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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Biochar: Is the hype justified?

Biochar: Is the hype justified?

by Roger Harrabin, Environment analyst, BBC News, March 16, 2009

Biochar in action
Biochar brings benefits to soils, boosting plant growth

Green guru James Lovelock claims that the only hope of mitigating catastrophic climate change is through biochar -- biomass "cooked" by pyrolysis.

It produces gas for energy generation, and charcoal -- a stable form of carbon.

The charcoal is then buried in the ground, making the process "carbon negative."

Researchers say biochar can also improve farm productivity and cut demand for carbon-intensive fertilisers.

There's a flurry of worldwide interest in the technology, but is the hype justified?

Fertile ground

A ripe whiff of sludge drifts across the sewage works in Bingen, Germany, as a conveyor belt feeds a stream of semi-dried effluent into a steel container.

Behind the container, the treated effluent emerges in the form of glittering black granules. In a flash of eco-alchemy, they are turning sewage into charcoal.

The charcoal is then buried to lock the carbon into the ground and prevent it entering the atmosphere.

Proponents of the technology say it is so effective at storing carbon that it should be included in the next global climate agreement.

Engineer Helmut Gerber from the University of Applied Sciences, Bingen explains how biochar is created.

Burying the biochar can also improve soil fertility, say experts.

Field trials are about to begin at Rothamsted, south-east England, to assess the benefits to soil structure and water retention.

Experiments in Australia, US and Germany are already showing some remarkable results -- especially on otherwise poor soils where the honeycomb granules of biochar act as a reservoir for moisture and fertilisers.

Could biochar be used to make plants grow faster?

A growing worldwide movement is now bringing together the soil scientists fascinated by the benefits of biochar, which was first discovered in Pre-Columbian Amazonia, and the engineers devising new ways of making the char.

They are being backed by activists who are concerned about climate change.

At Bingen, the design engineer for the biochar plant, Helmut Gerber, originally devised the pyrolysis equipment to overcome the problem of ash from sewage waste choking conventional boilers.

Normally, sewage treatment is a significant source of greenhouse gases. The waste is usually incinerated (with more emissions) and the resulting ash is used in the building industry.

At Bingen, 10% of the sewage stream is being diverted to the prototype pyrolysis plant, where it is heated with minimum oxygen.

Carbon monoxide and methane are driven off and burned to heat the pyrolysis process.

Mr Gerber claims his process radically cuts the fuel costs and carbon emissions needed to treat the sewage.

'Carbon negative' process

Working with Professor Winfried Sehn from Bingen's University of Applied Sciences, Mr Gerber calculates that 60% of the carbon from the sewage is locked up in the char.

The buried carbon will be kept from entering the atmosphere for a projected 1,000 years or more.

And as the sewage was originally created from plants, which removed CO2 from the atmosphere, the total process is described as carbon negative.

The pyrolyser at Bingen -- like others being developed elsewhere -- can transform any carbon-based substance, including some plastics.

That means pyrolysis can get energy from agricultural waste, food waste and biomass. But the catch is that it creates less energy than burning biomass in a conventional way.

Research by oil giant Shell, showing a keen interest in biochar as a carbon storage mechanism, suggests that it can capture half the carbon from the biomass by foregoing a third of the potential energy.

Dr Bruno Glaser
Now there is a lot of excitement about what biochar can achieve
Dr Bruno Glaser

For all its apparent benefits, there are substantial barriers to the progress of biochar.

Perfecting and disseminating the technology at an affordable price will be an issue.

Moreover, current financial systems reward energy production from biomass and waste -- not carbon storage. Biochar would need clear global incentives.

One key to its progress will be ongoing research into the soil benefits.

The porous biochar attracts worms. It also captures nutrients that would otherwise run off the land, which reduces the need for carbon-intensive fertilisers.

Research at Cornell University in New York City suggests that burying biochar appears to double the capacity of soils to store organic carbon (compost releases its carbon in a few years).

Research in Australia suggests that biochar also reduces emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from soil.

New studies at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, shows that biochar may almost double plant growth in poor soils.

"Research on biochar began back in 1947," says Dr Bruno Glaser, a researcher from the University of Bayreuth.

"But this has been forgotten until the 1980s. Now there is a lot of excitement about what biochar can achieve."

Dr Glaser is working on studies to see how effective it proves to be on poor soils in northern Germany.

At Newcastle University, Professor David Manning is also an enthusiast. He says with the right incentives biochar could perhaps lock up as much carbon as the amount generated by aviation.

Several biochar stoves have been developed for use in developing countries. Belize and a number of African governments are attempting to get biochar accepted as a climate change mitigation and adaptation technology for the post-2012 treaty to be negotiated in Copenhagen in December.

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1 comment:

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;

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. .

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.



665 - III.


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


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.