Russsell Burnett, explains ‘biochar’

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Biochar, the charcoal-like residue when biomass (such as agricultural or council waste) undergoes pyrolysis (combustion at 400-550 degrees, without oxygen), has the potential to pull large amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

As our guest speaker to May's Landcare Community forum, Russell Burnett spoke to us about his biochar production plant in Bendigo and about the exciting potential of ‘biochar. Our co-host was the Surf Coast Energy Group (SCEG).

It is the ability of biochar to sequester carbon for up to thousands of years, that makes it so relevant to our attempts at bringing down atmospheric carbon dioxide levels but it also has fantastic potential to improve soil fertility, water holding capacity and plant production. Russell explained this very well and his understanding is very much in line with that of Tony Evans of the Camperdown Compost Company, who had spoken to us only a month or so previously; in turn, has studied the theories of Elaine Ingham, a world-renowned soil scientist.

When questioned about biochar, however, Tony Evans was of the view, that his focus on compost was working to make the soil  immediately hospitable to the farmers’ plants,
whereas he saw that biochar sought to aim more for the long-term benefits.  This is an issue we will be debating, hopefully with the help of some soil trials in the not too distant future. What these people do have in common, is their focus on soil micro-organisms.  Biochar, according to Russell, also provides a great home for so many beneficial fungi, bacteria etc.

Biochar’s potential is becoming widely recognized in mainstream agriculture and climate science but it still has many logistical difficulties.  Russell Burnett is very ‘hands on’ in dealing with these difficulties as he is fine tuning his Bendigo plant to use the poultry manure and litter, from a substantial proportion of Victoria’s poultry industry. 

There are many potential foodstuffs for biochar: stubble, woodchips, municipal green waste etc.  Poultry litter is perhaps the easiest to use commercially, especially as the poultry farms are in close proximity to the biochar production site.

Practical people like Russell Burnett and Tony Evans are vital in advancing exciting new fields and we were privileged to have their time and energy to feed into our Landcare Community Forums.

Individuals are following up on the trials Russell spoke of and also hope to get hold of plans for a traditional Japanese small farm biochar producer (based on a 44 gallon drum, springs, turpentine, rice husks etc).  We also hope to arrange a TLG visit to Russell’s facility in Bendigo.  In short, Torquay Landcare Group will be pursuing the possibilities for quite a while.

For commercial information about biochar go to the website <>.