What is Biochar?

Electron Microscope Image of Biochar image courtesy of Dr. Jocelyn & biocharproject.org

Electron Microscope Image of Biochar
image courtesy of Dr. Jocelyn & biocharproject.org












Biochar is charcoal that can be spread on agricultural lands. Advocates believe biochar could significantly reduce global warming. The material is commonly made by heating various farm and other organic wastes at very high temperatures with limited availability of oxygen.<1>


How Can Biochar Help?

Almost all climate change experts now believe that excessive CO2 in the atmosphere makes a major contribution to current and forecast global warming.<3> Some biochar researchers believe that up to half of the CO2 from many organic waste sources can be trapped in biochar and thus kept out of the atmosphere. Other researchers are doubtful that biochar can be used in a practical way to trap CO2 from the atmosphere while avoiding significant adverse physical, political or economic side effects.

Making biochar could be better than allowing organic waste to decompose or be burned in the presence of air. That’s because air consists of about 21% oxygen – and carbon in the decomposing or burning organic matter wants to react with oxygen and release itself into the air as atmospheric CO2.

“carbon … safely locked up for thousands of years” – Geoffrey Lean <4>

In addition to storing carbon, biochar in farm fields can encourage more plant growth while requiring less water and less fertilizer.<4> Since healthy plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, more plant growth means the removal of more CO2 from the atmosphere.

There’s still another possible win: The high temperature process that creates biochar can be managed so that it produces burnable fuels either as a bi-product of biochar or instead of biochar.<5> Biochar itself can be burned instead of coal.<6> These biochar process fuels tend to provide cleaner substitutes for fossil fuels: when the new fuels are burned, the CO2 they release will have been balanced by the CO2 that was absorbed by the recently grown organic material used to make the fuels.

One more thing: Improved plant growth from biochar can potentially reduce the economic need to create more farmland from cleared forests. In many regions, an acre of forest can absorb more atmospheric CO2 than an acre of farmland.

Additionally, biochar can reduce the emission of methane and nitrous oxides, which are also global warming contributors.<4>

Applying Biochar image courtesy of TR Miles Technical Consultants Inc.

Applying Biochar
image courtesy of TR Miles Technical Consultants Inc.


Validation Needed

Biochar offers considerable potential – but we do need to be cautious until that potential has been proven. Further validating research is awaited regarding the direct results, economics of production, ability to avoid or mitigate land grabbing, and ability to slow deforestation.<10> It seems there have also been disappointments and scams along the way – including some undemonstrated results in Southwest Cameroon, and the involvement of a biochar plant in a major scandal in Tennessee.<7><8>

“scientific research, particularly field trials, are woefully lacking.” – B Ndameu and Biofuelwatch<7>

A project in California has been exploring some techniques that do not use biochar, per se, but involve composting, plowing, grazing, and other land management efforts.<9>


Can You Help?

You’re in a good position to explore the potential of biochar if you work in a related profession: agriculture, waste processing, energy production, etc. You can be curious, keep learning, and follow up on possible opportunities.

The rest of us can help by following or participating in the activities of related organizations and governments. Here are some informative websites:

International Biochar Initiative, http://www.biochar-international.org/

SE Biochar Interest Group, https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups#!forum/se-biochar

British Biochar Foundation, http://www.britishbiocharfoundation.org/

<1>”biochar is created by pyrolysis of biomass”; “Pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures without the participation of oxygen”; Biochar, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biochar ; Pyrolysis, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrolysis
<2>Paraphrased from “Sustainable biochar to mitigate global climate change, Nature Communications, 2010, http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v1/n5/full/ncomms1053.html ; paraphrased: A fully developed system for using biochar “might” be able to reduce current human-caused global warming emissions by as much as 12%.
<3>”Carbon Dioxide Emissions”, United States Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/co2.html
<4>”Brazil: Ancient skills ‘could reverse global warming’, The Independent, 2008, http://forests.org/shared/reader/welcome.aspx?linkid=112433&keybold=rainforest%20AND%20%20biomass%20AND%20%20energy
<5>”Energy Balance and Emissions Associated with Biochar Sequestration and Pyrolysis Bioenergy Production, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University, 2008, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es071361i
<6>”Combustibility of biochar injected into the raceway of a blast furnace, Research and Education Center of Carbon Resources, Kyushu University, 2013, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378382013000295
<7>”Biochar Fund Trials In Cameroon Hype And Unfulfilled Promises, Biofuelwatch, 2011, http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Biochar-Cameroon-report1.pdf
<8>”Mantria Corporation: The biggest green Ponzi scheme ever?, Mother Nature Network, MNN Holdings, LLC, http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/energy/stories/mantria-corporation-the-biggest-green-ponzi-scheme-ever
<9>Marin Carbon Project, http://www.marincarbonproject.org/
<10>”Biochar: a cause for concern?, The Ecologist, http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/other_comments/2016620/biochar_a_cause_for_concern.html
Categories: Huge Changes

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