Our atmosphere currently contains 21% oxygen, thanks to ~ 4 E14 tons of carbon buried in the form of coal and oil.  Yet, before this happened during the Carboniferous age 360-300 Mya, the temperature was only a few degrees higher during the Devonian age.  Once the fraction of sunlight in the infra-red that is absorbed by CO2 has been exceeded, no further warming will be felt with further increases.

For further information on the use of charcoal aka Biochar as a remedy for the modern world.  Check out Biochar 101 at

Engineers in Technical and Humanitarian Opportunities of Service (ETHOS) is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to facilitate research and the development of appropriate technology by forming collaborative North-South partnerships between universities, research laboratories, engineers, and non-governmental organizations in foreign countries.


  1. Nice post, Genevieve! Thanks for sharing the good word about biochar. However, I hasten to note that not all charcoal is good for soils. And not all soils need amendment with biochar.

    First, there's a difference between charcoal and biochar. Charcoal is made intentionally to have lots of potential energy in it -- these volatile organic compounds can actually suppress fertility in the soil for several years while the microbes do their work, breaking down the VOCs. Biochar is intentionally "cooked" longer to remove more of these VOCs, leaving behind essentially inert carbon structures. For this reason it is also important to pre-treat biochar before adding it to soil. It should be composted, or blended with urine, or manure, or compost-tea, or even run through the rumen of an animal before applying it to soils. That way it will deliver immediate benefits.

    Second, if your soil is already fertile and full of organic material, then you'll see this with abundant earthworms and other critters (most too small to see). It is unlikely that you'll gain much benefit by applying biochar to healthy soils. It is really best used for poor, depleted, rocky, sandy, or clayey soils. But soil testing is always the best guide.

    I believe the best starting place for biochar research is the website of the International Biochar Initiative:

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