A Modest Proposal for Naming Small Scale Biochar Production Technology

Erin Rasmussen

From Karl Frogner August, 2015

Naming Small Scale Biochar Production Technology
Cone/ Ring Pyramid


~500 l &

Larger BP

? x ? x x x

Small to
~500 l BP
x x x ? x

Cook Stove
Small Cooking

x x ?    

Items in brackets are tentative designations pending a consensus on a good name.
X = Technology type commonly found in units in the category
? = Technology type not commonly found as PDF in units in the category but might fit
(looking for references, help wanted.
BP = Biochar Production (as primary design function)
(LLU) = Low-tech, Large-capacity Unit (looking for a good name – suggestions by workers,
innovators of this category welcome.
PDF = Primary Design Function
(SFP) = Stacked Feedstock Pile
(see: http://tcia.org/digital_magazine/tci- magazine/2014/02/index.htm#?page=26 )
TFOD = Top Fed Open Draft
(TFUD) = Top Fed Up Draft (see: http://greenyourhead.typepad.com/backyard_biochar/
05/04/2015 Flame Cap Tube Kiln)
TLUD = Top Lit Up Draft

The last UN climate change report should have been a wakeup call for everyone, even slumbering believers, that climate change is the preeminent crisis we face as well as the most daunting one we have ever faced. This is heightened by the Popes recent Encyclical dealing with climate change. I am not a Catholic – not even a Christian and don’t agree with everything he said, but the fact that the Pope issued it has forcefully raised for all to see that whatever else it may be, climate disruption is emphatically a moral issue, intimately entwined with a number of other moral issues, the more so because it is human induced. Large numbers of people are suffering and dying and a great extinction of species has already begun. This moral imperative should (& I hope, will) have an impact on the future of biochar’s perceived role in climate change mitigation.

The current level of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeds 400ppm. This needs to be brought down to 350ppm, and soon, if we are to have a chance of maintaining a climate close to the one in which humanity and civilization arose. [1] The exact amount of CO2 needed to be removed is dependent on the amount of CO2 that we continue to put into the atmosphere. But, as modeled by Hansen et al. this can be (could have been ?) accomplished by removing 100 Gt of carbon in the 50 year period between 2031 and 2080. [1] We have only 2 proven means of significantly and economically removing CO2 from the atmosphere, planting trees and sequestering biochar.

Current science and expert opinion indicate that sustainable biochar sequestration could sequester up to 40% of the 100GtC, approximately 30% by distributed low tech biochar production (DLT) systems, while on the other hand, all of the high tech commercial production is not likely to be able to account for more than 10% - though this is still a significant figure. [2]
The moral imperative seems clear. We need a properly balanced biochar program where effort and funding reflect the needs and potential for sustainable, responsible biochar sequestration to responsibly and morally maximize biochar’s contribution to climate disruption mitigation. Our leaders should be advocating for this, we all in the biochar community should supporting this, being careful that our individual activities are not getting in the way.

With that said, can we start a serious conversation on a categorization of low tech units that facilitates low tech biochar’s potential for climate change mitigation?

The opinion and models involving biochar I mentioned in the first part for estimating the potential of biochar and low tech biochar in particular, while involving expert professionals, are for the most part far from having been perused as far as they should be, given the gravity of the crises and the moral imperative to take timely action. The relevant professionals should be encouraged and facilitated to rectify this.

If I might return to the discussion on categorization, a coherent categorization system needs to be adhered to.”Good science needs good categorization.” (Johannes Lehman, personal communication, Nanjing conference, 2015).

Words matter, categories matter. For those of us primarily involved with back yard or small farm biochar production in the developed countries, the word ‘kiln’ has a neutral or even positive association, you may never even have seen the pollution and sickness caused by traditional charcoal kilns. Perhaps if you’re concerned about forests in the developing world ‘kiln’ may have a more sinister connotation. But if you are a third world policy maker or funder and are familiar with the statistics on the damage of traditional charcoal kilns, perhaps even some within your own extended family, the word ‘kiln’ can have strongly negative subconscious or even conscious associations. And of course small holders in these countries have frequent and ongoing encounters with the very negative aspects of traditional charcoal kilns. It’s with these small holders, their policy makers and potential funders of projects that effect them, that the greater potential of biochar sequestration lays. Why take a chance on the damage this negative association could cause if the word ‘kiln’ is not necessary?

But what does it matter if kiln is used in the blogs almost exclusively directed to back yarders in the developed world? Well, green blogs pick up terminology from the biochar blogs, green literature picks up terminology from the green blogs, general literature picks up terminology from the green literature and so on up the chain until a policy maker or funder decides (or not) on a project focused on a particular category/subcategory of biochar production unit often as the result of subconscious framing. This is the route that ‘cook stove’ took (without evil intention I am sure) in establishing the frame {low tech biochar = a cook stove project}. Words matter.

Categories matter. ‘Kiln’ is an extremely general categorizer. It essentially denotes any heated chamber that produces a product. Any categorizer that can refer too widely loses its utility and may mask important distinctions.

What then to use in place of kiln? Once a particular category has been established in discourse, ‘unit’ can be used instead. And this would eliminate the oxymoronic use of ‘kiln’ for biochar production units that are clearly not chambers. Let’s get rid of this potentially harmful term and use low tech production category unit names to establish the overall category and the specific category names (cook stove, oven & (LLU)). Once established the category can be referred back to using the word ‘unit’ as I have done in these posts. Of course it would be proper to use the subcategory name to designate a specific technology within a category (e.g. retort cook stove), or even a product name (e.g. Kon Tiki biochar oven, or Kon Tiki cone oven) and then once the category is established just use the specific name or ‘unit’.

One may ask “Why the size distinction between oven and (LLU) (Low-tech, large-scale Units)? “ Originally the oven category was erected shortly after the New Castel meetings. It was specifically designed to cover the nonpolluting units whose primary design function was to produce biochar and which were appropriate for third world small holders to produce char from their available feedstocks too thinly distributed for economical commercial production in higher tech units. These smallholders usually are too poor to afford heavy machinery and usually rely on human and stock muscle power. Hence the upper size range for ovens was vaguely set at that which could be manhandled by one or two persons. At the time the only low tech units mentioned on the IBI biochar production technology web page were cook stoves and traditional charcoal kilns, so the unit space larger than oven was left unnamed. Now, with the increasing interest by the more machine rich larger small farm owners in the developed world in units less expensive than the higher tech units but with a capacity larger than the usual oven, we feel there is a need for a specific (LLU) category and would like to find a suitable name.

The oven category was originally erected to counter the growing mentality {low tech biochar = a cook stove project} evident at the New Castel meetings. This frame was obscuring the significantly greater potential for smallholder biochar production using biochar ovens. Unfortunately, after a period of using ‘oven’ in the IBI news letter the term ‘kiln’ again came into general use there, except for cook stoves and higher tech units and spread into the blogs and persisted, in spite of ‘oven’ being formally erected as a category on the IBI production web page. And of even greater concern is that the {low tech biochar = a cook stove project} has become even more deeply entrenched as {Biochar Systems for Small Smallholders in Developing Countries = A cook stove project}. Something needs to be done about this now that it can be seen to interfere with the moral imperative of developing a balanced biochar program maximizing its potential for sustainable, ecologically responsible carbon sequestration.

The oven category was set up several years ago and several new technologies have come on line that fit into that category so I feel it should be revised. The following is a draft of the proposed revision.

Biochar ovens are low tech biochar production units with a primary design function of producing biochar. This is the category of biochar production unit most suitable for clean, healthy distributed low tech (DLT) production of biochar by third world small holders and micro-entrepreneurs; “backyard” producers utilizing yard waste; small & urban farms in the developed world; nurseries; communal gardens; etc to convert the thinly distributed feedstock (TDF) available to them for their own use, to make available to others and thus, in total, to make a significant climate change mitigation contribution. The feedstock ‘chamber’ of these units will usually be in the range of very small to 4-500 l. To date, the primary functional designs that fall within this category are retorts; TLUDs* and TLUD retort hybrids (J-ROs); and TFODs* (cones/pyramids, pit & metal; and rings). Other functional designs may fall within this category (based on size, primary design function, and technology level) as they are developed. The stacked feedstock pile, while not fitting well into the metaphor on which the name of the oven category is based, does fit within the above definition and should be included because of its utility in appropriate situations.

The name of this category is based on the metaphor that, as a bread oven is a unit used to bake dough to produce bread, a biochar oven is a unit used to bake feedstock to produce biochar. It was chosen for its positive framing value. Oven is a term of very wide spread use and there is a functional equivalent in most languages. Ordinary ovens are of almost universal experience and, as generally understood, have a very positive connotation of the ‘producing Mom’s warm cookies and apple pie’ variety.

A bit more on the importance of framing: At first blush, ‘kiln’ might seemed to have been a better alternative for ‘oven’, but, particularly now with the once distinctive definition of biochar having degenerated to the point where it is co-identified as charcoal, ‘biochar kiln’ or ‘kiln’ attached to any of the functional designs within the oven or (LLU) categories would have brought forth an association with traditional charcoal kilns. The above positive framing for oven could not occur. To most within the developed world a ‘charcoal kiln’ association may not have an immediate negative effect for they may never have seen a traditional kiln in operation. Not so in the third world where effective DLT programs hold such a great potential for climate change mitigation, improved food security, and small holder benefit. There, most have frequent encounters with chunk charcoal and many have a negative association with charcoal kilns due to their severe pollution, health hazards and forest degradation. Words matter. Biochar production units are discussed on the biochar blogs. This info and framing is then picked up by the green blogs, then the green literature, general magazines and newspapers and so on up a chain until major funders get interested, or not, depending on the framing. Unconscious negative framing or lack of positive framing can break the chain at any link.

Is ‘cone’ or ‘ring’ oven an oxymoron? No. While ‘oven’ (as well as ‘kiln’) is defined as a ‘chamber’ and an inverted cone with the large end open and an open toped ring are not chambers, as noted above, the name ‘oven’ derives from a metaphor, not from the unit meeting the strict definition of ‘oven’.

*: TLUD – Top Lit Up Draft; TFOD – Top Fed Open Draft

Constructive comments appreciated.

[1] Hansen, J., P. Kharecha, M. Sato, V. Masson-Delmotte, et al., Assessing "Dangerous Climate Change": Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature. PLOS ONE, 8, e81468
[2] Frogner, K.., July 2013 Post: Timelines for Biochar Climate Change Mitigation Potential, on Hansen et al., Woolf, et al., and Amonette et al.; & citations therein, using the Woolf et al. 100yr accumulative estimate rather than emissions percentage, assuming low tech potential on line by 2031 and high tech potential on line by 2050.