Designing a Successful Biochar Project: First Steps

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Design a successful biochar project

The following article is intended to help project developers make progress with their biochar operation while waiting for an opening for the next Feasibility Study. 

Biochar is not a complicated substance. Its benefits may be multifarious, and its surface area is certainly vast, but essentially, biochar is a dry, brittle, dull-gray organic material, prepared at high temperatures in a low-oxygen environment. No high-tech equipment or machinery is required. 

And in terms of carbon removal strategies, biochar has to be one of the most straightforward and reliable methods. Converting biomass through a simple process called pyrolysis results in biochar which has a very high concentration of carbon. Burying that biochar in the ground delivers great benefits to the microbiome of the topsoil and, at the same time, creates a carbon sink that will endure for hundreds of years. It’s visible, it’s tangible, and it’s proven. There’s nothing theoretical or speculative about it.

These are just a few of the reasons why we’re so passionate about biochar for carbon removal. And we’re not the only ones. People are reaching out to Planboo on a daily basis because they too are excited about biochar. Plus, with the emergence of carbon financing, and the ability for project developers to generate valuable carbon credits, biochar has become an increasingly attractive endeavor. 

Making a simple batch of biochar is one thing. But designing a successful biochar operation that complies with the strict standards of carbon removal registries and satisfies the high demands of carbon credit buyers is a much taller task. 

So where do we begin?

Connecting with Planboo

If you’re reading this article, that means you’ve already discovered Planboo, and so you’re off to a great start. Planboo is the leader in carbon credit generation through decentralized biochar production in the tropics. We are currently working with several active projects in Africa, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, mostly registered on CSI (Carbon Standards International) and one on Puro Earth.

We have the experience to help project developers navigate the often confusing process of designing an operation that complies with the carbon standards. We also provide the most robust digital MRV tools in the industry, enabling projects to Measure, Report, and Verify their carbon removal with the highest levels of trust and reliability, resulting in the most valuable possible credits. 

Moving projects through our pipeline, we start with a pre-feasibility assessment. This helps us to understand the ins and outs of the project, and also gives the project developer a better idea of the questions and criteria that will need to be considered. Upon completion of the pre-feasibility form, Planboo will then assess the qualifications of the project – including things like readiness, additionality, and scalability – and then prioritize accordingly. 

As we have openings for new feasibility studies, the highest-priority projects will move forward to that step. Up until this point, there are no fees or obligations, but when we get to the feasibility study, this is a paid service provided by Planboo. 

Given our current waitlist, there is some competition to get into the feasibility study. So many project developers want to know what they can do in the meantime, to either move their project forward, or get to the top of the waiting list, or both.

What are the next steps?

1. Engage with the Carbon Standard

If you haven’t done this already, before connecting with Planboo, you will also want to connect with the carbon standard. For smaller, decentralized biochar projects using Kontiki kilns, you’ll need to speak with CSI and complete their online coursework to earn their accreditation as a C-Sink Manager

CSI works with the European Biochar Certificate (EBC) and the Global Artisan C-Sink and maintains the highest standards for biochar projects in low-income countries. In late 2023, they announced the World Biochar Certificate (WBC), which also applies to higher-income countries and requires more sophisticated pyrolysis equipment.

For industrial-scale biochar projects, Planboo works with the Puro Earth standard, which has a somewhat more cumbersome onboarding process. In any case, it should be decided pretty early on whether the project intends to register with CSI or with Puro Earth.

2. Define and document the project parameters

We can effectively break the biochar project down into four key steps, and these are the four areas that everyone needs to be perfectly clear about when designing the project. The four steps are biomass collection, pyrolysis, mixing, and application. Each of these areas needs to be strictly planned and will require some documentation. And all the associated costs, including materials, labour, transportation, etc, need to be measured and documented.

Biochar closeup

2.1 Biomass collection

Every biochar project starts with one thing: biomass. To qualify for carbon credits, the biomass feedstock must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, it must be sustainable, preferably from the waste stream of some other agricultural product or process. It should not be something that has other value or importance, as firewood, for example. It’s also interesting to know what was being done with the biomass before the biochar project was established. For example, if the waste was being burned in an open fire on a regular basis, and that practice of open burning is now being curtailed, that’s valuable information, and some evidence should be provided. 

For security and transparency, you’ll want to obtain offtake or purchase agreements for this biomass. These agreements need to specify the quantities and schedule of biomass that will be available and the price. Without reliable numbers, it’s impossible to know if you have enough raw material to maintain the operation, or whether you’re exceeding a sustainable level of production (i.e., bringing additional, unqualified biomass into the production line). 

An agreed price is also vital, because a waste product that’s free (or almost free) might suddenly become expensive when the farmers see that you’ve found a use for it. At the same time, the farmers should receive some benefit, monetary or otherwise, if they are providing all the feedstock for a revenue-generating carbon project. 

Again, all those costs and co-benefits should be well-documented. And it can take time to obtain those agreements in writing and get them translated into English.

2.2 Pyrolysis

Of course, your biomass will never turn into biochar without the critical process of pyrolysis. Our CSI projects use Kontiki kilns for their production, while larger projects may need to source something with a more industrial capacity. CSI has already accredited the Kontikis and the emissions from these kilns are known and understood. For other kilns, an emissions analysis will be necessary. This is something that will take some time, so it should be addressed as early as possible.

After deciding which kiln to use, you’ll need to have it priced and fabricated. You may need to source the materials and find a qualified steelworker. Or you might have to place an order from a factory and have the equipment delivered. 

With the pyrolysis equipment assembled and delivered, you’ll need to identify a good location for it, a place that is central and accessible, and also suitable for this sort of activity. One of the goals will be to minimize the distances traveled by biomass and biochar, so the kiln location is key. You may also need to get permits from the local government to operate pyrolysis equipment at a designated location.

Once the machinery is installed and ready to operate, you can start conducting trial runs. Pay close attention to the cook times and the conversion rates (liters of biomass to liters of biochar per cook). Then you can get some local lab analysis as well (see below).

2.3 Mixing 

Before you can apply it to the soil, it’s very important to mix (aka charge or inoculate) the biochar with some kind of compost or manure. As with the biomass, you need to have a guaranteed supply in place, and a set price that you know you can count on. Again, the only way to do this is with signed purchase agreements which can take time to organize. 

If you have choices, you want to use the least expensive and most abundant type of compost or manure possible. From our experience, it seems like compost tea or some liquid fertilizer concoction is usually the cheapest way to go. It also tends to be the most cost-effective in terms of time and energy required to do the mixing or inoculating.  

2.4 Application

Last, but not absolutely not least, the biochar needs to find its final destination. Biochar can be added to farmland, degraded land, feral land, or elsewhere. But your biochar can’t just go anywhere; it has to go somewhere. And you need to decide as soon as possible where that somewhere will be. And you need to know if you will be giving the biochar away or selling it, and if selling it, then for what price. Once again, we need to have offtake agreements in place with potential customers and landowners who will become the recipients of your dark gray treasure.  

As you can see by now, there’s quite a bit of documentation required in order to guarantee the feasibility of the project and to provide the level of transparency that carbon credit buyers demand. Gathering this documentation might take longer than you think, and it could bring unforeseen challenges to light. The sooner you can overcome these obstacles, the better.

3. Lab Analysis

If you’re in the earlier stages of establishing a biochar project and waiting to get started with a feasibility study, one of the most important tasks to look into will be conducting a lab analysis on a sample of biochar. To fully understand the feasibility of the biomass and the project as a whole, we need to know what quality of biochar you are producing. 

A thorough analysis will gather a long list of data points, but among the most important will be the carbon content percentage, the hydrogen-to-carbon ratio (H: C), the PAH values (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and the bulk density (as the biochar comes out of the kiln). Eventually, you’ll probably need to send your biochar samples to an accredited lab in Europe, but in the preliminary stage, the results from a local lab test will be perfectly satisfactory. 

This data will be crucial in assessing the viability of any carbon credit project, and for calculating the quantities of credits your project will be able to generate per batch, per day, per month, and so on. 

So if you’re eager to work with Planboo, we are probably eager to work with you as well. And if you’re caught on the waiting list, don’t be discouraged. There’s no reason to fuss and no reason to sit on your hands. The tasks described above should give you plenty to work on. In the end, transparency and documentation are everything, so run your trials, do your testing, prepare your contracts, and sign your offtake agreements. With these boxes ticked, you’ll be able to hit the ground running and coast through the feasibility study with flying colors. 

Learn more

If you found this article helpful, please let us know. Or if you still have more questions, you can drop them in the comment section below. And if you’d like to learn more about how we operate, take a look at these related articles.

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Fred Hornaday, founder of Bambu Batu, is a leading voice in the world of bamboo. He’s been working in the industry since 2006 and has a network that spans all six continents.

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One Response

  1. Higley informative. I am from South India . I am fabricating Utah Box kiln to make biochar. The feed material is prosopis juliflora weeds.

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To keep the world within 1.5 degrees of global warming and to avoid global catastrophe – we now need to not only drastically reduce our emissions but also rapidly remove them too.

However, there is very little carbon removal today with less than 50,000 tonnes of CO2 removed in 2021. It’s estimated we need to remove 10% of Global GHG emissions by 2030, which is equal to 5 billion tonnes per year. Carbon removal needs to grow 100,000 times bigger. 

Planboo is a nature-based carbon removal company, using bamboo-the fastest growing plant in the world. Like all plants, through photosynthesis bamboo absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. Because it grows so fast, it’s carbon removal potential is huge. We develop projects in Sri Lanka with local partners and supply high quality and high integrity carbon removal credits for the carbon market.