Biochar Madness?

You might run across the term “biochar”. Inventing a word which is prefaced by “bio” give the word an impression of green, sustainable and environmentally friend, like biofuel and biomass, but these words have been hijacked to create an impression that does not accord with reality.

Biochar is simply charcoal. Charcoal is simply plant material, usually fine grained wood created by pyrolysis, which is the burning of these materials at very high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. The burning of course creates smoke and carbon dioxide and was traditionally undertaken by charcoal burners in forests, where they built charcoal furnaces and fuelled them from what grew around them.

The “biochar” can in turn be refined into fuel for road transport and aviation fuel. The biochar residue it is claimed, can be ploughed into the soil, sequestrating the carbon that it includes.  I am unaware of any scientific research that proves that adding biochar to soil actually improves the soil. Many interested commercial businesses are campaigning for biochar subsidies in many countries.

To my simple mind the position of biorchar is no different, in the scheme of climate change, from the position of coal. You can burn coal to get energy, and you can refine coal into oil for fuel, and you can plough the residue, soot, into the soil sequestrating the carbon dioxide. The effect on carbon dioxide emissions is much the same.

The effect on the planet of biochar production is probably worse than the effect on the planet of mining for coal. Coal mining is mainly carried on underground or opencast, but as coal has a much higher calorific value than wood, much less land is despoiled by mining for coal.

Biochar production would require the conversion of land which is the home to millions of people being turned into industrial crop production.

One lobby for Biochar is seeking to include biochar production as part of the Clean Development Mechanism, so that they can tap into the undeserved wealth that the CDM can often create. Beware biochar.

5 Responses

  1. Biomass should never be just burnt, instead it should be fractionated to it’s high value uses.
    Biochar systems achieve this, to fill in gaps and hopefully expand your story & research , particularly concerning Christoph Steiner’s new work with Biochar and NH3 conservation in composting systems.

    Recent NATURE STUDY;
    Sustainable bio char to mitigate global climate change
    http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v1/n5/full/ncomms1053.html

    Not talked about in this otherwise comprehensive study are the climate and whole ecological implications of new , higher value, applications of chars.
    The uses as a feed ration for livestock to reduce GHG emissions and increase disease resistance.

    Recent work by C. Steiner, at U of GA, showing a 52% reduction of NH3 loss when char is used as a composting accelerator. This will have profound value added consequences for the commercial composting industry by reduction of their GHG emissions and the sale of compost as a nitrogen fertilizer.
    http://www.ibi2010.org/wp-content/uploads/BiocharPoultrySteiner.pdf

    Closed-Loop systems; Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

    Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw;
    “Feed the Soil Not the Plants” becomes;
    “Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !”.
    Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar. Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
    The MYC fungi create an Interstate highway for moisture & nutrients while at the same time form an Internet for plant chemical communication.
    Microbes like to sit down when they eat.
    By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life.

    Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left.
    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

    Thanks for your efforts.
    Erich

    Erich J. Knight
    Chairman; Markets and Business Committee
    2010 US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University
    http://www.biorenew.iastate.edu/events/biochar2010/conference-agenda/agenda-overview.html

    Black Knight Blog; Soil Reef Blog
    http://soilbiochar.com/blog/

  2. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if you are interested in data and peer reviewed literature on how biochar differs from charcoal and the benefits in soil I recommend you surf the International Biochar Inititave site http://www.biochar-international.org
    The IBI (and ourselves) advocate production from biomass residues, not from purpose grown plantations (which rarely make commercial sense anyway). Biochar production from modern low emissions systems and the subsquent use in soil is intended to result in negative CO2 outcomes. Life cycle analyses have been performed to demonstrate this, however such work is ongoing as the interactions in soil are complex.

  3. Hello,
    You said: ” I am unaware of any scientific research that proves that adding biochar to soil actually improves the soil. …”
    This statement just shows that you should do some real homework rather than just cynical comments.
    Bio = lat. Life
    It (Char) is creating space and environmental condition in soil that benefits life.

    http://sea-biochar.blogspot.com/2011/05/biochar-organic-house-for-soil-microbes.html
    http://www.publish.csiro.au/nid/84.htm
    http://www.anzbiochar.org/about.html

  4. To me, in the long run, the final arbiter / accountancy / measure of sustainability will be
    soil carbon content. Once this royal road is constructed, traffic cops ( Carbon Board ) in place, the truth of land-management and Biochar systems will be self-evident.

    Global Clean Stove Initiative:
    Another significant aspect of low cost Biomass cook stoves, that produce char, is removal of BC aerosols and no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing “Three Stone” stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria & Aids combined.
    The Biochar Fund :
    The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that, and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )
    http://biocharfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=55&Itemid=75
    Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon

    State Dept. Release;
    100 million clean-burning stoves in kitchens around the world.
    http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2010/09/147494.htm

    Research:

    Recent NATURE STUDY;
    Sustainable bio char to mitigate global climate change
    http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v1/n5/full/ncomms1053.html

    Virginia Tech is in their 5 th year with the Carbon Char Group’s “CharGrow” formulated bagged product. An idea whose time has come | Carbon Char Group
    The 2008 trials at Virginia Tech showed a 46% increase in yield of tomato transplants grown with just 2 – 5 cups (2 – 5%) “CharGrow” per cubic foot of growing medium.
    http://www.carbonchar.com/plant-performance

    NASA’s Space Archaeology; $364K Terra Preta Program
    http://archaeologyexcavations.blogspot.com/2010/08/time-traveling-via-satellite.html

    The Ozzie’s for 6 years now in field studies
    The future of biochar – Project Rainbow Bee Eater
    http://www.sciencealert.com.au/features/20090211-20142.html

  5. Well Robert – that’s a lot of reading to do! Thanks to Erich, Frank and James your comments can be challenged intelligently.

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