Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Big Chill, and Fire!

After making biochar in our kiln, we allow the retort drum to cool to ambient temperature, for ease of handling and to avoid the risk of the hot char self-igniting. Curiously, when we take the lid of the drum, the char cools abruptly. What's up with that?! We kicked it around and concluded that it's probably due to rapid evaporation of volatile compounds. On completion of pyrolysis the atmosphere in the retort is saturated with residual volatiles. When the lid is removed, these diffuse into the air, triggering evaporation from the manifold char surfaces as the system equilibrates to the new atmosphere. The coolness we're experiencing is the latent energy of evaporation (in the same way that rubbing alcohol feels cool on the skin, and then is gone).

Far more consequential is spontaneous combustion! We had just bagged some biochar (day-old and auto-chilled as above) and chucked it into the back of a station wagon for transport. Then we resumed work re-loading the kiln. Fortunately, one of our group noticed the smoke and we quickly removed the burning bags and quenched them with water.  If you google "spontaneous combustion" (bypass the apocryphal tales of "Human Spontaneous Combustion"), you find sites insisting that spontaneous combustion of a bag of charcoal is the stuff of urban myths (I can assure you, it is NOT). The best explanation I found was here: Crushing the char before stuffing it in the bag exposes heaps of surface area to fresh air; stir in the heat of friction from crushing, add a lick of water from humidity condensing on the char surfaces to catalyze oxidation reactions, and Voilá! Instant fire. Take care with handling fresh biochar! 

Dr. TLUD and the Coffee Caper

A couple weeks ago I took a break from my kiln work on the Osa to visit a very different sort of biochar undertaking in the coffee country of Costa Rica's Santos region: a women owned and run stove building workshop (APORTES/ Givers) for use by the families of coffee pickers.

The project originated when Arturo Seguro of Sol ColibrĂ­ coffees of Costa Rica, on a marketing mission in the Seattle area, happened upon an environmental fair where Art Donnelly of SeaChar (Seattle IBI chapter) was manning a table demonstrating a TLUD biochar-producing cook stove. Arturo saw in the stove a solution to a problem: Coffee pickers are mostly seasonal migrants from Nicaragua and Panama who live in tin-roof shacks, generally without electricity or running water, cooking on smoky open-hearth fires—a notorious source of upper respiratory health problems and driver of habitat destruction from overharvesting wood. This is a big problem, impacting the lives of 10's of thousands of agricultural workers. 

After a couple of design iterations, and the capable guidance of Paul Anderson (aka Dr. TLUD), they had devised a stove based on a 5-gallon pail that would be efficient, smoke-free, and produce biochar in the bargain. Art and Paul were on hand to help Arturo and crew kick-off the workshop. The stoves will sell for around $30. I brought sample back to the Osa with me; judging from the reaction of my Costa Rican colleagues, the TLUD stove may enjoy a much wider reception. Although most area farm families have propane cook stoves, they still do a lot of cooking on wood as well, and the advantages of a high-efficiency smoke-free stove are obvious!

(Unfortunately, the trip was marred by a failed wheel bearing on my truck during our descent back to the coast. Ay caray!)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Rocket Retort Rocks!

Yesterday was the christening of my new kiln, the Rocket Retort, a culmination of many months of research, design, contemplation; and a recent spate of hard work. Like so many others bit by the biochar bug, I wanted to create a kiln for my own use. I also recognized the potential that a practical, high-performance, "personal" biochar kiln could have in leveraging distributed production among home gardeners and other small stakeholders, and perhaps ultimately, subsistence farmers worldwide. My prior experience of small biochar kilns, gleaned from YouTube profiles and my own backyard pyrotechnics, had been of barely-contained conflagrations that produced an uncertain sort of biochar. My Rocket Retort design was informed by my work as hardware development manager for a philanthropic-funded biochar project in Costa Rica, involving a much larger kiln designed by Nikolaus Foidl and guided by Stephen Joseph, two of biochar's leading lights. Design criteria for my personal kiln include:

  • Low cost materials
  • Basic shop tools only
  • Low emissions
  • Efficient biomass conversion
  • Controlled firing profile
  • Recycle pyrolysis gases
  • Collect wood vinegar

The 55 gallon drum--durable, affordable, widely available, easily handled--is at the heart of the design. A removable-lid drum stuffed with wood mill scrap serves as the retort. To prime the kiln, I had been considering scaling up one of the newer innovative biomass stove designs, but felt stymied by the challenge of refueling and controlling output. On a suggestion from stover-friend Charlie Sellers, I looked into the Rocket Stove (, a versatile design that addressed my emissions, fuel feed, and control concerns. The rest of the hardware fell into place after a bit of "outside the drum" thinking: Create fire chamber and insulating jackets (two total) by cutting ends off drums, slitting open, and welding inserts cut from a third drum. The tricky bit was opening the slit drums evenly to maintain the roundness of the now-larger cylinders. The nesting Russian doll cylinders rest on staircase ledges in the modified rocket stove base. Each cylinder is topped by a shallow cone-shaped lid with a central exhaust vent made by cutting a sliver wedge out of a sheet metal disc and welding the cut edges together. The lids are secured by bolts welded to the inside rim of the cylinders.

The other design consideration was collecting wood vinegar (natural pesticide and plant growth stimulant) and recycling pyrolysis gases. A two-inch steel pipe was threaded onto the bung hole on the lid of the retort drum, exiting holes cut into the shallow cone lids, and elbowing down toward the stove's fuel feed opening. A "T" fitting and valves enable directing evolved gases toward either a condenser pipe leading away from the kiln to collect wood vinegar, or directly into the fuel chamber to fire the kiln. The fuel feed opening is divided horizontally by a stainless plate, with the lower portion intended for intake air. Being able to block the throat of the upper portion of the feed chamber enables greater range of control and can improve combustion efficiency by limiting excess air.

We were thrilled with our first firing! The rocket stove enables ramping up temperatures gradually, which could be a big advantage when working with high moisture content feedstocks. The cross-over from distillation to pyrolysis was fairly tender. Directing all of the gasses into the stove's fuel chamber resulted at first in an over-temperature condition, which was alleviated by diverting pyrolysis gasses out the vinegar condenser pipe--at one point flames were shooting out two meters (very dramatic!)--stimulating conversation on the various uses to which these surplus combustible gasses could be put.

For future firings the kiln will be fitted with thermocouples and a multi-station digital thermometer so we can approach pyrolysis temperatures a bit more gingerly, with the goal of achieving a longer soak at the lower end of the pyrolysis range to retain more organic compounds in the carbon matrix for a more plant-effective biochar. Separately, I'm  working on a design for a rotisserie-style reactor for making biochar mineral complex (BMC)--a step up from garden variety biochar. Wood biochar, clay, chicken litter, and mineral nutrients (rock phosphate, calcium, etc.) will be blended and loaded into a 55 gallon drum mounted laterally over the rocket stove for tumble-heating at sub-pyrolysis temperatures, to create a substance resembling aged terra preta (based on the pioneering work of Stephen Joseph). 

It is worth noting that labor was not among my design considerations. Although labor cost is crucial in commercial economic analysis, home gardeners are known to lavish lots of time on their gardens, heedless of return on their labors. Likewise, backyard biocharers generally do it for the benefit of their garden and for sport (the thrill of the burn). As for the ultimate target audience, subsistence farmers, the low-value of their labor is one of the snares of the poverty trap. Producing biochar, and improving the productivity of their agriculture, might just help them pick the lock.

For a captioned slideshow, go to: Rockin' Rocket Retort.  We'll get a YouTube together soon.