Glenda Anderson, Gleaner Writer
WYNTER'S PEN, St Catherine:
IT IS MIDWEEK, and on a back road in Wynter's Pen St Catherine, a group of researchers are demonstrating the workings of a locally made biochar oven - a machine that can transform dried and green debris into carbon coal, fuel, and oils.
At 16 feet wide and 6 feet long, the 'oven' is just about the size of a Hiace minivan and looks a little like a skeletal version of a locomotive. It is made from steel and galvanised sheeting.
Wood chips, dried grass, and twigs are packed into a yawning chute on top. The unit is fired up by packing debris into a small furnace, and the group of attendants climb down the steps and await the process as smoke wafts through a tall, narrow funnel into the air.
A one-stop shop of sorts, they say it can also be configured to dry herbs and spices.
There is hardly a sound from the unit, which sits squat in the front yard of the New Horizon Christian Outreach ministries, a centre which offers training to vulnerable youth in traditional skills like plumbing, electrical, and welding.
Executive Director Michael Barnett, an engineer, said the unit was made from scratch by Level Two HEART-certified welding students. For Barnett and lead researcher Dr Sylvia Mitchell of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Biotechnology Centre, it literally is a dream project that has come to life.
WHAT IS BIOCHARCOAL?
Biocharcoal, or 'biochar', is charcoal produced from dried and green vegetation, garden refuse, and other carbon scraps. It is produced at a lower temperature than charcoal and is especially useful for farming. The idea was to build a unit large enough to service a large area - possibly whole farming communities - which could benefit also from the byproducts of the biochar.
Under the process, heat pulls out gases that can be collected and burned to produce energy and leaves behind a type of charcoal that is rich in carbon and is unique in the porous structure it leaves behind. Because of this unique micro-porous structure, it can become home to many diverse types of micro-organisms and can provide substantial benefits by adding compost, fertiliser, and beneficial plant-growth bacteria before being applied to the soil. This produces crops more resistant to fungus and disease-causing bacteria.
It is also highly regarded as a soil ameliorant (lessening nutrient leaching), improving the soil's water-balance and increasing plant yields. It is this vision that has fired up several demonstrations of what, Mitchell says, is the first-ever biochar oven for Jamaica and a product which has the potential to positively affect the agricultural and energy sectors in Jamaica.
The concept, however, is not new as it is thought to have been used widely by Amazonian Indians centuries ago, evidenced by large patches of dark earth - terra preta - near their settlements. Biochar farms now operate on a small scale in the region in Haiti - through Carbon Roots International's Haiti CharBon Progect site at La Coupe; in Costa Rica; in Europe; and in the United States of America (USA).
In Jamaica, small-scale testing with biochar has begun, but farmers have long been using charcoal ash to enhance their farm lands or backyard gardens. Mitchell said the idea for the project came from early research by scientist Dr David Lee into the possibilities of biochar for Jamaica and on the back end of ongoing work by UWI's Biotechnology Centre in developing monographs for Jamaican plants and providing clean planting material through tissue culture.
"Dr Lee had been doing some research online and came across the material, which he shared via e-mail with a group interested in new technologies for farming, which included me and Mike Barnett, executive director of New Horizon Christian Outreach Ministries, operators of the New Horizon skills-training facility in Spanish Town.
Interestingly, Barnett had also been a long- time follower of the technology from the technical side of things, even being a listed group member of an International Biochar group. So he was already sold on the benefits of biochar
"We then decided to write a project, which the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica funded to the tune of $4.2 million for two years," Mitchell explained.
She said with this initial funding, the research became a collaborative effort between the UWI and New Horizon."This is the fund we used to make the large machine and several smaller ones and to produce tissue-culture ginger and tumeric plantlets and to do experiments in pots.
"We have grown ginger, tumeric, and arrowroot in charcoal-supplemented soil with very impressive results.
"To date, we have built two machines: a small unit that can be used on any farm and in rural communities, and a larger more complex unit capable of producing biochar and drying crops like ginger and tumeric at the same time."
The smaller unit has been showcased at a JOAM meeting at Hope Gardens and at two locations in Westmoreland with the Bureau of Standards-led bamboo group in December last year.
Half an hour into the demonstration, a narrow chute on the biochar oven chucks out small bits of coal while a funnel on one side oozes thin black sludge. The experts explain that it is "bio-oil", comparable to low-grade fuel oil, or creosote oils, which can be used for, among other things, preserving fence posts and wooden structures against rotting.
Now in the first stage of production, the product is assessed manually with a temperature gauge and forced out through corrosion-resistant metal chutes using a hand-held crank.
The project, however, hinges on sourcing funds to take it to the next level - a full roll-out of a unit to provide biochar and efficient, cheap, farm-based energ particularly useful for farmers who need heat for drying teas, rhizomes, fruits, feeds, sterilising or pasteurising products, and also animal care such as brooders.
Barnett said in the second phase, the unit would be fitted with automated sensors, which would allow the machine to load and unload itself and regulate temperatures automatically.