BadgerChar Mobile: A Farmer-Friendly Mobile Biochar System
BadgerChar Mobile: A Farmer-Friendly Mobile Biochar System
BIOCHAR: Improves Soils AND Sequesters Carbon. BadgerChar MOBILE: Affordable, Practical, Field & Road Ready Biochar System For Farms!
BIOCHAR: Improves Soils AND Sequesters Carbon. BadgerChar MOBILE: Affordable, Practical, Field & Road Ready Biochar System For Farms! Read more
About this project
BadgerChar Mobile will build, operate, and de-bug the first Farm and Pocketbook Friendly MOBILE Biochar Production System.We’ll produce kits and plans for farmers to build their own, using real world economics all the way- with better soil and profits for Farmers- the best reasons you can give them.
Biochar both makes soil more productive, and takes carbon out of the atmosphere in the long term. It can potentially do both of these things at large scales, large enough to make a real difference in both climate change and food production. Making the system fully mobile allows use in the field, right where the biomass is produced and the biochar used, addresses the transportation costs that are the biggest difficulty in most biomass systems.
Farmer Friendly Summary:
- Towable anywhere on the farm, and fully roadable– take it to your other locations, share it or rent it to neighbors, and more.
- Turns problem of nuisance wood into profits.
- Affordable parts in your region– should be less than $5,000
- Control kit can be used with bigger or smaller pyrolysis chambers– use what you've got.
BadgerChar Mobile is a project conceived by Philip Rutter and led by Brandon Rutter-Daywater, both of Badgersett Research. We’re a family-run company whose purpose is to develop and deliver sustainable agriculture that farmers can adopt with economic benefit. This project combines use of low-cost reclaimed system components with advanced design for efficient, safe, and reliable production.
Biochar is a carefully made charcoal put into the soil; exciting because it addresses two separate problems: It makes soil more productive, and takes carbon out of the atmosphere in the long term. It can potentially do both of these things at large scales.
Unlike many climate remedies being offered, biochar doesn’t need imaginary technologies; we know it works. There are hundreds of ancient town and farm sites in the Amazon with this “terra preta” or “black earth”– deeply buried carbon 2 to 3,000 years old. Some are still farmed; still very fertile. We know it works, but none of the native peoples who made those soils survived to tell us how they did it, so on several points, how it works is still a very hot research topic.
To make biochar, the wood or other starting biomass is NOT “burned”, but ”cooked” (technically, pyrolyzed); heated to burning temperatures inside a kiln sealed so very little oxygen reaches it. When it reaches these temperatures “pyrolysis gas”, often known as “wood gas”, is produced; this is then burned to keep the kiln hot. Cooking temperatures and times determine whether you get charcoal; or biochar. For biochar you cook until most plant chemicals (tars, saps, etc.) have been broken down and/or vaporized; what remains is almost pure carbon and minerals. Wood micro structure is mostly intact in the char, providing huge surface area to hold water and nutrients, just as activated charcoal does. It’s been demonstrated repeatedly that it helps crops grow better when added to farmland, from better water and nutrient availability, and some good pH effects.
The increased soil fertility is largely due to the physical properties of the char. The cell walls of the plant materials retain their structure through the charring and keep it long afterward. This leaves behind a structure with millions of microscopic rooms (that’s what “cell” means, after all), and both these rooms and the surface area of all those walls absorb and act as homes for nutrients and beneficial soil microorganisms; keeping them from washing away, and protecting them from attack. Happily, the nutrients aren’t held there tightly- plant roots can pull them off as they need them.
The “biomass” you start with, wood, grass, etc.- is mostly cellulose and lignin- which are both just long chains of sugars and alcohols. Cellulose is hard for microbes to attack, and lignin is harder; but not impossible; that’s what goes on in your compost heap- the microbes are managing to break those chemicals down for food. The charring process leaves almost nothing but pure carbon behind- and the soil microbes have no way “eat” it; it stays there as stable carbon for at least 2-3 thousand years. This may be the most effective carbon sequestration technology we have available! All calculations show that done on a large scale, it could actually make a difference to climate change.
It's been studied now by top academics, and they agree- it's all real. Biochar information abounds on the internet- good, bad, recent and outdated. Take a look. Check the dates, because experts were divided just a few years ago.
Here are a few places to get started:
Why isn’t it Already Everywhere?
Because- farmers don’t have real world tools for it.
Why aren’t these tools available? Biochar is so new people think “research” when it comes up; or “demonstration”. We believe the excellent research already done in our universities, and the “terra preta” soils of the Amazon constitute formal “proof of principle”- it works. It’s time to “scale” up - and get biochar into farmers’ hands. It’s farmers who will move this potential into farming the fastest. Along with 30 universities doing studies- think 5,000 farmers - doing, tinkering, improving and sequestering carbon
BadgerChar Mobile is a big jump in that direction.
Production equipment currently offered has major real-world limits. On-farm systems big enough to be useful are too expensive for farmers and not mobile,. Or they are off-farm, making transportation costs prohibitive. Or kilns are tiny, requiring way too much hand labor- “Here’s a batch in a 55 gallon drum....” It’s fun, but North American farmers don’t want batches so small.
And- most farm-scale or smaller pyrolysis processes are unregulated; yielding huge inconsistencies between batches. Every batch of wood you put in- is different. Different species of tree; different feedstock mixtures, different moisture - you NEED precise pyrolysis control; or you lose biochar’s fertility benefits, and just have “charcoal.” And you won’t know it until after it’s already in the soil.
Part of our reason for undertaking this project is that Badgersett desperately needs it. We're drowning in woody biomass that we need to remove from our fields; and much of the wood from the research plantings is too small to be readily useful or salable at this point. The mental seed for the design came from the bottom up; “what can we do to turn all this small wood into an economic plus, not an obstacle and a dead loss!” Practical handling was the first requirement.
Biochar is actually a good salable product now; you can even sell it at any Farmers Market. And; our experiences with all kinds of farms makes us think nearly every farmer needs a tool like this. Most farms slowly accumulate growths of trees- in corners, along edges, etc; that have so little value you can't afford to cut them. Eventually, you can lose acres of otherwise useful land this way. Our system will actually decrease the amount of time needed to clear out nuisance wood and will produce a product you can either use yourself, or sell. We think it's a big winner.
What we’ll do
We will build, operate, and debug a mobile biochar kiln made using a re-purposed 1,000 gallon propane tank. It’ll be big and efficient enough to be useful for most US farms, and small and cheap enough to be affordable and mobile. An advanced, affordable pyrolysis control system will be included. We'll build one, then operate and debug it for a half a year in preparation for improving the next version (see the stretch goals!!). Our PhD Mechanical Engineer will be in charge.
Basic project includes building and testing BadgerChar Mobile #1, including a person-powered brushwood packer, some support software, and funding for a critically important greenhouse employee at Badgersett so that time and support is available for this project.
$96,000 Basic Project, including
- $28k Kiln 1 materials and labor
- $36k one year full-time greenhouse help, allowing Brandon the time to commit to this project.
- $20k Reward fulfillment, Kickstarter and Amazon costs.
- Remainder for testing, training, and equipment and facilities overhead
As soon as the project is funded we’ll start work on the necessary equipment purchases and hiring. This will be closely followed by initial dimensional design work, as well as a quick first-pass prototyping of the combustion system components. If the budget allows for it, we’ll also do some consulting with a stove or furnace builder to speed up selection of these components and help select our insulation technology.
This is an end-on cut-away view of the pyrolysis chamber, a re-purposed 1,000 gallon propane tank - which turns out to be the cheapest and metallurgically best starting place. They’re cheap because scrap yards don’t want them; special precautions are needed in order to avoid fire or explosion– you can’t just feed them into the shredder, and they don’t have the time. If you’re doing one carefully, and taking those precautions, it’s easy to do it safely. The flue will wrap around the kiln. We’ll keep the tank sealed so the biomass inside “cooks” but cannot burn.. An insulation layer increases efficiency and safety.
We’ll use propane for initial heating; a widely available fuel that can run in the same lines as the pyrolysis gas. Using a combustion tester, the controller will switch over to use the resulting wood gas when enough is being produced. Temperature sensors inside the pyrolysis chamber will provide feedback to keep the desired temperature. If at a later point in firing not all the wood gas is being used, either for kiln heating or external heat and power generation, the controller will flare off excess to keep air pollution to a minimum.
We’ll get a sound, used farm wagon running gear, and put the converted propane tank on that. A dump or load pull-out mechanism will be included. We’ll cut off the back end and convert it to a side-swing door. In usage, you’ll pack biomass in, close the door, and fire it
As the components start rolling in, we’ll then have enough information to fully specify dimensional design of the wagon-tank structure. We’ll work with a local farm welding fabricator to help with the construction at this stage. If you select the “Construction Intensive” reward, this might be a good stage at which to make your visit.
Following and along with the macro construction, we’ll be finalizing and building our person-powered brushwood packer, outlining the control system, and getting the instrumentation for the kiln in place.
Milestone: First Burn, 4-6 months after funding.
Once all that’s done, we’ll do the first three kiln firing tests. These will be carefully manually controlled, and will involve intensive data collection. Brandon might end up sleeping in a tent by the kiln out in the field for these!
With that data, design for the prototype control system can be finalized (this will the the “Maker’s Controller Design” reward).
With any necessary new controller components installed, and the programming completed, we’ll do the first three regulated kiln-firings; with intensive monitoring as with the manual burns.
Milestone: Initial Controller Tests done, and 6 (or more) load of char. This should be 2-3 months after the first unregulated kiln firing.
The final stage of the basic project is additional field testing and development, doing enough in-field pyrolysis to let more of the bugs show themselves. We intend to be doing this on and off through the rest of the 2015 field season.
As you can see, that will get real work done and real products & designs out the door– but we've got a lot more in mind and hope you can help us reach some of the stretch goals below!
Who We Are
Our business at Badgersett Research is researching and developing truly sustainable, real-world, feasible, perennial agricultural systems. Woody Agriculture is our focus. We know that in order to really make a difference these systems have got to be at least partially implementable now, and it’s got to be profitable to the farmer in order to be useful. There is no farm without the farmer!
This project is highly synergistic with our work in sustainable agriculture, and in addition to everything else, having this equipment available will help us address some serious sticking points in our current management of the research fields on Badgersett Farm.
We are uniquely qualified to undertake this project:
Dr. Brandon Rutter-Daywater, project lead for BadgerChar Mobile, grew up in the log cabin built by his parents.
To this grounding in reality he’s added a course of study in engineering, mostly associated with robotics, computer science and biology; all of which can be summed up as “How to make things smart in the real world”. He’ll be in charge of design, construction, and testing, including the dual-fuel system thermostatic controls. A great deal of his PhD work focused specifically on cutting edge feedback control systems consisting of both electronic and mechanical components working together. This project has a lot of big unknowns, but a lot of well-bounded knowledge that makes him confident it can be done.
Mr. Philip Rutter, our founder, has been a tree grower and tree breeder for nearly 40 years. He also co-founded and led the American Chestnut Foundation, built a log cabin with his then-wife before there were any books on the subject, and has presided over the Northern Nut Growers Association. Honestly, we’re not sure you can find somebody who knows more about trees and wood. In thinking about and investigating new uses for all the woody biomass we need to harvest as part of our nut production, Philip found out about biochar some three or four years ago, and his further reading up on the subject was convincing: this does work for soil improvement and carbon capture, and it will fit into the Woody Ag systems we’ve been developing incredibly well. Feasibility in the field required the mobility and affordability that his idea will provide here. Philip will be involved in all stages of design, but will particularly oversee the Farm- and Farmer-Friendly design aspects.
The whole team will be involved!
1. $130k Field packing wagon; with a grinder/bagger to process the char into useable, salable product right in the field. This will also cover the labor to run and test it in the field. Hopefully we’ll be able to make use of off-the-shelf grinding and bagging equipment. Once we reach this goal, all Biochar rewards will be ground to a consistent maximum size, and supporters who chose a reward that includes E-PLANS or HARD COPY will receive any plans and parts lists for the packing wagon as well, when they are available.
2. $155k Storage Building– will make char handling much more efficient and help set us up better for commercial production. With this stretch goal we hope to “unlock” the availability of single-wood biochar. If you choose a biochar reward and we reach this goal, you’ll be able to choose whether your reward is pure hazel, chestnut, hickory, and possibly other woods as well.
3. $240k Workshop space and the second prototype kiln, including work on EPA emissions compliance. If we reach this goal, backers who selected any plans, either for the kiln or just the controls, will receive an updated version when construction of this second kiln is completed. Workshop space- will both make this project much more efficient, as well as help set us up better for commercial production, both of the equipment and the biochar itself. This will definitely result in earlier shipment of stretch rewards.
4. $250k Community Website for crowd-sourced development, implementation and field data. We’ve already got requests from people to help them get together in local groups to build and use these. This website will help those folks get together to share improvements, put them to work, and make data available on which practices and improvements work- and which don’t.
5. $280k Electrical and heat generation! It's fine from an emissions point of view, but it's still a shame to just flare off all those combustible gasses. We'd like to design hookup systems and add equipment for driving building furnaces and electrical generators with the BCM– load it in the field, then trail it back to the homestead to heat buildings, maybe even sell carbon-negative power to the grid. We’re envisioning running 3 of these simultaneously- one loading, one firing, one cooling- so we almost never stop electrical generation. If we reach this goal, anybody whose reward includes plans will get plans for the equipment to clean and feed the pyrolysis gas to internal combustion engines or gas furnaces, along with parts lists and modifications for the equipment we use for electrical and heat generation.
6. $295k Secret Stretch Goal #1. This is so cool we can’t tell you about it right now. It’s hard for us to imagine anybody not wanting it, though...
7. $325k Advanced biomass harvest equipment, and workshop tools, both to significantly increase our biochar and equipment production capacity. We might design and fabricate some of this advanced harvest equipment ourselves. Any designs for new equipment or modifications to off-the-shelf equipment will be available for purchase, and added to the design rewards if we reach this goal.
8. $335k Spin off BadgerChar as a subsidiary company of Badgersett Research, to support farmers who build them, and keep development moving. All backers over $50 get a signed copy of the incorporation documents, with our thanks!
9. $375k Build BadgerChar Mobile Kiln #3, for further refinement of design for ease of manufacture and field reliability. This kiln will also allow us to do more development of multi-kiln firing control, leading to even cleaner and more efficient pyrolysis. This will allow us to sell kits and plans for using one running kiln to kick-start another without using any more propane; potentially even one filled with very wet, freshly cut feedstock. Backers with design rewards will receive these plans when they are developed if we reach this goal.
10. $450k Secret Stretch #2. Too cool to make public just yet...
Risks and challenges
1) The project depends on hiring a new employee at Badgersett to replace Dr. Rutter-Daywater as greenhouse manager, and free his time. We don’t anticipate difficulties, but hiring and training are processes with well known risks attached. The budget is designed to provide some flexibility in this area.
2) Badgersett Research Farm does not have a dedicated workshop building, so we’ll be outside or using borrowed space for the project unless we meet the Workshop stretch goal. This could add moderate travel requirements during pre-fabrication development.
--If we get close to the stretch goal we should be able to build some multipurpose space, which could be used for fabrication. We’ve also got plenty of experience just plain building things outside in the snow, but it's a slower process to be sure.
3) Farm accidents may happen. Farming is known to be hazardous; we do own a tractor, horses, and rams, and do a lot of tree cutting.
4) Dr. Brandon is critical staff, and is not easily replaceable in event of injury or illness.
5) Weather. We’re in Minnesota; besides cold and snow, we’ve had two flooding events in the past 10 years (we’re not on a flood plain, but roads got washed out) and the farm was hit by a tornado in 2011. The BadgerChar kiln is designed to work outdoors in all weather, and be unaffected by rain; but extremes can slow all work.
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