Biochar Consulting (Canada) 


The term ‘biochar’ is a relatively recent development. Biochar is simply another name for charcoal.

‘Biochar’ is the term used when charred organic matter (biomass charcoal) is applied to soil in a deliberate manner, with the intent to improve soil properties.


 
It is not intended for use as a fuel, but rather, it is intended for use in soils.

 

It is produced in a process called "pyrolysis".
Pyrolysis is the process of converting biomass feedstocks into charcoal at elevated temperatures (typically from about 300°C up to about 700-800°C ) in a controlled environment (with restricted oxygen) . Pyrolysis is a bioenergy process and produces excess energy that can be utilized in many different applications.

Biochar is very high in organic carbon and is largely resistant to natural decomposition when placed into soil.

 

Biochar is typically applied to the soil in a granular or powdered form, and is therefore unlike typical Bar-B-Q charcoal (Bar-B-Q charcoal should not be mistaken for biochar and should not be applied to soils).

Biochar is considered “carbon-negative”


Biochar is a uniquely powerful, innovative and economical tool for mitigating climate change.

When plants grow, they take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Because biochar is a highly stable form of carbon that is largely resistant to decomposition, the carbon in biochar does not easily return to the atmosphere. In technical terms, it is said to be highly "recalcitrant".
(
Estimates on the mean turnover time of biochar in soil vary from hundreds to tens of thousands of years, depending on the type of biochar, the soil it is placed into and the climate.)

When Biochar is placed into soil, it locks up the CO2 that the plant used when it was growing.
Because biochar does not decompose (in the soil it does not easily break down) the carbon in biochar does not return to the atmosphere for many hundreds or thousands of years.

We can therefore say that biochar is effectively "storing" atmopheric CO2 for hundreds to thousands of years.

The term “carbon-negative” was coined to describe the process of producing biochar and sequestering it.

Biochar is therefore a method of sequestering carbon from the “active biological pool” and permanently placing it into the “inactive carbon pool”.


In addition to directly sequestering CO2, biochar (when applied to agricultural soils) has also been shown to r
educe other important and powerful Green House Gasses (GHG's) emitted from soil, such as nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4).

Finally, the application of biochar to agricultural soils may also result in a potential reduction in the current rate and frequency of fertilizer application. The decreased demand for fertilizer in turn results in lowered GHG emissions from the manufacture and application of fertilizer.

Biochar is therefore considered a "fast-track" method of sequestering excess atmospheric carbon into soils and ensuring it stays there.

Soils, Fertility and Environment

Biochar, due to its highly porous structure, has a high surface area which leads to high Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) when it is placed into soils. It can also help to retain nutrients and moisture in the root zone through adsorption and absorption.

Biochar can improve both the biological and the physical characteristics of soils.

Due to its structure it can become an ideal habitat for soil microorganisms. It can thus help to foster the increased growth of microbes that are essential for nutrient cycling between the soil and plant roots.

The application of charcoal has also been shown to stimulate indigenous arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) in soil, which should result in the creation of more friable soil texture, improved plant growth and may help protect roots from disease organisms.

Biochar has been shown to be able to improve soil physical structure, aeration, porosity and water holding capacity. It has also been shown to reduce leaching of nutrients from soil and increase nutrient holding capacity.

Because biochar acts like a “filter” in the soil during storm events, it should help to reduce the strength and speed of runoff after significant downpours or extended periods of rain. 

These improvements can lead to medium and long-term enhancement of productivity, fertility and stress tolerance for crops.

It has been shown to increase plant growth and crop productivity in many field trials around the world.

Higher crop yields resulting from biochar applications would be expected to mitigate pressures on land and would also have relevance to land restoration and remediation.

Other environmental benefits of biochar application may lie in its application to rehabilitate contaminated wetlands and as a means to assist in managing (avoiding) algal blooms in aquatic ecosystems through adsorption of nutrients.

Energy

Biochar is a renewable energy and is produced as a byproduct of the bio-energy process called Pyrolysis. Pyrolysis liberates useful energy -- in technical terms, Pyrolysis is called an "exothermic" reaction.

Because the process of making biochar provides a net energy surplus, the pyrolysis of cellulosic materials, including farm and forestry waste, with biochar production and integration into soils can provide for our energy needs while ensuring that progress on bioenergy and biofuels is not made at the expsense of our food or energy security.

The excess thermal energy that is produced from the process can be used for various activities such as cooking (small scale), space conditioning (heating greenhouses, for example) and even electrical power generation.

Pyrolysis can also be produced using very clean and relatively simple technologies.
(Creating jobs and increasing income to farms can only be achieved through simpler methods that are linked to agronomic processes.)

Some pyrolysis processes can also produce a liquid hydrocarbon (fuel) that could possibly be converted to a form of "green diesel", or other liquid fuels like heating fuel.  These complex hydrocarbons may also be useful in value-added industries like pharmaceuticals, natural pesticides or in other chemical industries.

Biochar could be an opportunity for small producers and family farmers to reap economic benefits while participating in carbon sequestration.

Economics

Applying biochar to agricultural soils is currently the most widely proposed path for biochar since it is more likely to overcome the opportunity cost in energy production (the recoverable energy forgone in the biochar).

In rural areas, where biochar will make the most sense, biochar could be processed in a total renewable energy electrical system with 100% "dispatchable" energy, which can be used as a back-up for the more intermittet renewable enery systems like wind and PV.

The local electrical needs would be met first (for proximity reasons), but the energy could also be sold to the larger "grid".

Total energy (co-generation) systems is another option - bioenergy could be produced at the Community level and the the tremendous amount of heat that it produced during pyrolysis could be used for district heating -- and could supply additional jobs.

Biochar will certainly be in demand outside the immediate producing region, but transportation costs will give an edge to local uses of biochar. Local commercial biofuels markets could also become a major factor in raising the economic viability of rural enterprises.

Biochar technologies are scalable and decentralized and will promote local control and local economic activity. Properly scaled, biochar can create value-adding industries for local products and can ensure that community development can occur in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Increased investment in infrastructure for biofuel processing, distribution and transport could result, and at least some of this infrastructure would also contribute to the overall development of the agricultural sector.


All of these options effectively promote energy self sufficiency i
n rural areas, where biochar will make the most sense.


In summary

Biochar may play a key role in the transformation of the energy sector, in climate stabilization and may result in a worldwide renaissance of rural areas.  It offers more diverse and clean energy supplies, more food per unit of input and climate security while also offering the chance to build a stronger rural economy.  It is a vision of a landscape that provides food, fodder, fiber, and energy and that offers opportunities for rural development; a vision of diversified energy supplies, restored ecosystems, biodiversity, and sequestered carbon.

    As  Tim Flannery said, "This is what the biochar revolution offers us".

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Biochar Consulting (Canada)
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