On January 8th, the Skyline Earth Team hopped in the van and journeyed down the hill towards Berkeley. They were headed away from the redwood trees surrounding their high school and towards an industrial area near Ashby Avenue. The ALL Power Labs facility comprises a large white building, many shipping containers and several outdoor rooms shaded by metal roofs. The interns gathered in front of a large, metal contraption and was greeted by Austin Liu, the ALL Power Labs Sales Engineer and self-proclaimed “Biochar Nerd.”
Austin began by telling the interns about the metal contraption, which turned out to be a Power Pallet. The interns learned that the device converts biomass into heat, electricity, and biochar through the process of gasification. This process was originally established by people living in the Amazon Rainforest. The primary biomass used is fallen and dead trees. This not only enables fuel to be generated from already decaying plant matter, but also helps reduce the risk of uncontrollable fires by removing dead plants from an area at risk for forest fires.
Through the gasification process, just one tonne of biomass can produce about one megawatt hour of electricity! Unlike other methods of producing electricity, such as burning coal, the Power Pallet produces no green house gases that further contribute to climate change. Instead, biochar is produced as a byproduct.
Biochar is essentially charcoal and must be handled carefully. The interns were warned not to get too close to the biochar because inhaling large amounts can eventually lead to cancer. When mixed with compost, however, biochar becomes a plant’s best friend.
Biochar in compost permanently increases the fertility of soil. Austin shared photos with the interns of plants grown with and without biochar, and the results are astonishing – plants with biochar grew twice as large!
While not many people have heard of biochar, its importance to the future of agriculture and society is paramount. Not only can biochar increase crop yields and drastically alter soil fertility for generations to come, but biochar is essentially “reverse coal mining.” The interns learned that this is because the process of gasification creates solid carbon in the form of biochar instead of releasing the carbon into the atmosphere. This solid-state carbon can then be buried in the ground when mixed with compost. This process is known as carbon sequestration.
The interns later reflected on what they learned about biochar and the powerful benefits of using biochar for the climate and for feeding the future. One intern also said that learning about this reverse coal mining gave her “hope for the future.” Other interns reflected on the inspiring partnerships between ALL Power Labs and Gill Tract Farm, an Albany-based community farm where community members pay what they can for locally grown food. The two organizations have teamed up to promote biochar education and food justice. Lastly, some interns reflected on the origins of ALL Power Labs, beginning as a way to produce energy in protest of the City of Berkeley shutting off the power to the then Burning Man art commune and transforming to become an organization tackling climate change.
If you would like to tour ALL Power Labs, check out their events page here.