Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Replanting the Rainforests: Biochar

[Once again, this is my reinterpretation.]

Now the first question is: what is biochar?

Simply –

Soil enriching, carbon gobbling, lo-tech remedy to greenhouse emissions


The Biochar (you can split this word, of course) technology is not a new invention. Our ancestors (much more intelligent than we are) devised this ages ago. We know Biochar by another name. Terra preta, or "dark earth" in Portuguese, is found in the Amazon basin. The soils were created by humans in about 450 BC (see the last link). It is reportedly regenerating itself.

We can create Biochar by pyrolysis of biomass. That is, we have to heat biomass under low-oxygen conditions.

Now the question is: how exactly can Biochar help us?

The answer is long.

First thing first. While Biochar is produced, not only does the process not release the carbon content of the heated biomass into the atmosphere, but the process draws more carbon (in form of carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere. It doesn't stop at that either. Biochar is able to sequester carbon in the soils for millenia. Therefore, it can consume more carbon from the atmosphere and increase its own volume by regenerating itself and rebuild the geological carbon sink.

The microorganic activities in the Biochar soils are very high. Such microorganisms improve the soil by fixing more carbon and making it more nutrient-rich and fertile. Moreover, there's little chance that Biochar will be damaged or the soil will erode. So we won't require any extra measure to conserve it.

Apart from drawing carbon dioxide (a major Greenhouse Gas or GHG), it absorbs other significant GHGs from the atmosphere. It also decreases the soil emissions of GHGs. According to the Wikipedia article, it can "reduce N2O [nitrous oxide] emissions by up to 80% and completely suppress methane emissions." That's one of the best ways to fight Global Warming. To add to this list, Biochar can also act as a source of renewable energy. The energy used to create Biochar can power tractors. Also see this.

Apart from reducing environmental pollution, it can also help us socially, economically and, of course, agriculturally. As it increases the fertility of the soil, the production of crops is much higher. It can help the economy. But most importantly, we can do away with hunger and insecurity of food. It can also help us cut down the high costs of irrigation and harmful chemical fertilizers. (Have a look at this article to see how we've already been benefited from Biochar.)

Wait, there's more. It can also act as a dietary supplement for animals and improve the quality of drinking water. It can reduce the acidity of soil too.

In case you thought that wasn't enough, I haven't really discussed the main thing – the relation between biochar and the rainforests.

One of the main causes of deforestation in the tropical areas is the increasing need of farmlands. Slash-and-burn method is used widely. Apart from destroying the trees, the process harms bio-diversity.

Biochar can create highly fertile lands and put an end to the practice of deforestation. It will restore the ecological balance by saving the forests and wildlife. Biochar will not only save the forests, but will do something the forests do – prevent pollution.

I don't need to say more, do I?

There's a fascinating video on Biochar. I thought that I'd include that in this post but decided against it. That deserves separate viewing. Will post two videos in an hour or so..

Donate something, if you wish.


Erich J. Knight said...

Biochar Soil Technology.....Husbandry of whole new orders of life

Biotic Carbon, the carbon transformed by life, should never be combusted, oxidized and destroyed. It deserves more respect, reverence even, and understanding to use it back to the soil where 2/3 of excess atmospheric carbon originally came from.

We all know we are carbon-centered life, we seldom think about the complex web of recycled bio-carbon which is the true center of life. A cradle to cradle, mutually co-evolved biosphere reaching into every crack and crevice on Earth.

It's hard for most to revere microbes and fungus, but from our toes to our gums (onward), their balanced ecology is our health. The greater earth and soils are just as dependent, at much longer time scales. Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel.

Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,

Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.

Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth, TP), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!
Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration,10X Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.
Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration, Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels, 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, build it and they will come.
As one microbologist said on the TP list; "Microbes like to sit down when they eat". By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.

Senator / Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has done the most to nurse this biofuels system in his Biochar provisions in the 07 & 08 farm bill,


Charles Mann ("1491") in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.


Biochar data base; TP-REPP


NASA's Dr. James Hansen Global warming solutions paper and letter to the G-8 conference, placing Biochar / Land management the central technology for carbon negative energy systems.


The many new university programs & field studies, in temperate soils; Cornell, ISU, U of H, U of GA, Virginia Tech, JMU, New Zealand and Australia.

Glomalin's role in soil tilth, fertility & basis for the soil food web in Terra Preta soils.

UNCCD Submission to Climate Change/UNFCCC AWG-LCA 5
"Account carbon contained in soils and the importance of biochar (charcoal) in replenishing soil carbon pools, restoring soil fertility and enhancing the sequestration of CO2."

This new Congressional Research Service report (by analyst Kelsi Bracmort) is the best short summary I have seen so far - both technical and policy oriented.
http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/R40186_20090203.pdf .

Given the current "Crisis" atmosphere concerning energy, soil sustainability, food vs. Biofuels, and Climate Change what other subject addresses them all?

This is a Nano technology for the soil that represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.

Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.
Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens
540 289 9750

Biochar Studies at ACS Huston meeting;

Most all this work corroborates char soil dynamics we have seen so far . The soil GHG emissions work showing increased CO2 , also speculates that this CO2 has to get through the hungry plants above before becoming a GHG.
The SOM, MYC& Microbes, N2O (soil structure), CH4 , nutrient holding , Nitrogen shock, humic compound conditioning, absorbing of herbicides all pretty much what we expected to hear.

578-I: http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4231.html

579-II http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4496.html

665 - III. http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4497.html

666-IV http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4498.html

Company News & EU Certification

Below is an important hurtle that 3R AGROCARBON has overcome in certification in the EU. Given that their standards are set much higher than even organic certification in the US, this work should smooth any bureaucratic hurtles we may face.

EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests
Subject: Fwd: [biochar] Re: GOOD NEWS: EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests successfully completed

Doses: 400 kg / ha – 1000 kg / ha at different horticultural cultivars

Plant height Increase 141 % versus control
Picking yield Increase 630 % versus control
Picking fruit Increase 650 % versus control
Total yield Increase 202 % versus control
Total piece of fruit Increase 171 % versus control
Fruit weight Increase 118 % versus control

HOMEPAGE 3R AGROCARBON: http://www.3ragrocarbon.com


EcoTechnologies is planning for many collaborations ; NC State, U. of Leeds, Cardiff U. Rice U. ,JMU, U.of H. and at USDA with Dr.Jeffrey Novak who is coordinating ARS Biochar research. This Coordinated effort will speed implementation by avoiding unneeded repetition and building established work in a wide variety of soils and climates.

Hopefully all the Biochar companies will coordinate with Dr. Jeff Novak's soils work at ARS;


I spoke with Jon Nilsson of the CarbonChar Group, in their third year of field trials ;
An idea whose time has come | Carbon Char Group
He said the 2008 trials at Virginia Tech showed a 46% increase in yield of tomato transplants grown with just 2 - 5 cups (2 - 5%) "Biochar+" per cubic foot of growing medium. http://www.carbonchar.com/plant-performance

Low Tech Clean Biochar;

Space Lover said...

Erich J. Knight: Thanks for such an informative comment. Keep commenting. Are you on Twitter?