Biochar — the carbon negative topsoil doctor

Update: Big story about biochar in the New York Times.

According to the International Biochar Initiative

The biochar process is akin to a process utilized thousands of years ago in the Amazon Basin, where islands of rich, fertile soils called Terra Preta (“dark earth”) soils were created through a process similar to pyrolysis. The high fertility and carbon content of these soils – retained thousands of years later in the absence of additional inputs – is the subject of much research and agricultural interest, and underlies the formation of the International Biochar Initiative. Because the biochar is relatively inert, most of it remains in the soils for orders of magnitude longer than any other organic amendments. This means that biochar might be one of the only tools available in the near future that can actually remove carbon from the atmosphere in a virtually permanent form.

An IBI image illustrating the beneficial effects of growing a plant in biochar-amended soil

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According to James Lovelock

It is too late for emissions reduction measures.

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast. […]

The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference […]

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According to Lisa Abend

Burn almost any kind of organic material — corn husks, hazelnut shells, bamboo and, yes, even chicken manure — in an oxygen-depleted process called pyrolysis, and you generate gases and heat that can be used as energy. What remains is a solid — biochar — that sequesters carbon, keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere. In principle, at least, you create energy in a way that is not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative.

And the benefits only begin there. When added to thin and acidic soil of the kind found in much of South America and Africa, char produces higher agricultural yields and lets farmers cut down on costly, petroleum-heavy fertilizers.

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7 Comments

  1. “The Biochar Revolution” with “The Biochar Solution”
    http://biochar-books.com/
    The Biochar Revolution collects the results and best practical advice that these entrepreneurs have to offer to the biochar community. When practice and theory advance to the point where they meet in the middle, then we will truly see a biochar revolution.

    Like

  2. According to Wallace Broecker, the environmental scientist who coined the term “global warming”,

    Shutting down the rise in the atmosphere’s CO2 is a must.

    It will prove to be a huge and costly task. Conservation and non-fossil fuel energy alone won’t be enough.

    In addition CO2 capture and storage will have to play a big role. Key to this will be the ability to capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

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  3. According to Nelson Dale

    It is possible, and not technically difficult, to sequester carbon in living ecosystems, such that large areas of currently desertified land could be transformed into productive rangeland.

    While most technological fixes seem to imply incalculable side effects in unexpected areas, the effect of this kind of approach is increased land productivity, something that will be desperately needed in the coming years. Rather than merely surviving the coming century, let’s restore its promise.

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  4. 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), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!
    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 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,

    http://www.biochar-international.org/newinformationevents/newlegislation.html

    Charles Mann (“1491”) in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/09/soil/mann-text

    It’s what Mann hasn’t covered that I thought should interest any writer as a follow up article;

    Biochar data base;

    http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

    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.

    http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0804/0804.1126.pdf

    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.

    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.

    Cheers,

    Erich J. Knight

    Shenandoah Gardens

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