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Ancient fertilizer biochar joins modern fight against greenhouse gases

External Reference/Copyright
Issue date: 
August 15, 2010
Publisher Name: 
Tainted Green
Bryce Wolfe
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What do bone fragments, cow patties and banana peels have in common? They all help gardens grow. When processed into a charcoal-like substance called biochar instead of being burned directly for fuel, researchers say organic materials could offset as much as 12 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.

Benefits of biochar include improved soil fertility, reduced nitrous oxide and methane emissions from the soil and, during processing, the production of gas and oil that can be used to generate electricity in place of fossil fuels, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications.

The study focused on sources of biomass not used for food, such as corn stalks, rice husks, livestock manure and yard trimmings. Researchers calculated the carbon content of each material and found that, at maximum, using biochar could offset up to 1.8 billion tons of carbon emissions each year. Their most conservative estimate put the carbon offset at just under 1 billion tons each year.

However, researchers stated that reducing greenhouse gas emissions at these levels will require significant commitment from governments and citizens around the world. Everyone will need to change the way they think about carbon. The study concluded that biochar would be most beneficial if tilled into the planet's poorest soils, which have lost their ability to hold onto nutrients due to erosion. Biochar increases fertility by locking in water and nutrients.

In Western Kenya, villagers often use traditional open fires that require a large amount of firewood. As the land is stripped, kindling is sometimes taken illegally from national forests. The International Biochar Initiative describes how providing villagers with redesigned stoves and enabling them to use biochar has reduced deforestation and increased yield on farms.

The study researchers also noted that no farmland needs to be diverted into making biochar in place of food crops. To be made sustainably, the plant waste should only be taken from existing sources, like the remnants of food crops and livestock. Some biomass should be left on the soil to protect it from erosion and it should be processed using modern technologies that fully recover energy and eliminate soot, methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Biochar is produced by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen, a process known as low-temperature pyrolysis.

Humans have been using biochar for thousands of years to improve soil quality. Adding biochar to soils creates a positive feedback cycle, encouraging greater plant growth and greater biomass for future biochar production. There is virtually no downside to the ancient fertilizer as long as it's produced sustainably. Biochar is more stable than biomass and can trap greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide for hundreds of years. So instead of throwing out that yard waste, consider helping the atmosphere and donating it to your regional biochar group.


Regional Groups; 





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.

A dream I've had for years is to base the coming carbon economy firmly on the foundation of top soils. My read of the agronomic history of civilization shows that the Kayopo Amazon Indians and the Egyptians were the only ones to maintain fertility for the long haul, millennium scales. Egypt has now forsaken their geologic advantage by building the Aswan dam, and are stuck, with the rest of us, in the soil C mining, NPK rat race to the bottom. The meta-analysis of Syn-N and soil Carbon content show our dilemma;

The Ag Soil Carbon standard
is in final review by the AMS branch at USDA.  
Read over the work so far;

In my efforts to have Biochar's potential  included, I have recruited several to join the list, briefed the entire committee about char when issues concerning N2O & CH4 soil GHG emissions were raised, fully briefed a couple of the 100 members when they replied individually to my "Reply all" briefs. The members cover the full spectrum of Ag interest.

 With the Obama administration  funding an inter-departmental climate effort of NASA, NOAA, USDA,  & EPA, and now even the CIA is opening the data coffers, then soil carbon sensors may be less than 5 years away. I'm told by the Jet Propulsion Lab mission specialists responsible for the suite of earth sensing satellites, that they will be reading soil carbon using multiple proxy measurements in 5 years. Reading soil moisture to 3 foot dept in two year with SMAP, Reading GHG emissions and biomass from the tree tops down next year when the Orbital Carbon Observer (OCO, get it:) is rebooted, to 1 Ha resolution.

Then, any farmer can click "Google Carbon maps" to see the soil carbon accounted to his good work, a level playing field to be a soil sink banker.
The Moon Pie in the sky funding should be served to JPL


Biochar Soils.....Husbandry of whole new Orders & Kingdoms 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. Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent.

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.

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.
Microbes like to sit down when they eat.
By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life.
( These oxidised surface charges; carbonyl. hydroxyl, carboxylic acids, and lactones or quinones,  have as well a role as signaling substances towards bacteria, fungi and plants.)

This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it.
Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web.  The photosynthetic  "capture" collectors are up and running, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet.  Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure  we need to build out.

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 combinded!
The Biochar Fund:
Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon
The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that , and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )

WorldStoves in Haitihttp://www.charcoalproject.org/2010/05/a-man-a-stove-a-mission/

 NASA’s Space Archaeology; $364K Terra Preta Program

  For those looking for an overview of biochar and its benefits, These authors have done a very nice job of distilling a great deal of information about biochar and applying it to the US context:US -Focused Biochar report: Assessment of Biochar's Benefits for the USA http://www.biochar-us.org/pdf%20files/biochar_report_lowres.pdf


Extpub | by Dr. Radut