What is Biochar?
Biochar is organic matter (crop waste, sawdust, or manure, for example) cooked at a low temperature (500-900 °C) with very little oxygen. This process, called “pyrolysis” also produces heat, syngas, bio-oil, & wood vinegar. Energy released to make biochar can heat a building, power a truck, or generate electric power. Biochar is not a fertilizer. Biochar is used with fertilizer and amendments, not as substitute, but as high-efficiency delivery system. Biochar adsorbs and stores nutrients in fertilizers to make them easily available to plant roots. This improves fertilizer efficiency and allows growers to reduce use of fertilizer. Biochar also retains up to six times its weight in water, so basically, biochar can be thought of as a battery that stores water and nutrients.
Why use biochar in soil?
Replenishes soils depleted by over-farming Crops grow larger and more bountiful Improves soil structure; reduces run-off Micropores retain nutrients & water Reduces erosion, run-off & leaching Increases & stabilizes soil pH Helps roots to absorb nutrients Stores & releases Nitrogen & Phosphorus Decreases mineral leaching Accelerates compost process Reduces greenhouse gas emissions Absorbs odors from manure & compost Reduces aluminum toxicity by increasing pH Micropores support beneficial microbes Encourages large grazers like earthworms Increases mycorrhizal fungi activiity Aids in worm population and soil fertility SAVES YOU MONEY
What are some other uses for Biochar?
This January 2012 article lists 55 documented uses for biochar. Since then, the list of uses has expanded considerably. Having already covered why biochar should be used in soil, here are some other applications.
Livestock and Poultry
Used on litter, reduces odor and harmful effects of ammonia Water treatment for animals and fish farming Reduces odor in livestock manure collection sites and accelerate fermentation Research shows that adding biochar to cattle feed can improve feed efficiency 22%, reduce methane 28% and increase daily weight gain 20%. Biochar has also been shown to significantly reduce aflotoxins in goat’s milk. * * Biochar has not been approved as a feed supplement in the U.S. For more information regarding this matter, please see “Using Biochar to Reduce Cattle Emissions” on page 5 of the March, 2017 issue of the Nebraska Forest Industry Newsletter “Timber Talk” Articles of interest compiled by our soil & biochar consultant, David Yarrow.
Is Biochar safe?
For all practical purposes, biochar is as safe as soil itself.
Is Biochar just charcoal?
In spite of many similarities, biochar is not just charcoal. So what’s the difference? According to the International Biochar Initiative, “Biochar is a solid material obtained from the thermochemical conversion of biomass in an oxygen-limited environment. Biochar can be used as a product itself or as an ingredient within a blended product, with a range of applications as an agent for soil improvement, improved resource use efficiency, remediation and/or protection against particular environmental pollution, and as an avenue for greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation.” Simply put, charcoal is not produced to meet any of these requirements. Biochar is produced to meet them all.
What is 'Carbon Smart'?
Being Carbon Smart means taking an intelligent and flexible approach to reducing our carbon footprint. Solar energy, for example, is Carbon neutral, meaning that it neither adds to nor subtracts from the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is considered to be Carbon Smart. Biochar, on the other hand, is Carbon negative. Its ability to sequester Carbon from the atmosphere and trap it in the soil where it does good rather than harm makes biochar very Carbon Smart. One might even say that biochar is Carbon Brilliant.
I've heard people refer to Biochar as a 'Probiotic' approach. What does this mean?
Think of soil as you would your own digestive system. Obviously, the use of antibiotics has its benefits. However, the word “antibiotic” literally means “against life”. So when you use antibiotics, you are literally killing the normal flora in your body. This is why the side effects of antibiotics include diarrhea and yeast infections.Yogurt has been shown to prevent these side effects, because yogurt contains bacteria that can replace the normal bacteria that are being killed off by the antibiotics. Eating yogurt is a probiotic approach to offsetting the side effects of antibiotics. Likewise, biochar promotes the growth of microbes and fungi in soil, making it a critical element in maintaining the Soil Food Web. “It is important to view the soil food web as a complex, whole system. When any group of organisms in the system is eliminated or damaged, the delicate balance of interrelationships can be shifted.”
Why Terra Char Biochar?
Short answer – Quality Long answer – Control Laboratories Analysis
How Biochar is made and how it works
How is Biochar made?
From the International Biochar Initiative: ”Carbonization is the process of converting a feedstock into biochar through reductive thermal processing. The process involves a combination of time, heat and pressure exposure factors that can vary between processors, equipment, and feedstocks. There are two main processes: pyrolysis or gasification. Energy products in the form of gas or oil are produced along with the biochar. These energy products may be recoverable for another use, or may simply be burned and released as heat. In addition, biochar can be made from a wide variety of biomass feedstocks. As a result, different biochar systems emerge on different scales. These systems may use production technologies that do or do not produce recoverable energy as well as biochar, and range from small household units to large bioenergy power plants.” Pyrolysis – The heating of an organic material in the absence of oxygen. Gasification – In addition to the thermal decomposition of the volatile components of the substance, the non-volatile carbon char that would remain from pyrolysis is converted to additional syngas. Steam may also be added to the gasifier to convert the carbon to syngas.
How does Biochar benefit the soil?
First, biochar micropores (pictured to the right) are a super sponge to soak up water, then very slowly release it back into soil. Thus, biochar keeps soil wetter longer. Biochar significantly expands any soil’s water cycle capacity. Second, biochar attracts and holds atoms with electric charge: ions. We know charcoal has strong adsorption potential to pull pollutant ions out of water. But in soil, ions are nutrients. Biochar adsorbs nutrients to capture their electric charges. Soil with any carbon—especially biochar—has huge capacity to store electric charge, thus is prepared to power plant growth. Third, biochar is habitat for microbes and fungi. Thus, biochar allows soil to become fully alive, like coral reefs in the sea, a similar “soil reef” effect on land—blossoming the Soil Food Web.
How does Biochar affect PH and cation exchange capacity in soil
From the International Biochar Initiative: Biochar reduces soil acidity which decreases liming needs, but in most cases does not actually add nutrients in any appreciable amount. Biochar made from manure and bones is the exception; it retains a significant amount of nutrients from its source. Because biochar attracts and holds soil nutrients, it potentially reduces fertilizer requirements. As a result, fertilization costs are minimized and fertilizer (organic or chemical) is retained in the soil for longer. In most agricultural situations worldwide, soil pH (a measure of acidity) is low (a pH below 7 means more acidic soil) and needs to be increased. Biochar retains nutrients in soil directly through the negative charge that develops on its surfaces, and this negative charge can buffer acidity in the soil, as does organic matter in general. CEC stands for Cation Exchange Capacity, and is one of many factors involved in soil fertility. “Cations” are positively charged ions, in this case we refer specifically to plant nutrients such as calcium (Ca2+), potassium (K+), magnesium (Mg2+) and others. These simple forms are those in which plants take the nutrients up through their roots. Organic matter and some clays in soil hold on to these positively charged nutrients because they have negatively charged sites on their surfaces, and opposite charges attract. The soil can then “exchange” these nutrients with plant roots. If a soil has a low cation exchange capacity, it is not able to retain such nutrients well, and the nutrients are often washed out with water.
How do fungi move electrons?
In the words of soil and biochar consultant, David Yarrow- ”thanks for asking. a brief question, but with huge answers — mostly nano-scale. i still think we continue to ignore carbon’s more subtle, molecular & cellular scale electric properties, and how these charge flow effects affect microbe & root growth. and the very fact that biocarbon consists mostly of chains and rings imparts certain electronic, frequency-based effects that seem mostly unrecognized & unexplored in biology. and even more blinding to full insight, few folk seem to grasp carbon’s magnetic properties, and how these subtle field effects are a force to build life at molecular and cellular scales. i can sketch out 5 special ways that fungi move electrons around in a soil system. first, very simply, the fungal body — especially the long hyphal threads — is a fluid-filled tube doped with electrolytes. this liquid channel is a conduction path for electrons, and you can safely bet there is a tiny, essentially immeasurable, voltage potential along the length of a fungal body. i suspect an experiment can be designed to demonstrate that soil laced with fungal threads has higher electron conductivity than inert dirt without any biotic activity, and that fungi in particular accelerate this conduction effect. this effect is so tiny at scale (microns) and minute in intensity (volts), special instruments & techniques are needed to detect, measures & track these electron fluxes. it’s plainly obvious all living bodies are, at the least, tiny electric engines driven by charge flow. less obvious is that soil is an electric device to store, share & circulate charge just like a battery operated gadget. second, the fungal body itself is a conduction path, if only because it is largely made from carbon ring substances — some form of glyco-protein = cellulose & amino acids. chains of carbon rings have remarkable electron capture & sharing abilities that makes them useful as semiconductors. we know carbon rings in char act as a super-capacitor to catch & release electrons, and char’s micropore structure gives it huge internal capacity to hold & distribute charge. conductivity of a fungal sheath is likely lower than the interior liquid pathway, but still, it’s a better conduction path than inert dirt. i’m certain biotic life is making use of these electron fluxes in its complexity of carbohydrate & amino acid chain & ring structures. third is a special molecular bioconduction pathway created by anions in the interior fungal fluids, especially, of course, phosphorus & nitrogen. these elements capture and carry up to three extra electrons. i think of anion elements as an escort service to move hyper-active electron charges safely around inside a biotic system. this is why P & N are in such high demand wherever growth is happening: they deliver electrons. inside the cell, think ATP/ADP cycle = the cellular power supply network. we know fungi — some species more than others, but virtually all — have a special thing to find & translocate phosphorus. they also distribute & share this phosphorus with other fungi, other biotic organisms, including plants. fungi not only have phosphorus, but also the intelligence to make use of this precious, energy-rich element. ditto for nitrogen. fourth is an external watery layer around the fungal body — an extremely thin film of water (maybe a few 1000 molecules thick) that is extra-dense, extra-organized (crystalline structure), electric-charged, and extra-conductive. might even be super-conductive, due to quantum effects from liquid crystal, tightly packed & stacked, harmonic synchronized molecules. this effect might seem like weird speculative theory, but has been evaluated, measured & documented by lab work. we see this almost every day: we drain liquid from a glass, cup or pot, let it sit 30 seconds, upend the container again, and several water drops fall out. those last drops were water that formed an ultra-thin, super-dense liquid crystal film that literally “hugs” almost any hydrophilic surface. water molecules actually acquire the geometry & shape of the surface. science just discovered this nano-thin film water, but it’s obvious nature took advantage of this effect eons ago in evolution, and still exploits these thin films in modern biotics. so, water in contact with fungal matter acquires this thin film, charged state, and this enhances electron movement around a fungal filament. i should add that this thin film effect occurs inside micropores of biochar as water spreads inwards and penetrates the interior spaces & surfaces. water is changed when in comes in contact with biocarbon. my fifth method for fungi to boost electron fluxes in soil makes me laugh. saw it revealed recently in a short snip of micro-photo video that showed a single fungal thread at about 1/20th the screen width. the optical distortion along the edge of this fungal body was from a liquid crystal thin film forming all around this carbon-nitrogen chain gyco-protein thread. zipping along through this thin watery film were tiny optical distortions created by bacteria. the least of all life — teeny bacterial blobs — were racing very rapidly along the outside of a fungal thread much like we motor on highways. in both directions. at remarkable rates. this biotic highway must permit 100s of times more mobility to those tiny bacteria blobs than i ever expected. i put this video snippet on my facebook page; maybe i can track it down. so, anyway, seems fungi are operating at several cellular as well as molecular ways to boost electron movements in soil and to plant roots. and a plant is nothing if not a grounded antenna drawing charge from the atmosphere. …with a better imagination of what electric charge might be doing in cells & soil, consider what happens when we impose a complex magnetic matrix on the whole biotic structure to align & synchronize spin states = charge.
Can biochar really mitigate climate change, and if so, how?
Studies have shown that biochar has the potential to mitigate global climate change by drawing down atmospheric GHG (greenhouse gas) concentrations (Woolf et al, 2010). The three main GHGs are Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Nitrous Oxide (N2O), and Methane (CH4). NOAA climate scientist James Hansen studied the biochar strategy to sequester carbon, including in his computer simulations. In August 2009, Dr. Hansen wrote: “Biochar produced in pyrolysis of crop residues, forestry wastes and animal manures can restore soil fertility while storing carbon for centuries to millennia. Biochar helps soil retain nutrients and fertilizers, reduce greenhouse gas emission such as N2O. Replacing slash-and-burn agriculture with slash-and-char using farm and forestry wastes can provide CO2 drawdown of ~8 ppm or more in 50 years.” The time to make Carbon-Smart decisions is upon us, and biochar is proving itself to be an indispensable tool for not only slowing, but reversing climate change. A recent study conducted by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis suggests that without substantial negative emissions technologies, we can expect a global average temperature rise of 2.5°C by 2022. In addition to Carbon sequestration, many other potential climate benefits are offered by biochar, making it not just Carbon neutral, but Carbon negative: By improving soil fertility, biochar stimulates plant growth, which then leads to increased consumption of carbon dioxide. By reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, biochar helps to reduced emissions of greenhouse gases from fertilizer manufactures. By increasing soil microbial life, biochar increases the amount of carbon stored in soil. Converting agricultural and forestry waste into biochar can avoid CO2 and CH4 emissions otherwise generated by the natural decomposition or burning of the waste. The heat energy—and also the bio-oils and syngases—generated during biochar production can reduce the need for fossil fuels. What makes avoiding a temperature change of 2.5°C such a big deal? It doesn’t sound like much, but the effects of climate change have the potential to be devastating. Drought will make food harder to grow and clean water harder to come by. Flooding will displace millions of people. Dwindling resources and the displacement of millions will lead to societal destabilization and increased conflict between nations. Therefore, it is essential that we investigate and implement biochar and every tool and method at our disposal to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. Here are several relevant documents that we have collected: Biochar slows climate change Biochar and bioenergy production for climate change mitigation Biochar projects for mitigating climate change: an investigation of critical methodology issues for carbon accounting
I'm not sure about the whole 'climate change' thing. What else can it improve?
Glad you asked! How about: World hunger? During scientific trials, farmers in developing countries applying biochar to their fields found their average maize yield increased dramatically, up to double in some cases. From Popular Science, The Future of Farming: Eight Solutions For a Hungry World: 25%: Amount of land, globally, that’s been degraded by human activities Solution Add biochar, a form of charcoal that provides plants with vital nutrients while also sequestering carbon. Potential Turn vast swaths of unfarmable land arable again, while locking away tons of carbon dioxide. ETA Available now Lack of access to clean water? According to the World Health Organization: 884 million people lack even a basic drinking-water service, including 159 million people who are dependent on surface water. Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces. Contaminated water can transmit diseases such diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502 000 diarrhoeal deaths each year. By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. In low- and middle-income countries, 38% of health care facilities lack an improved water source, 19% do not have improved sanitation, and 35% lack water and soap for handwashing. Here’s just one example of how biochar can help One system at a farm community in northern Thailand has been in operation since February 2008. As of 2014, it had produced over 2.4 million liters of treated water. Cost? Less than US$ 500 to install and maintain.” View pdf “Removing toxic chemicals from drinking water using biochar” Additionally, biochar can retain up to 27,000 gallons of water per acre of land. Less water used for crop irrigation makes more water available for other uses. Here in the U.S., where clean water is relatively easy to obtain, biochar’s astounding potential to protect and provide clean water has remained largely untapped. (See what I did there?) For example, a border of biochar surrounding a water supply could help protect it from contamination caused by toxic runoff and spills, including oil. War? Wait, what? War? From the U.S. Department of Defense: “WASHINGTON, July 29, 2015 — Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries, according to a report the Defense Department sent to Congress yesterday.The Senate Appropriations Committee requested the report in conjunction with the Defense Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2015, asking that the undersecretary of defense for policy provide a report that identifies the most serious and likely climate-related security risks for each combatant command and the ways those commands integrate risk mitigation into their planning processes. The report finds that climate change is a security risk, Pentagon officials said, because it degrades living conditions, human security and the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations. Communities and states that already are fragile and have limited resources are significantly more vulnerable to disruption and far less likely to respond effectively and be resilient to new challenges, they added.” Read full article From the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing for Lucian L. Niemeyer, July 18, 2017: “where climate change contributes to regional instability, the Department of Defense must be aware of any potential adverse impacts,” “climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” “the Department should be prepared to mitigate any consequences of a changing climate” – James Mattis, United States Secretary of Defense This is just the tip of the iceberg. Here is a collection of information regarding security threats that could be caused by our changing climate.
Note: Several misconceptions have been addressed in this article. This is highly-recommended reading, to say the least.
“…the truth is the exact opposite of what is being claimed.” – André Faaij, scientific director of Energy Academy Europe and professor Energy Systems Analysis at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.