BioChar: Locking in the Heat
For most people, the only thing that farming and barbecuing might have in common is where the supply produced by one, meets the market demands of the other on the supermarket shelf. In a day and age where instant gratification trumps tradition, Farmers long ago turned their fields into sterile sponges that they must now constantly fertilize with man-made nitrogen and phosphates. Meanwhile back on the homestead, the fast-firing convenience of gas powered BBQ grills have largely displaced charcoal as the heat of choice for backyard barbecue. Yet charcoal might soon make an enormous comeback in ways that propane and petrochemical fertilizers could never touch, and which will have an enormous impact on farming practices that once relied on the natural biodiversity of soil to sustain healthy crops. This renaissance of ancient agricultural methods will not only enrich our largely depleted farm fields, but also serve to use currently wasted BioMass to sequester carbon and thus combat global warming….by turning it into BioChar.
The trick to this ecologically brilliant shortcut is to simply prepare charcoal at a higher temperature to produce BioChar in an environmentally beneficial process that will far surpass it’s popular role as the perfect heat for traditional barbecue. This old-fashioned soil enrichment method might not only break the petrochemical fertilizer addictions of industrial farming methods, but also serve to naturally capture and store carbon in a stable state that could benefit our environment for centuries to come. If you think that there are still lessons to be learned from the Past, here’s a peek at a Future that can be carbon fixed by BioChar…
BioMass in…BioChar Out…Carbon Captured!
Biochar is agricultural charcoal produced through pyrolysis. This is the burning biomass (plant matter) under zero oxygen conditions. Pyrolysis fixes existing carbon in the biomass, resulting in a stable carbon structure which will take hundreds of years to biodegrade. Biochar effectively interrupts the natural carbon cycle of plant growth and decay, sequestering carbon and reducing atmospheric CO2.
Biochar is a uniquely powerful, innovative and economical tool for mitigating climate change, enriching the soil, improving water quality and reducing dependence on agro-chemicals. Biochar is best known as the “black soil” or terra preta found in amazonian soils; this is the application for BioChar that is being studied the most extensively.
BioChar benefits include:
- Stabilized soil chemistry through increased biological activity.
- Increased long-term soil fertility.
- Increased soil porosity, thus increased water retention.
- Increases biodiversity.
- Reduced risk of compromised crop yields from climate change.
- Filtering out contaminants from shallow soil water due to its honeycomb structure.
- Reduced need for chemical fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus.
- Reduced stormwater runoff, and thus healthier waterways as well.
- The technology for biochar sequestration does not require a fundamental scientific advance. The underlying production technology is robust and simple, making it appropriate for many regions of the world
- pyrolysis can be cost-effective for a combination of sequestration and energy production when the cost of a CO2 ton reaches $37 . As of mid-February 2010, CO2 is trading at $16.82/ton on the European Climate Exchange (ECX), so using pyrolysis for bioenergy production may be feasible even if it is more expensive than fossil fuels.
“Biochar may represent the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future.”
~ Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers
So how can BioChar change the world?
Besides the obvious commercial resistance to overhauling industrial farming practices which are deeply enmeshed with the interests of Petrochemical Giants, what are the other challenges to realizing the enormous benefits BioChar? Agricultural practices aren’t going to change until there is a large and ready supply of well-graded materials to quickly re-mediate the soil without a drop in production and yield. There’s still much work and research required to assure adequate production processes, product and quality standards, end-product applications, and of course wide-spread market acceptance. New organizations such as the Canadian BioChar Initiative (CBI) are working to lead the way towards this ecologically sustainable Future.
The other side of the equation is is assuring an adequate amount of base material on supply side for producing BioChar, by creating and managing a well distributed market for the crucial and enormous amounts of BioMass that will be required as feedstock for a revolution in Agriculture. Luckily we’re seeing genuine progress being made here in Ontario, where the Ontario Power Generation Corp (OPG) is already poised to drive an enormous level demand for collecting, producing, and effectively distributing BioMass, and thus kick-start an entire new economy for BioWaste…