The Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day (began by Senator Gaylord Nelson, who gained a reputation as “the Father of Earth Day” as well as the “Conservation Governor”) may have been overshadowed by coronavirus pandemic updates, yet many Fillmore County readers remembering where they were on April 22, 1970, paused to reflect on the importance of environmental protection and everyone’s role in caring for the world in which we live. One Spring Valley resident, Jerry Cleveland, celebrated by cutting up and removing fallen trees and brush from city property near his land with the aid of a cordless electric chainsaw. Cordless chainsaws address noise pollution concerns, yet require more than one battery for continuous sawing. A break as the battery recharged allowed Cleveland time needed for raking and gathering smaller dead branches before moving this wood onto his own property by hand or with a wheelbarrow where he planned to make biochar.
Biochar is defined as “charcoal produced from plant matter and stored in the soil as a means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.” It differs from charcoal since “biochar is used as a soil amendment and charcoal is used as a fuel.” Cleveland, who has a background in teaching, comments, “Biochar’s usage goes back to the days before European explorers discovered the new world. Natives had been burning wood in an oxygen-poor environment and burying it in the earth. This made for a very rich soil called terra preta. Because it rains frequently in the jungle, nutrients are leached out of the soil, making it very poor. However, by adding biochar to the soil, the nutrients were retained, making the soil much richer.”
Experimenting with stove designs of his own for creating biochar, Cleveland (sometimes referred to as “The Dome Guy”) found his initial design for a biochar cooker on the website of the Dome Home School in Oregon. Their idea seemed an appropriate path for him to follow since over the lst 20 years Cleveland has been studying, and building/assisting in building several Monolithic Domes. As a result of his research, he decided to go with a plan to construct a TLUD (top-loading updraft stove) made from tin cans. “It worked well enough that I was encouraged to make a larger, more effective stove. In the smaller stove, the biochar results were inconsistent,” says Cleveland. “As I burnt the wood, some batches burned too long and most of the biochar was consumed. Other batches would self extinguish before the process was complete and chunks of unburned wood were left, so I went back to the drawing board.”
Soon another stove design appeared and testing began. Cleveland explains, “The object of the new design was to completely prevent oxygen from entering the burn chamber while still having a safe cooker. This is done by putting the burn chamber inside another larger cooker on top of the heat source so that all smoke, flames, and heat pass through the space between the smaller and larger cookers. As the wood inside the smaller chamber heats up it gasifies any volatile materials in the wood. The volatile materials build up enough pressure that the gas escapes through the bottom of the chamber and burns, thus adding to the efficiency of the burn chamber.”
Considering the questions: What size should the biochar particles be? How much biochar do you add to soil for maximum effect? What’s the best way to apply biochar? Cleveland began realizing there is much to learn. Theorizing that smaller particles would be more effective, Cleveland used sawdust from a sawmill with success but the amount of fuel and time needed to convert sawdust to biochar seemed excessive. He gathered the wood from the dead tree using small branches which would fit into the biochar chamber. Once packed with branches the fire was ignited. Twelve hours later the cooker went out. Then after a cooling-off period a different looking batch of biochar emerged. “The apparent yield was about the same, but the fuel used was about half of what sawdust required,” states Cleveland.
So it was back to the drawing board for this environmentalist to figure out a new design for a biochar cooker which will yield biochar from both the burn chamber and the biochar cooker. Cleveland has read that “a dead tree left in the woods to decay will sequester carbon for perhaps 50 years but biochar added to the soil will sequester it for a 1,000 years.” And, he is interested in assisting in any way he can. Cleveland believes everyone can actively care for the planet on which we live and Earth Day should be every day.