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UB International

The UBI Concept

In his keynote address for the ‘09 Asia Pacific Region Biochar Conference, Professor Lehmann indicated that he felt that the greatest potential for climate change mitigation through the sequestration of biochar lay in the utilization of thinly distributed feedstock. UB International (UBI) is a program dedicated to testing the concept that such feedstock can be utilized to significantly contribute to global climate change mitigation through low tech biochar production in sustainable rural development amongst small scale farmers, herders and forestry workers and hopes to develop a network of sib-projects to first ground truth the concept and then begin an exponential increase of participating communities through a communities-mentoring-communities program.

What is UBI?

The UBI concept involves utilizing the potential of small scale biochar production by third world farmers, forestry laborers, herders and micro-entrepreneurs for soil rejuvenation, reforestation, and income enhancement. Through a program designed to encourage a exponential growth of participating communities by harnessing this potential, a significant contribution to climate change mitigation is to be achieved in combination with ecologically friendly, sustainable rural development.

How is the biochar to be produced?

The primary thrust of the program is towards developing inexpensive, low tech biochar ovens (gasifier or pyrolysis apparatus) of between 50 - 500 l (10 – 150 gallon) capacity for family level use. Additionally, under appropriate circumstances a village level or a mobile, moderate technology apparatus might be used.

How is the biochar used?

Initially the biochar would be mixed with the soil to enhance its texture and fertility. This may enhance its water holding capacity and retain natural and added fertilizers, often increasing their effectiveness two or three fold. Since refractory carbon in biochar mixed with soil has been shown to remain there up to 1,000 years or more and the carbon in biochar comes from CO2 that was in the air and recently taken up by plants, it is the only proven, currently available technology for long term removal of atmospheric CO2. Thus, if biochar were to be produced in large quantities and added to the soil, it would not only increase the soil’s fertility, it would also contribute to climate change mitigation. It has been estimated that high technology biochar production from concentrated biomass sources in the US could offset 30% of the CO2 generated in the US from burning coal, gas and petroleum products. World wide it has been estimated that high tech biochar production and sequestration from concentrated biomass sources could offset up to 1/7th of the world’s human CO2 pollution. If Professor Lehmann’s estimate - that the greatest potential for global warming mitigation through the sequestration of biochar lies in the utilization of thinly distributed feedstock - then an UBI type approach utilizing low tech biochar production from thinly distributed biomass resources around the world should be able to make a contribution similar to or greater than that from concentrated sources.

How would income be derived from biochar?

Income would be enhanced through the increased productivity of corps raised on biochar treated soils. This alone would justify incorporating biochar production into sustainable rural development. However, if the goal is to maximize biochar production and sequestration in order to significantly contribute to global warming mitigation, a driver must be added to the concept in order to go beyond the 10 ton/ha that usually maximizes plant growth. It has been found that up to 10 times that volume can be sequestered without adversely affecting plant growth. Additionally, biochar could also be sequestered in non crop land.

Marketing carbon credits for biochar added to soil is to serve as such a driver. As envisioned in UBI, carbon credits earned by an individual small scale producer’s biochar production would be marketed through their local marketing organization. This marketing organization would also assure the sustainable production of the biochar and verify the quantity and quality of the biochar as well as its having been properly mixed into the soil for sequestration purposes. The local marketing organization and intermediary organizations would aggregate the individual members’ production credits for not-for-profit brokering on the open market, insuring an equitable share passed back down to the individual producers. To date such a straight forward pass-back of profit for primary work done does not seem to be the norm in the carbon trading markets. It will be one of the objectives of UBI to work with interested rural development and/or environmental organizations to facilitate the development of such market access in the current market as well as getting a significant place for representatives at the table in up-coming conferences where the rules for future carbon trading &/or energy taxes are made.

It should be remembered that when marketed for carbon credits the actual biochar itself is not sold. It need only be sequestered so as not to return to the atmosphere as CO2. Thus it can be applied to the soil to maintain or improve soil quality or be sold to large scale soil improvement projects.

How would UBI combat climate change?

While each low tech producer would probably produce a few to less than 100 tons per year, if practiced widely by small scale farmers, herders, forestry workers and entrepreneurs in developing countries, the aggregate tonnage sequestered could be large and have a significant impact in reducing net yearly CO2 production. Demonstrating the concept in select pilot communities and then using these communities to mentor others, which in turn do the same, could start a chain reaction, which if properly encouraged could lead to significant production and sequestration of biochar from thinly distributed sources of biomass. With properly designed programs and carbon offset markets it is thought that this production can rival or exceed that of biochar produced and sequestered from concentrated biomass resources and high tech pyrolysis equipment – and in an ecologically friendly, sustainable way.

While there are currently other rural development programs incorporating the use of low technology biochar and for-profit schemes utilizing high technology pyrolysis in conjunction with concentrated biomass sources, as far as we know we are the only program dedicated specifically towards initiating a programmatic exponential growth of small scale producers in order to maximize sustainable biochar production from the worlds thinly distributed biomass for timely climate change mitigation, or for that matter, interested in maximizing production, not profit. This is envisioned as serving as a holding effort while serious efforts to reduce our carbon pollution get underway. We intend to ground truth the concept utilizing pilot communities in various biological and cultural environments, incorporating current and future research results. These communities will serve as the seeds for community-mentoring-community programs to initiate an exponential growth of sustainable biochar production and sequestration from thinly distributed biomass. It is our intention to promote this process until it comes to the attention of the large NGOs, GOs and IGOs with the resources necessary to promote the growth to its sustainable potential and thus expand the window of opportunity for serious general global warming mitigation to take effect. The current insufficient effort on the part of the international community would seem to make this particularly relevant. Once that significant sustainable production and sequestration are achieved and CO2 pollution has been abated through the efforts of the world community at large, the developed program can serve as an in-place system for removing the excess CO2 that has accumulated in the atmosphere that will continue to endanger both terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems.

We welcome any interested projects, researchers or volunteers that would care to join with us in making this a significant contribution to climate change mitigation and sustainable rural development.

For more information contact Karl Frogner

July 2013: Timelines for Biochar Climate Change Mitigation Potential, on Hansen et al., Woolf, et al., and Amonette et al.

The present note is not a critique of Hansen et al., Woolf et al., or Amonette et al. They are taken at face value and used in an attempt to add clarity to the discussions of relevant biochar potential in climate change mitigation (CCM), in particular the effect of possible timelines.

Woolf et al. (’10) concluded that biochar has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12% of then current anthropogenic CO2 -C e emissions and over the course of a century by 130 Gt CO2 -C e, without endangering food security, habitat or soil conservation. Amonette et al. (’12), using the same model but including expected feedstock competition effects on the modeled high tech biochar operations from bioenergy production reached the conclusion that: “The economic climate-change mitigation potential of biochar is on the order of half of the technical potential estimated by Woolf et al. (2010)” [p.7]  

Their papers were designed to estimate the maximum ecologically and socially responsible potential for the use of biochar in CCM. What the papers do not address in detail are applicable time line strategies for bringing this potential to bear for effective and timely CCM. Hansen et al (’11) sheds some light on these needs. For the purposes of this note the core of the Hansen paper appears in their figure 6 and its explanation and can be summarized in the following 3 points.

  1. Figure 6(a) shows a scenario that they claim (with supporting data and arguments) would keep global mean temperature rise (compared to the 1880-1920 mean) at or below 1°C for the most part and remain above 1°C for only about 3 decades. Since they contend that slow feedbacks (tipping points) may not be a major factor if maximum global warming is only ~1°C and then recedes, they feel this would provide a good prospect for young people, future generations, and other life on the planet to experience a chance to continue residing in a world climate similar to the one in which civilization developed [p.12 & 13].
  2. That scenario, figure 6(a), models the effect of a 6% yearly decrease in fossil fuel use (which I will term “phase 1” for convenience) beginning in 2013? and a 100 GtC reforestation drawdown of atmospheric CO2 (termed here as phase 2) in the 2031-2080 period.[p.12] (A drawdown approximately equivalent to the restoration of all deforested land.) [p. 11] 
    The model shows the importance of early initiation of fossil fuel CO2 pollution reduction. Figure 6(b) models effects of postponing the initiation of the fossil fuel CO2 reduction (the reforestation drawdown (phase 2) remains the same at 100 GtC in the 2031-2080 period). If phase 1 reductions are postponed for only 7 years, with fossil fuel use ‘business as usual’ (BAU, 2% increase per year) before initiating a 5% yearly decrease in 2020, the temperature rise exceeds 1°C for about 100 years. Much worse, if BAU emissions continue to 2030, the (fast-feedback) human-caused global temperature rise reaches 1.5°C and stays above 1°C until after 2500, a scenario likely to result in the crossing of one or more typing points leading to uncontrollable climate change. [p.13] While not specifically stated, I presume the 2031 initiation date for phase 2 drawdown has to do with, at least in part, the logistics of reforestation efforts and the growth rate of trees.
  3. While of necessity the modeling is somewhat lacking in precession, the message seems clear: early  and continued reduction in additional CO2 pollution is important if we are to avoid tipping points that are likely to be disastrous for the world human population as well as other species.  

What does the above have to say about biochar’s possible role in CCM and, in particular, about a topic that seems to be rather conspicuously absent in discussions among the biochar community in general when addressing biochar’s potential for CCM – that is, how is that potential to be realized in time to be effective?

Johannes Lehmann, a coauthor on both Wolf et al. and Amonette et al., is on record as indicating that he feels that the greatest potential for CCM through the sequestration of biochar lays in the utilization of distributed feedstock - what I have referred to as thinly distributed feedstock (TDF, see Frogner & Taylor, ‘11). If true, and considering the negative effects of feedstock competition modeled by Amonette et al, this would seem to set an upper bound on the biochar that could be expected to be produced and sequestered utilizing market driven, commercial production from large, high production machines - hence concentrated (non-TDF) biomass sources (CFS – concentrated feedstock) at less than about 3% of the 2010 anthropogenic CO2 -C e emissions and over the course of a century by less than about 35 Gt CO2 -C e, without endangering food security, habitat or soil conservation. Since the competition for feedstock between high tech biochar and bioenergy would be for CFS and not TDF, the estimated potential for low tech, smallholder biochar would remain at around 6% and 65 Gt respectively.

But for the current discussion it is not that important which form has the greater potential. What is important is only that each has a potential to contribute significantly to climate change mitigation and when that potential can be brought on line. It is also important to bear in mind that to a first approximation CO2 removed from the air and sequestered is equivalent to CO2 not added to the air through fossil fuel use drawdown (phase 1) and that CO2 drawdown through biochar sequestration and drawdown through reforestation are, again to a first approximation, equivalent (phase 2).

While adequate and appropriate for their purposes, the Woolf et al. modeling used the simplifying assumption that all production will be carried out in large high production machines and that the rate at which production would likely be brought on line, after a 5 year delay for research, is determined by time to production logistics based on a capital expenditure rate needed for effective CCM needs rather than on expected development times for a commercial industry of this complexity and market economics. They also assume that peak capital expenditure, reached after 15 years, will amount to 0.1% of the 2007 Gross Global Product. With these assumptions the modeled maximum sustainable production was reached by mid century [Woolf et al., S.I., p.19]. These assumptions and others seem somewhat mixed with respect to the production timeline, but overall I suspect they underestimate the time needed for a more market driven timeline.

Until we have a better idea of the likely timeline scenarios for aggregate production from large, high production machines, we would seem to be justified in assuming that in terms of significant CCM, biochar produced and sequestered utilizing market driven, commercial production from large, high production machines will not come on line in time to significantly assist in meeting short falls in the phase 1 carbon reduction goal in Hansen 6(a) (the initial 6% annual CO2 -C e emission reduction). It would seem that whatever contribution that large scale commercial production would make, which would be incidental to market considerations, would come in augmenting shortfalls in phase 2 - what is conceptualized in 6(a) as ‘reforestation drawdown’. That is, it would not seem likely to contribute to preventing climate change from going into irreversible decline in the first instance, but could contribute, and might contribute a great deal, to maintaining acceptable global temperature (and ocean acidity) if other interventions succeed in avoiding the initial catastrophe.

But what of the other potential for biochar to mitigate shortfalls in CO2 fossil fuel emission reduction - what of the potential from the utilization of TDF?

The UBI concept (UBI-c) (see Frogner & Taylor, ‘11 ) is designed to address the question of serious, timely CCM through biochar production and sequestration from TDF. UB International and its family of sib-projects are attempting to test, improve and initiate the application of the concept. Since I am familiar with this concept I will use it as a model. (Hopefully those familiar with other approaches addressing significant and timely CCM utilizing biochar produced from TDF will critically add pertinent information from or about them.)

A prominent feature of UBI-c is a communities-mentoring-communities (CMC) program to induce the type of geometric growth necessary to increase production geometrically starting from initial pilot projects in a given culture/environment type. This design is incorporated so that CCM from TDF can make a timely, significant contribution. This is to work as follows: once biochar technology has been adapted to the needs of the given culture/environment type of a pilot community, forward looking members of the community are to be trained to act as mentors to other communities within their culture/environment type which in turn transfer the knowledge to their communities. After about 3-5 years of developing biochar practice these secondary communities likewise join as additional mentoring communities and so on. It is a simple, if somewhat laborious, exercise to table the production rate increase over time of such a process, dependent on the number of initial pilot or seed communities, time to mentoring, number of mentored community leaders per year per mentoring community, etc. and determine the size/number of program(s) needed to make a significant contribution to phase 1 of Hansen et al 6(a) to help offset any shortfall in yearly fossil fuel use drawdown; the size of the yearly contribution; and necessary lead time. Any sequestration not necessary to offset shortfalls in phase 1 fossil fuel use drawdown could be mentally seen as contribution towards phase 2 ‘reforestation’ CO2 -C e drawdown, or, more accurately, as having the increased leverage of effecting atmospheric CO2 levels earlier in the process.

UBI-c is not the only biochar program working with TDF nor is it likely the best that could be devised, but it does address contributing to CCM in a timely fashion with a specific proposal for the dynamics of getting it done.

In conclusion, it appears that both TDF and CFS can contribute significantly to CCM; TDF in both phase 1 and 2, and CFS, perhaps to a lesser extent and, for the most part, restricted to phase 2. So, without a doubt a balanced program utilizing both TDF optimally and CFS could contribute to CCM. However, if an unbalanced program were perused, neglecting serious and timely development of biochar production and sequestration in phase 1 and the early part of phase 2, undesirable consequences could result. If serious tipping points can be avoided, such a program could still contribute a great deal to CCM in late phase 2. If, however, other, non-biochar programs, are not successful in avoiding tipping points, then such an unbalanced biochar program can be seen as reducing to a hospice effort - alleviating some of the suffering of the masses destined for oblivion in a deteriorating world, a destiny that perhaps could have been avoided with a more balanced program.

**There seems to be some textual confusion over this starting date for pollution drawdown in the model. The caption for fig 5 gives 2012, but the text discussing the figure gives 2013. For figure 6, both caption and text simply refer to fig 5. The difference would not seem to affect the conclusions drawn.

Amonette, James, Dominic Woolf, Alyne Street-Perrott, Johannes Lehmann and Stephen Joseph,  2012. Mitigation of Climat Change with Biochar: What is Possible? Congress Proceeding: The 4th International Biochar Congress, Beijing, China, pg 4-8.
Hansen, James, Pushker Kharecha, Makiko Sato, Paul Epstein, Paul J. Hearty, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Camille Parmesan, Stefan Rahmstorf, Johan Rockstrom, Eelco J.Rohling, Jeffrey Sachs, Peter Smith, Karina von Schuckmann, James C. Zachos, 2011. The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future.

Frogner, Karl & Paul Taylor, 2010. Climate Change Mitigation Using Thinly Distributed Feedstock., in. Paul Taylor, ed. The Biochar Revolution. Global Publishing Group, p.280 – 293.

Woolf, Dominic, James E. Amonette, F. Alayne Street-Perrott, Johannes Lehmann & Stephen Joseph, 2010. Sustainable biochar to mitigate global climate change. Nature Communications.

Woolf, Dominic, James E. Amonette, F. Alayne Street-Perrott, Johannes Lehmann & Stephen Joseph, 2010. Sustainable biochar to mitigate global climate change: Supplementary Information. (pdf)

Karl J. Frogner, PhD
22 July 2013

Update July 2012


The UB J-RO components: 1. Afterburner top and stack. 2. Feedstock chamber. 3. The secondary air gap spacers.

An UB J-RO in operation. The oven is about 1/3 of the way through processing a load of wood chips. The excess gasses produced by the charring process are being burned in the afterburner chamber and stack resulting in no smoke pollution..

The biochar produced at the end of this processing of a load of wood chips.

(#003): The standard pattern for primary air holes. This ‘circled square’ design consists of the largest square inscribable, divided into 5 rows and 5 columns with holes at each of the row & column intersections. The circle consists of the corner holes with 12 additional where the projected row and column lines intersect the outer edge. This pattern was chosen because of its fairly uniform hole distribution and simplicity in laying it out. It can be laid out quickly with only a length of cord, a straight edge and a marker. See text - Instructions for laying out a Circled Square primary air hole pattern.

The primary air holes on the bottom of the feedstock chamber.

Loading a 200 l J-RO with bamboo sections.

The biochar produced from the load of bamboo sections.

The following are pictures of a simplified version of the test bed UB JR 200 l Natural Draft TLUD Biochar Oven (see from July 2011).  These simplifications have been developed to simplify construction and use of a Jolly Roger biochar oven for use in meeting UB International’s objectives of promoting the rapid adaption of biochar by third world small holders in an effort to meet biochar’s potential contribution to climate change mitigation before critical tipping points are passed.

In this design the basic feedstock chamber is retained with a standardized ‘circled square’ pattern of primary air holes. The primary air chamber with its slip-ring adjustable air supply has been eliminated and the feedstock chamber is simply stood on 3 bricks to allow for ample air flowing to the primary air holes. The extended afterburner chamber with its adjustable secondary air flow has also been eliminated in the interests of making construction and utilization as simple as possible. Instead, the lid of the afterburner sits directly on two bars (or 3 spacers) resting on the lip of the open feedstock chamber. This results in a 1 to 2 inch gap that serves for secondary air admission. I am told that such an arrangement has been developed at various times in the evolution of cook stoves and I observed it being used in some of the ovens being tested and demonstrated by Hugh McLachlan and Paul Anderson at the 2011 CHAB camp. The arrangement is more prone to cross wind smoking due to gases blown out the gap then is the original and in a brisk wind the afterburner flame might even be extinguished. This can be avoided when the oven cannot be used in a sheltered location by hanging a split open section of a second barrel fitted with hooks and braces such that it extends both above and below the secondary air gap and forms a second wall about 2 inches from the feedstock chamber wall.

Please contact Karl Frogner ( ) if you have any questions. 
The UB J-RO – a simplified “Jolly Roger” biochar oven (a 200 l, natural draft, TLUD biochar oven)

The afterburner top is made from the top of the barrel and the stack from a sheet of metal 1 m x 1 to 1.3 m, in this case a piece of corrugated roofing  iron (don’t use aluminum in oven fabrication).  The afterburner chamber consists of the 10 – 20 cm space left at the top of the barrel above the feedstock load. This space increases as the char in the feedstock chamber slumps during the burn. The feedstock chamber consists of the barrel itself with a pattern of 37 primary air holes 13 mm (½”) in diameter on the barrel bottom. The barrel is set on 3 bricks for stability and to give ample access for air to the primary air holes.  The secondary air gap spacers are laid across the top of the barrel to create a gap between the lip of the barrel and the top of the afterburner. The spacers need not be so robust as those shown here. Any piece of angle iron, pipe or other non-burnable material that will create a gap of 3 – 5 cm for the secondary air will do. This oven was made from a ‘clamp top’ or ‘open top’ barrel, but an ordinary ‘oil barrel’ type barrel with the two threaded openings in the sealed top can be used by simply cutting the top off the barrel about 3 cm below the rim. (Use caution and proper techniques when cutting barrels that have contained unknown, hydrocarbon or other flammable liquids.)

Instructions for laying out a Circled Square primary air hole pattern.
The following are simple instructions for quickly laying out the circled square pattern with just a length of cord, a straight edge, and a marker.

Mark a point on the barrel rim. Wrap the cord snugly and evenly around the barrel just below the rim to get a length of cord equal to the circumference of the barrel. (The cord need not be marked or cut, just hold it tight at the proper length.)

Fold that length in half to get the midpoint of the length. Re-rap the cord starting at the first mark and mark the rim where the midpoint of cord falls. Fold the end to midpoint length in half to find the ¼ length and mark these on the rim. Now with the straight edge connect the 4 rim marks in succession to form a square. Again, with the cord first laid along the edge of the square and folded in half mark the midpoints and quarter points of the sides of the square. Connect the opposite points on the edges of the square and extend the lines to the barrel rim to get the pattern as seen in picture #003 in the sidebar.

Update 2010

In an effort to advance the discussion of the potential of thinly distributed feedstock (TDF) in climate change mitigation (CCM) beyond the cook stove level and, more importantly, in contributing that potential within the time frame set by atmospheric physics, UB International has initiated a discussion of the topic on Greater Democracy (Dec. 11).  

We have used the UBI concept as a model to get the conversation started, but we invite others who have thought through the problem and developed conceptual approaches to it to also put them forward for discussion - in the interest of mutual improvement and elucidating the various circumstances where different elements may work best. And, of course, we invite all interested to comment on the various concepts in entirety or on specific elements, pro and con. We are most interested in focused discussion of the elements of the concepts and their integration. Let’s leave the mushy metaphysics & policy decisions aside, at least until we have looked at the various concepts and there elements and devised work-arounds to perceived problems.

Dr. Karl Frogner presented on this concept at IBI 2010. Click here for a copy of the presentation.

UB International is happy to announce a new sib-project joining the UBI group - UBI Hawaii (UBIHI).

In his keynote address for the ‘09 Asia Pacific Region Biochar Conference, Professor Lehmann indicated that he felt that the greatest potential for global warming mitigation through the sequestration of biochar lay in the utilization of distributed feedstock. UB International (UBI) is a program dedicated to testing the concept that this feedstock can be utilized to significantly contribute to global warming mitigation through low tech biochar production in sustainable rural development amongst small scale farmers, herders and forestry workers. We hope to develop a network of sib-projects to first ground truth the concept and then begin its implementation.

The Mongolian Biochar Initiative (MoBI) is the first such sib-project. It originated as a consortium of 3 local NGOs and a University research group focused on testing and implementing the UBI concept in the Mongolian situation and has now grown to include 5 NGOs and research groups from 2 Universities. A MoBI proposal has been accepted by the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) as the Mongolia contribution to the IBI Nine Country Program.  In the fall of 2009, MoBI was joined by the Thai Biochar Initiative (ThBI) with its first site located at Pala Uu in southern Thailand. UBI Hawaii was introduced in the fall of 2010. Additionally, a project summary has been prepared for implementing the concept in northern Thailand or Laos and we have also begun discussions with interested projects in Fiji and Egypt.

Ideally, UBI seeks to work through established sustainable community development projects, adding a biochar component to their ongoing work. Even so, we anticipate that many of the sib-projects will be in locations without a developed biochar research or application network. Therefore, there will be a need for experienced workers interested in working with the program in the various capacities associated with relevant research and the design and implementation of projects.

UBI has just put out a document on making biochar with a Hollow Core Fired Oven.