A woman on Seachar's stove project in Costa Rica

Photograph courtesy Seattle Biochar Working Group

Great Energy Challenge Innovator: Seattle Biochar Working Group

Project: Estufa Finca Talamanca

Location: Talamanca region of Costa Rica

Summary: The Seattle Biochar Working Group (SeaChar) developed a biochar-producing, micro-gasifier stove to serve Costa Rica's Santos region, home of migrant coffee farmers. The resulting Estufa Finca stove uses less fuel wood, thereby alleviating deforestation, and reduces smoke exposure from open cooking fires. In addition to cooking, the Estufa Finca produces biochar, which is a soil enhancement that increases agricultural yields and sequesters carbon.

In the high mountain valleys of Costa Rica's Santos region, respiratory disease among the migrant coffee-bean picker population is severe. Daily exposure to smoke from open cooking fires causes respiratory disease, which is also the leading cause of death for children under ten. Coffee farmers in the high mountain valleys of Costa Rica's Santos region invited SeaChar founder, Art Donnelly, to share innovative technology to attenuate this burden. Starting in January 2009, the SeaChar Estufa Finca (Farm Stove) Project is now in its third year.

The Estufa Finca is a micro-gasifier stove, well suited to use a broad range of dry organic material as fuel. The Estufa Finca achieves greater fuel efficiency and low emissions by capturing and burning the gases released from the organic material.

A paramount advantage of the Estufa Finca is the generation of a charcoal by-product called biochar. Biochar is a soil enhancement that increases agricultural yields and sequesters carbon.

This type of charcoal has been in use for thousands of years. Many organic farmers in Costa Rica already use charcoal in their fertilizer mix. However, tradition charcoal production increases deforestation and air pollution. Estufa Finca stoves produce 10 to 30kg of biochar a month. Although insufficient to cover the farm's needs, this amount is significant for vegetable gardens and seedling nurseries.

During the coffee harvest of 2010-2011, SeaChar volunteers worked with the local Santos women's group Asociation de Productores Organicos y Turismo Rural Eco Educativo de Los Santos (APORTES), area farmers and researchers from the National University of Costa Rica (UNA) to conduct a small pilot project in order to evaluate the performance and customer acceptance of these innovative stoves. APORTES built and installed thirty-two stoves in migrant's households and subsequently carried out controlled cooking tests to monitor stove performance and fuel efficiency.

The Aprovecho Research Center in Cottage Grove Oregon measured stove emissions in a laboratory. Test results showed the stoves emit approximately 92% less particulate matter and 87% less carbon monoxide than a traditional open cooking fire. The Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives, Seattle International Foundation and GroundWork Opportunities funded this work. The report is available here.

The Asociación de Pequeños Productores de Talamanca (APPTA), a 1200-member organic cacao growers association, located near the Caribbean coast and Panamanian border, hosts the current phase of the Estufa Finca project. This will be the first of a three-year commitment.

SeaChar and its partners envision these efforts expanding as the following benefits for biomass gasification are realized: (1) mitigation and adaptation to adverse effects of climate change; (2) provides heat for cooking and crop drying; (3) expands the supply of biochar for vegetable horticulture, forestry and commodity crops such as coffee, cacao and banana.

Goal: Improve human and environmental health, for a population of indigenous farmers, through the introduction of clean-burning, biochar energy technology

"Energy is not a commodity. It is a system of relationships. The funding from the Great Energy Challenge has allowed a small group of American innovators to work directly with the Bribri of Costa Rica's Talamanca region, in order to develop a new relationship to energy. One that is reciprocal, as well as carbon negative. The Bribri are the stewards of one of the most bio-diverse areas of the earth. Their millennium old culture is based on just such principles. Our culture's future depends on our ability to learn how to adapt their worldview to our present. Their culture's future depends on their ability to adapt our technologies to their environment." —Art Donnelly, President, Seattle Biochar Working Group

Related story: "Biochar Cookstoves Boost Health for People and Crops"

Project participants:

  • Seattle Biochar Working Group (Art Donnelly, project director; Kate Selting, Talamanca program manager; Laura Rodan, Talamanca program assistant manager; Dr. Hugh McLaughlin, biochar and technology consultant)
  • El centro de educacion agricultura y investigacion (CATIE)

  • Asociación Comisión de Mujeres Talamanqueñas (ACOMUITA)

  • Asociación de Pequeños Productores de Talamanca (APPTA)

The Great Energy Challenge grant program, in collaboration with a distinguished group of scientists acting as the board of advisors, awards roughly a half-dozen grants per year. The goal of the grant program is to hasten the growth of promising, global energy solutions as a response to climate change, energy resource constraints and environmental limitations.

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