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Biochar Demonstration Project

The Biochar Demonstration Project emerged from RFFI's work with the Mendocino County Woody Biomass Working Group (WBWG), a multi-stakeholder grassroots organization interested in improving forest health and establishing a "restoration economy" in Mendocino County. The partnership is experimenting with biochar production as an innovative, ecologically sound solution to the management of excess forest fuels - an alternative that creates jobs and stimulates overall rural economic development.

Biomass Biochar production is seen as a method for addressing several environmental issues. It is conceived of as a beneficial alternative to herbicide application and open field burning that are current methods for dealing with "excess woody biomass" which in the Usal Redwood Forest consists of large stands of small diameter brush and trees that have filled in vast previously logged areas. This excess woody biomass impacts the entire forest ecosystem - using more water than well-spaced forests, degrading terrestrial and aquatic habitat, stunting tree growth, and increasing forest vulnerability to catastrophic forest fire events.

While forest overcrowding has well-known negative impacts, removing excess biomass is costly. The short-term monetary benefits of removal are virtually non-existent, because the economic value of waste wood is insufficient to cover the costs of removal and transportation. RFFI hopes to establish an economically viable method for removing this excess biomass, which impedes the growth of conifers and redwood trees and negatively impacts the forest ecosystem.

Biomass The Biochar Plant is a small-scale, portable thermal unit that uses pyrolosis to convert woody biomass to agricultural grade charcoal, known as biochar - a promising carbon rich soil amendment with multiple benefits. Biochar, a form of wood charcoal, is obtained when biomass is heated in a closed container with little or no available air. It can be used to improve agriculture and the environment in several ways. Its stability in soil and superior nutrient-retention properties make it an ideal soil amendment to increase crop yields. Biochar can increase microbial activity and the nutrient exchange capacity of degraded soils, reduce leaching, improve water drainage and infiltration, and adjust soil PH.

Biochar consists mostly of the carbon that was originally stored in the wood. Once buried, this carbon can remain trapped for hundreds to thousands of years, creating an effective carbon sink. The market for biochar is in its infancy but local enthusiasm for the product presents huge potential and several soil producers in the region already use a small percentage of biochar in their compost mixes.

Judy Harwood is the project leader. In addition to RFFI and the Mendocino County Woody Biomass Group, this partnership includes the UC Extension, North Coast Resource Conservation and Development Council, MendoFutures and the North Coast Integrated Regional Water Management Plan. This small project is integrated into regional efforts that allow for information sharing and project replication throughout the North Coast. RFFI is expanding this collaborative approach to include the Forestry Department at Humboldt State University (HSU). The Humboldt County partners are working on a torrefaction plant that may have applicability for dealing with unwanted biomass.

Torrefaction is a thermal process to convert biomass into a coal-like material, which has better fuel characteristics than the original biomass. RFFI's biochar plant will be tested at HSU. Beyond that, RFFI hopes to join HSU in research about the feasibility and viability of utilizing small diameter logs, slash in the woods and mill waste to produce marketable products adding value and creating additional jobs. RFFI will consider the applicability of torrefaction to Usal based on the results of the HSU studies.

Partial funding for the Biochar Demonstration Project comes from project partners as well as from a grant through the Dept. of Water Resources, owing to the critical role forest soils have on water quality. RFFI is currently seeking funds for plant operations and oversight. For more information about this project, contact morgan@rffi.org.

For more information:

Visit MendoFutures for information about the
Mendocino County Woody Biomass Working Group.


Judy Harwood talks to Mendocino Coast Transition Towns
and Mendocino TV about the Biochar Demonstration Project

 

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