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Open Source Technology

What is Open Source Technology, and how important is it to the emerging biochar industry?

These are questions that many IBI members are asking. This page will post links to resources on open source licensing and technology development. We will also showcase some examples of open source pyrolysis technology development.

According to Wikipedia: "The term open source describes practices in production and development that promote access to the end product's source materials. Some consider open source a philosophy, others consider it a pragmatic methodology." Open source originated in the field of software engineering, but others are now bringing the philosophy to engineering and design of all kinds. Another term used is "Open Design". The Wikipedia entry on Open Design states: "Open design is the development of physical products, machines and systems through use of publicly shared design information. The process is generally facilitated by the Internet and often performed without monetary compensation."

Open Source Biochar Resouces

For engineers and system designers, IBI offers an open source guide, The Guidelines for Development and Testing of Pyrolysis Plants. This 32-page document was produced to assist in the development and testing of small pyrolysis plants and provides advice on equipment design and testing. Authors Professor GX Pan, Dr Q Ding, Professor S Joseph, Professor LQ Li and Professor F C Christo, recently published a document: Commissioning of an Open Source Twin Trough Pyrolyzer.

Kelpie Wilson's website Backyard Biochar has a great deal of information on Top-feed Open Draft kilns (TFOD) with diagrams and photos; additionally the site highlights worldwide news and information on promising backyard biochar methods.

There are three excellent guides to making biochar for research purposes, constructing a biochar stove, and constructing a larger biochar oven, produced by Dr. Hugh McLaughlin.

Because charcoal-making is an ancient, low-tech process, there are many charcoal kiln designs in the public domain. In the 1800s, before petroleum came to dominate our energy supply, some fairly sophisticated technologies for pyrolysis and gasification were developed. Dr. Manuel Garcia-Perez of Washington State University, US, has published a useful catalog of these. Many of these designs are likely to be in the public domain.

Inventors and project developers who are not interested in pursuing patents for their technologies and who want to participate in Open Design processes may still want to retain some rights to the information they have developed. An alternative to copyright law they may want to consider is the Creative Commons License.

One company that is developing biochar technology through an open source process is All Power Labs in Berkeley, California.

Also, the community of stove designers who work on biomass stoves for developing countries often work in an open-source environment. You can take part in or just observe their discussions at the Bioenergy Stoves List.

If you would like to participate in open-source technology development in a workshop setting, check out the offerings from the Biomass Energy Foundation (BEF). BEF is launching around the world in 2011 its instructional five-day events called “BEF Camps”. Each BEF Camp is a structured learning experience, where the technical foundation, practical skills and fabrication methods of constructing biomass-fueled devices are taught and put into practice with hands-on efforts by the participants.

SeaChar (the Seattle, Washington biochar group) offers biochar stove workshops. Check the SeaChar website for more information.

Alternatives to Patents

The Nobel-winning economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz, has an interesting article titled Prizes, Not Patents, that poses an alternative to patents for medicines, especially for those medicines most needed by the poor. He says, "There is an alternative way of financing and incentivizing research that, at least in some instances, could do a far better job than patents, both in directing innovation and ensuring that the benefits of that knowledge are enjoyed as widely as possible: a medical prize fund that would reward those who discover cures and vaccines."

Perhaps a similar approach would be appropriate for the biochar technologies that are most useful to poor farmers. A biochar prize fund could compensate inventors, yet make the resulting technologies freely available. This would not be a substitute for patents that are still needed to protect the companies that want to engage in the biochar industry in a serious and sustained way. As Dr. Stiglitz says, "That said, the prize fund would not replace patents. It would be part of the portfolio of methods for encouraging and supporting research."

Open Source Ethics

Open source and open design have a lot to offer the community of biochar technology developers. For open source to be successful, it is vitally important for inventors and users to have a clear and consistent understanding of what technology rights are truly open and what rights are restricted or proprietary. IBI supports good business ethics and expects that all biochar project developers will respect patents, licenses and other rights to intellectual property at all times.