Note: Bio-char, agrichar, and charcoal are interchangeable terms when it comes to the intentional use of charcoal in the garden.
The argument for encouraging biochar use as a ubiquitous household practice is compelling: Improved garden soil will increase food production where it has the most impact on energy demand. Implementing charcoal manufacture at a household level draws in a supply of yard prunings and workbench scraps that otherwise would be lost to non-charcoal alternatives.
Unfortunately, finding even the most basic information on how to implement biochar use as a personal sustainability practice is discouragingly time consuming. In response I have started up a FAQ, a collaborative wiki, building on the efforts of the TP enthusiast community (1, 2, 3). Maybe you, the concerned gardening public, can help us thresh out the most important questions that need asking. Leave a comment here or at the FAQ. Here's my favorite bit from what has been posted so far:
2.05 What are some less smokey approaches to making charcoal for the gardener?
Choose your feedstock wisely. No matter what technique you use to make charcoal, choosing uniformly sized, dry woody material produces the highest yields. Uniformity is one reason that colliers will routinely use coppiced hardwoods.
Inverted Downdraft Gassification. For a cleaner burning configuration, consider a Top Lit Updraft (TLUD) technique, also referred to as an inverted downdraft gassification. The technique looks simple but in reality it involves some fairly sophisticated principles (PDF). That doesn't prevent success using common materials and dead simple design. Take that same open barrel configuration, tweak the design per the aforementioned sophisticated principles, and now light it from the top instead of the bottom. This takes a different skill set than lighting from the bottom but its also not that difficult to master. A little vaseline or ethanol on a cotton ball can work wonders for starting up. Once the fire gets going, the top layer of wood burns, creating charcoal, naturally. The heat from the top layer burning warms the wood below it releasing combustible and noncombustible gases which flow up into the charcoal layer. Glowingly hot charcoal has a wondrous ability to strip oxygen molecules from of anything that passes over it, so it converts the water into hydrogen, and the carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide. These two gases are flammable. They join with the other flammable gases released from the fuel. These ignite as they mix with air coming into the top of the open barrel above the charcoal layer. The result is a scrubbed gas-fed flame that is much more controlled, and which burns substantially cleaner and hotter than can be achieved with the bottom lit burn barrel. (Source). Insufficient oxygen below the combustion zone impedes loss of the charcoal despite the high temperature flame immediately above it. This allows charcoal to build up faster than it is consumed, at least until the pyrolysis zone reaches the bottom of the fuel column. The downside is that, while wondrously clean burning, a TLUD is challenged to achieve yields above 20% charcoal-to-fuel.
Folke Günther's simple TLUD-fired Retort. A retort works by restricting the air supply to the target feed stock for the duration of the burn. An outside heat source pyrolyzes the retort contents, small openings in the retort allow wood gas to escape, but restrict the flow of oxygen in. While retorts are capable of very high yield efficiency, the open flame used to fire the retort is not as clean as can be achieved with a gasifier. In small retorts, a further inefficiency is that wood gas generated from the retort can end up blowing by the combustion zone without being burned. Folke Günther's elegant solution is to combine a TLUD with a retort. This is easily the cleanest burning and highest yielding method we know of to make garden-sized batches of charcoal.