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Biochar: Resurrection

Biochar is something you make out of dead organic stuff (e.g., wood waste), by bringing it back to life with a new purpose. Biochar has been around for a long time. It’s been found in ancient forests, responsible for maintaining the health and productive capacity of its soils over centuries. But it’s getting a second wind because it’s got so many great qualities.

What is biochar, you ask? It’s a soil amendment (among other uses), and according to NASA Langley scientist Doris Hamill:

“It’s an environmental superstar,” Hamill said. “It’s global warming, it’s soil fertility, it’s sustainable agriculture, it is protection of groundwater — it just does everything. It’s really kind of amazing.”

For Hamill, biochar holds vast potential for improving the human condition.

The article continues:

Biochar can be made from common organic waste material — from chicken and cow poop to sticks and brush from your yard. It can make environmentally unfriendly synthetic fertilizers obsolete. It can trap nutrient runoff before it pollutes places like the Chesapeake Bay. It can even filter out toxic heavy metals from water.

As we see here, there are other uses for biochar as well, such as a water filter, but here we’re focusing on the soil aspects, specifically for carbon sequestration.

In the PNAS paper we linked to in our previous natural climate solutions post:

The addition of biochar to soil offers the largest maximum mitigation potential among agricultural pathways, but unlike most other NCS options, it has not been well demonstrated beyond research settings. Hence trade-offs, cost, and feasibility of large scale implementation of biochar are poorly understood.

We’re just getting started with the potential benefits for modern-day biochar, but let’s explore some already-existing ventures.

A tree nursery in Norway has added a biochar plant in order to improve the soil, resulting in healthier plants while reducing use of fertilizer and pesticides (the CO2 sequestration part is an “extra” benefit). It’s a joint project that’s studying biochar technology as well as economics; project supporters believe that if 4,000 farmers added biochar to their soil, they could halve emissions from the agricultural sector. It’s certainly interesting from a mitigation perspective:

In 2010, a research article was published in Nature estimating that 12 per cent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions can be captured in biochar each year without conflicting with other biomass utilization objectives.

In Malaysia, a municipal council in Melaka is teaming up with Universiti Kaula Lumpur to develop a “biochar composting” technology project. With landfills presenting a huge problem, it’s an opportunity to divert waste, as well as co-produce biochar and bio-gas in the process. They’re also happy about the carbon storage opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The article points out that Sweden, the Philippines and India have already run such projects to produce renewable energy and divert waste.

It’s possible to purchase bags of biochar at home improvement stores in the US, and many biochar companies are popping up (some which will be feature on TCE soon). For the purposes of The Climate Economy, we can see entire rural, agricultural, or otherwise motivated communities developing new products and services surrounding the collection of (waste) feedstock, quality (made-to-order) biochar production, biochar (and overall soil health) consulting, and more. There are already people out there doing all of these things, but there is a ton of room for growth. It also provides the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by .8 gigatons (a lot) by 2050, according to Project Drawdown.

There are at least two main challenges for biochar, which we’ll touch on briefly. First, the creation of the biochar through pyrolysis has a lot of moving parts that can cause variations in the properties and value of the product. And, as already mentioned, the economics are tricky, because it’s still a relatively unproven product. But, these things are changing as more people become aware of the opportunities.  They include:

  • Bonus for Economy: making land more productive, reducing costs of production (less fertilizer, water), monetizing a waste product (i.e. agricultural, wood waste), creating new markets (for waste, biochar production, biochar consulting, etc.)
  • Bonus for Environment: cleaner water (from runoff without chemicals), and air (CO2 reductions), cleaning up a waste product, improving soil health
  • Bonus for Humanity: safer air and water, more food (without chemicals), economic opportunities

This has been a short introduction to biochar, which is an important and up-and-coming star in the Climate Economy. Can you think of ways you’d like to be involved in this area?  Please comment.


Photo Copyright: mediagram / 123RF Stock Photo

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