What is a Top Lit Burn Pile? It is a technique for clean conversion of waste biomass - like forest thinnings - into small amounts of biochar. It is not the most efficient way to produce biochar. However, there are many situations today where "problem" biomass is thinly distributed on the ground and far away from any facility where it could be used to generate energy or used as feedstock in some efficent carbonization machinery to produce biochar.
The Top Lit method can be used in cases where biomass will be burned anyway just to dispose of it, for instance, fuel-load reduction in forests or killing pests in orchard and vineyard prunings. Top Lit Burning will produce some biochar - perhaps about 10% by volume of the original biomass, depending mostly on feedstock moisture - the drier the better. Perhaps more importantly, the Top Lit method drastically reduces the amount of smoke produced, saving our air and our lungs.
Here is a great time lapse video of the Top Lit method as practiced in northern California by Will Emerson, followed by a "how to" video from Steven Edholm and then by a presentation and article I did on our October 2013 Top Lit Burning demonstration project in southern Oregon:
TCIA is an organization for professional arborists. It's great to see their interest in biochar. I wrote another piece for them back in 2012 (Biochar for Arborists) that highlighted work being done by Bryant Scharenbroch of the Morton Arboretum and Bartlett Tree Services on renewing the health of urban street trees in Chicago.
On Saturday, I visited Edgewalkers Social Forestry Wintercamp, located this season in the mountains outside of Ashland, Oregon. This group of nomadic forest restoration workers is learning about forest restoration and fire ecology in oak woodlands through sharing knowledge and skills and also through sitting in quiet observation of the processes and creatures around them. They have been at the camp for four weeks now, and are beginning to apply their learning - cutting and burning small firs and brush that crowd the old oaks and compete with them for water and nutrients. These forests are adapted to a natural fire interval of a few decades, where wildfire used to clear out the understory on a regular basis, without damaging the big, old trees. A century of aggressive fire suppression has left the forests thick with small fuels that set the stage for conflagration - the explosive wildfires that have raged in the western forests of the US at an ever-increasing rate.
The Edgewalkers Forestry Camp - with their new Pyramid Kiln
The Edgewalkers have big ambitions. They want to not only learn skills and apply them to a piece of land, they also want to create new life paths for humans in relation to forests. Read more about them on their Indiegogo page. There is an upcoming opportunity to learn more about social forestry at the Social Forestry Advanced Permaculture Course with Tom Ward, February 2-7, 2015. Here's a description of the concept: "Social Forestry connects villages and communities to their forested water catchment basin. Here in a developed industrial empire, the forests are lonely. We have lost our sense of living with forests as friends."
I brought the Edgewalkers a Pyramid Kiln so they can make biochar during their evening campfires - Social Biochar! I hope they will use to also bake potatoes and grill food. I enjoyed meeting these dedicated forest workers. We talked about fire and the best ways to reintroduce it to the forests, as well as techniques for top lit fires that reduce smoke and leave behind biochar. Wet wood is the biggest challenge. Wet wood makes it difficult to build up a good bed of coals in the Pyramid Kiln, but once there is a layer of hot coals, the wet wood is more managable because there is enough heat to dry it.
Using a small Top-Lit Open Burn stack to start the Kiln. Notice we used a bit of dry firewood to get it started. This is really important when you only have wet wood to add. The dry stuff will give you a good quantity of hot char-coals to get started with.
When wood is wet, small diameter twigs won't char easily - they tend to go straight to ash. The challenge is to get enough heat in the bed of coals to dry and char larger sticks, so the char can build up.
Backyard Biochar This site has descriptions of my experiments with Flame Cap Kilns. I also report on work by others.
US Biochar Initiative I am on the advisory board of the USBI. We are sponsoring the 5th North American Biochar Symposium in Corvallis, Oregon - August 22-25, 2016
Illinois Valley Forest Collaborative I've been involved with the group in my hometown for several years. We are working with the US Forest Service on hazardous fuels and small diameter timber sales. Biochar is a part of what we do.
Umpqua Biochar Education Team (UBET) I am working with UBET on a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA-NRCS. We are helping small farmers learn how to make biochar and use it to manage manure and make premium compost.