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Biochar- the ancient, revolutionary, carbon-capturing soil amendment

A quiet revolution in fighting climate change is smouldering away. Biochar, for the benefit of readers who aren’t already aware, is a form of charcoal produced in a kiln designed to keep oxygen levels to a minimum, in a process called pyrolysis. Agricultural waste is converted into a carbon-enriched end-product that might just help re-balance our embattled Earth’s atmosphere. And while debate rages away in academic circles over how best to utilise this black gold, US company re:char are busy getting on with it, changing lives in rural Kenya.

As the world scratches its head trying to figure out how we wean ourselves off carbon-belching fossil fuels, some of us are getting imaginative. We already know that the biosphere removes 550bn tons of carbon from the atmosphere for us – roughly 18 times more than we emit. The problem is 99.9% of it gets pumped straight back out once things get eaten. The solution might just be to trap some of that evil carbon before it escapes and put it to work – i.e. back into the soil. Unlike wood or other crop waste, biochar is unbelievably stable; locking in carbon for hundreds and quite possibly thousands of years (think Han Solo sealed in carbonite for delivery to Jabba the Hutt). Some environmentalists, such as energy lecturer Peter Read, see this as the moment we cut the Gordian knot, advocating building industrial-sized plantations across the planet, dedicated to production of biomass. Others, including journalist George Monbiot, feel the resulting loss of natural, unused habitats is too high a price to pay.

“The porous structure of biochar makes a perfect retainer for moisture and friendly microbes, as well as keeping nitrogen from seeping into ground water.”

Regardless of the debate raging away in academic circles, there is one way in which biochar is already helping to alter lives, regardless of the wider fight against Climate change. Mixed with biochar, otherwise degraded tropical soils can become highly enriched, providing a huge boon for farmers in poorer countries. The porous structure of biochar makes a perfect retainer for moisture and friendly microbes, as well as keeping nitrogen from seeping into ground water. Laurens Rademakers, an advocate of biomass working currently in Cameroon, has shown just how effective biochar can be, using photographic evidence of wheat grown with biochar growing twice as tall as the same wheat grown without it. In yet another example of modern man failing to learn from his ancestors, this technique was actually used thousands of years ago in the Amazon.

“The dream is that ultimately every farm should have their own kiln, with waste being turned to profit, and the Earth’s atmosphere breathing a heady sigh of relief.”

So perhaps this is the solution; a bottom up, rather than top down approach? Certainly Jason Aramburu, founder of re:char, thinks so. His company is dedicated to providing small kilns to subsistence farmers in developing countries – the farmers enjoy increased crop yields and income, while the whole planet enjoys the benefit of reversed desertification and trapped carbon!

But there are further benefits to advancing biochar, as the pyrolysis process creates biofuel as a by-product. Farmers can theoretically supplement their income by selling this on. There is also the very welcome possibility of reducing landfill as both waste paper and plastics can be converted into charcoal. The potential of biochar could be enormous. The dream is that ultimately every farm should have their own kiln, with waste being turned to profit, and the Earth’s atmosphere breathing a heady sigh of relief.

Biochar for climate change

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  • Off sets use of fossil fuels with pyrolysis based bioenergy utilizing waste biomass.
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  • Lowers C02 by 1-9Gt-yr by paying farmers to sequester carbon in the soil.

 

 

This article was originally published in Issue 001 of HYDROMAG (September – October 2012).

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