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STUDY:Biochar alters water flow to improve sand and clay soil

Research shines light on soil additive’s seemingly contradictory benefits

Jade Boyd – September 24, 2014 Rice University News & Media

As more gardeners and farmers add ground charcoal, or biochar, to soil to both boost crop yields and counter global climate change, a new study by researchers at Rice University and Colorado College could help settle the debate about one of biochar’s biggest benefits — the seemingly contradictory ability to make clay soils drain faster and sandy soils drain slower.

The study, available online this week in the journal PLOS ONE, offers the first detailed explanation for the hydrological mystery.

“Understanding the controls on water movement through biochar-amended soils is critical to explaining other frequently reported benefits of biochar, such as nutrient retention, carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions,” said lead author Rebecca Barnes, an assistant professor of environmental science at Colorado College, who began the research while serving as a postdoctoral research associate at Rice.

Biochar can be produced from waste wood, manure or leaves, and its popularity among do-it-yourselfers and gardening buffs took off after archaeological studies found that biochar added to soils in the Amazon more than 1,000 years ago was still improving the water- and nutrient-holding abilities of those poor soils today.

Studies over the past decade have found that biochar soil amendments can either increase or decrease the amount of water that soil holds, but it has been tough for experts to explain why this occurs, due partly to conflicting results from many different field tests.

In the new study, biogeochemists at Rice conducted side-by-side tests of the water-holding ability of three soil types — sand, clay and topsoil — both with and without added biochar. The biochar used in the experiments, which was derived from Texas mesquite wood, was prepared to exacting standards in the lab of Rice geochemist Caroline Masiello, a study co-author, to ensure comparable results across soil types.

“Not all biochar is created equal, and one of the important lessons of recent studies is that the hydrological properties of biochar can vary widely, depending on the temperature and time in the reactor,” Masiello said. “It’s important to use the right recipe for the biochar that you want to make, and the differences can be subtle. For scientific studies, it is critical to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.”

Biochar can reduce tree stress from transplanting and drought, Bartlett trials find

15 January 2015, by Gavin McEwan, Horticulture Week

Biochar, a charcoal-like substance created by pyrolysis of green waste, has potential to protect trees against stress, according to trials by Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory, part of Reading University.

They found that young horse chestnut trees replanted in poor clay soil showed higher leaf chlorophyll content and improved photosynthetic efficiency of up to 12.5 per cent over two growing seasons, with superior results from a more granular biochar compared a powdered form.

Further research recorded similar increases in chlorophyll leaf content of bare-rooted European beech transplants through addition of bamboo biochar or mixed woodchip biochar compared to controls.  Marked improvements in transplant survival, of 24-50 per cent, were also in soils amended with biochar.

Current research is also demonstrating how Carbon Gold’s biochar-based Tree Growth Enhancer can boost saplings’ ability to withstand drought, with 90 per cent of cherry saplings retaining their leaves after three weeks of drought, compared to none of the control saplings.

Similar results have been achieved with the more xerophytic (drought-adapted) species western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), and among drought-stressed alders. Bartlett research technician Emma Schaffert said: ”With extremes in climate becoming more frequent and unpredictable, this product could potentially reduce the effects of these events, particularly drought.

“Biota also has the potential to reduce stress in new plantings, and we are planning more research this year to further investigate these benefits.  ”Research is also looking at the effect of source material for the biochar on plants’ response, she added, with Bartlett and Carbon Gold planning to investigate the effect of biochar from different hardwood and softwood species on soil and plant health. Previous trials carried out by Bartlett scientists in the US have demonstrated biochar’s plant protection properties, suggesting it could boost resistance to the many pest and disease problems now afflicting UK trees.

UF/IFAS researcher finds inexpensive, easy way to filter arsenic from water with biochar

Published: November 3 2014

Category:Environment, Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A University of Florida professor has developed a quick, cheap and easy way to filter from water one of the world’s most common pollutants: arsenic.

Bin Gao’s team used iron-enhanced carbon cooked from hickory chips, called biochar, to remove the toxin. He is an associate professor with the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in agricultural and biological engineering.

Read more:

BIOCHAR USED SUCCESSFULLY TO TREAT FRACKING WATER

Post Date: 19 September 2014 – Energy and Environment Management

Researchers at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Texas and the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) in the US have determined that biochar, a substance produced from plant matter, is a safe, effective and inexpensive method to treat flowback water following hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Flowback water treatment is a critical sustainability issue for the oil and gas industry. One to five million gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals are required for the fracking of each well. Once the water is used, the flowback, or wastewater, must be treated to remove hazardous chemicals before it is stored, reused or disposed, which can be a costly endeavor. Using biochar could help oil and gas companies save money and responsibly treat flowback water for reuse. This is particularly important in areas where water resources are scarce.

UTSA mechanical engineering professor Zhigang Feng, senior research engineer in SwRI’s Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division Maoqi Feng, and four UTSA students have been creating biochar and testing it on water samples.

Biochar is made from materials such as wood chips, paper, leaves, soybean oil, corn oil and other forms of agricultural waste which are heated to high temperatures in an oxygen-deprived environment to form a stable charcoal-like solid. The substance attracts and retains water, absorbing impurities such as hydrocarbons, organics, biocides and certain inorganic metal ions.

UTSA’s Zhigang Feng said. “Our research demonstrates that this is a product that can reduce the environmental impact of drilling in a way that is safe and inexpensive to industry.”

Currently, biochar is used commercially to improve soil quality by helping soils retain nutrients and water. The research team plans to seek additional research funding as well as partnerships with biochar companies to help make the product marketable to the oil and gas industry.

HISTORIC FERTILIZER COULD HELP TREES, URBAN FARMS

By Ethan Nelson – Minnesota Daily September 09, 2014

University researchers are using a traditional charcoal-like substance to boost plant growth.

For centuries, the indigenous communities of the Americas cut down and burned vegetation, using the remains to fertilize the soil underneath.

Now, in locations around the Twin Cities, city leaders are working with a local Native American community and the University of Minnesota to test a modern application of the age-old technique.

In two separate studies, the updated farming technique uses biochar — a soil addition created by burning wood waste products — mixed with compost to try and shrink trees’ mortality rates and help plants grow.

The city’s study aims to discover how soil additions impact urban farms. Officials have added biochar to five gardens around the metro area this year. Read more…..

The Use of Biochar in Cattle Farming

by Achim Gerlach

90% of the biochar produced in Europe is used in livestock farming. Whether mixed with feed, added to litter or used in the treatment of slurry, the positive effect of biochar very quickly becomes apparent. The health – and consequently the well-being – of the livestock improve within just a short space of time. As regards nasty smells and nutrient losses, the use of biochar could even herald a new age of livestock farming, closing agricultural cycles of organic matter.

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Introduction

Hormonal, chelating, antibiotic, teratogenic, carcinogenic and neural effects are the main symptoms of the cattle diseases, with which I am faced in my daily practice as a vet. The productivity of cows and thus of production units are greatly dependent on the proper functioning of the gastrointestinal tract. This is the reason why diseases of the digestive tract and the corresponding treatment strategies play a key role in commercial livestock farming. Maintaining “eubiosis” (host and microflora living together in symbiosis) in the gastrointestinal tract of animals is becoming increasingly difficult, as more and more farms (i) specialise in either crop farming or livestock farming, and (ii) merge together to form increasingly larger units. The result is that feedstuff can no longer be “home-grown” in sufficient quantities and quality and instead has to be purchased from outside. More often than not, farmers are no longer in a position to assess the quality of such feedstuff (purchase is based on trust).
Directly linked to this problematic situation is the appearance of chronic botulism that reached disturbing levels in herds of cattle over the last few years (Krüger et al. 2012, Böhnel u. Gessler 2012). Affecting cattle, the disease – a toxic infection – is caused by clostridium botulinum toxins and is leading to significant direct and indirect losses in livestock farming. In her search for the main factor(s) influencing the emergence of this new phenotype, Krüger (2012) took a close look at the role played by glyphosate, a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide, and AMPA, its main metabolite. Her research revealed major amounts of glyphosate notably in the urine of dairy cows (up to 164 micrograms / l in Germany and up to 138 micrograms / l in Denmark, on average 20-50 micrograms / l) but also in rumen fluid (0.04 to 122 micrograms / l). Glyphosate was also found in human urine (up to 2.8 micrograms / l), although to a much lesser degree (see: Herbicides found in Humane Urine). Moreover glyphosate has also been detected in digestate from biogas plants and in different animal feeds, often in alarming concentrations. The fact that glyphosate has antibiotic effects is incidentally well-known to the producers of the herbicide, with Monsanto even filing an application for it to be patented as such (US-Patent 7,771,736, EP0001017636). When glyphosate gets into the digestive tract of animals and humans, it causes detectable changes in the gastrointestinal microbiota.
A good prophylactic, metaphylactic and therapeutic possibility of binding botulinum toxin and other toxins formed by clostridia, as well as the herbicide glyphosate increasingly detected in feedstuff, in the gastrointestinal tract of cattle seems to be the administration of biochar.
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The effect of activated carbon and biochar in feeding

For some hundred years, research into activated carbon has been showing effective ways of adsorbing pathogenic clostridial toxins such as C. tetani und C. botulinum (Kranich 1920, Luder 1947, Starkenstein 1915). Wang et al (2010) have shown that biochar has good sorption qualities with regard to the hydrophobic herbicide terbuthylazine and underline the important role it can play in protecting ground water. Graber et al. (2011) studied the binding qualities of the model herbicides S-Metolachlor and Sulfentraton on biochars with different surface sizes. Graber (2012) confirmed that biochar can adsorb glyphosate. The use of carbon gained from pyrolysis for feeding purposes has been known for a long time and is recommended in Germany. Mangold (1936) presented a comprehensive study on the effects of charcoal in feeding animals, concluding that “the prophylactic and therapeutic effect of charcoal against diarrhoeal symptoms attributable to infections or the type of feeding is known. In this sense, adding charcoal to the feed of young animals would seem a good preventive measure.”

Activated carbon = biochar?

Generally speaking, all activated carbons are originally biochars. Active carbons are however “activated” using acids or hydroxides or 900°C water steam. In doing so, their specific surface area increases from app. 300 m2/g to over 1000 m2/g. Activated carbon is 5 – 10 times more expensive than simple biochar, so it is possible to use 2-3 times the amount of biochar to achieve the same result – whether with regard to digestion in cattle or in a sewage treatment plant. As activated carbon is for the most part produced without adequate controls in South-East Asia or South America, the eco-balance often leaves a lot to be desired. Biochar by contrast is produced from controlled, locally grown raw materials using controlled production methods. There is no real difficulty involved in producing activated carbon from biochar.

Volkmann (1935) describes an efficient reduction in excreted oocysts through adding charcoal to the food of pets with coccidiosis or coccidial infections.
Haring (1937) recommends mixing charcoal into cattle feed, while Barth and Zucker (1955) were not able to establish any negative growth effects in poultry when the level of added charcoal was kept at around 1%.
From an international perspective, we are currently seeing repeated reports on the advantages of mixing biochar into animal feed:

• It’s used with goats in North Vietnam. Growth rates improved here when feed included 0.5-1g of bamboo coal / kg per day (DoThiThanVan, 2006).
• Kana et al. (2011) have shown that 0.2-0.6% corncob charcoal added to chicken feed results in significant weight increases.
• Iwase et al. (1990) have demonstrated – in an experimental environment – the storage effect of activated carbon in rumen acidosis in Holstein bulls.
• Leng et al. (2012) proved that methane formation could be reduced by 12.7% (10%) when 1% (0.5%) char is added to an artificial rumen system.

The effects of biochar are based on the following mechanisms: adsorption, coadsorption, competition, chemisorption, adsorption followed by a chemical reaction, desorption. From a toxicology perspective, classifiable distinctions need to be made to the time-dependent processes of adsorption, distribution, biotransformation and excretion of the toxic substances in the digestive tract of animals.
With regard to the specific mechanisms, more detailed research is urgently needed.
Schirrmann (1984) describes the effect of activated carbon on bacteria and their toxins in the gastrointestinal tract:

1. Adsorption of proteins, amines, amino-acids
2. Adsorption of digestive tract enzymes, as well as concentration of bacterial exoenzymes in the activated carbon
3. Adsorption, via chemotaxis, of mobile germs disposing of special attachment mechanisms.

Of particular importance is the specific colonisation of the char with gram-negative germs with increased metabolic activity. This results on the one hand in a decrease in endotoxins needing to be resorbed and on the other hand in the adsorption of the toxins in the char.
Ariens and Lambrecht (1985) describe the advantages of activated carbon, stating that it is non-toxic, quickly available, has an unlimited shelf-life, is effective in the gastrointestinal tract, and is effective against already absorbed toxins and mineral oil products.
One major advantage in the use of biochar is to be found in its “enteral dialysis” property, i.e. already absorbed lipophilic toxins can be removed from blood plasma by the char, as the adsorption power of the huge surface area of char interacts with the beneficial permeability properties of the intestine. Adsorption applies to both lipophilic and hydrophilic substances. The speed at which adsorption takes place is dependent on the size of the activated carbon’s pores. What we are thus seeing is the emergence of a genuine alternative to the established medical therapies – peritoneal dialysis, haemodialysis or haemoperfusion.
Via manure and slurry, the biochar mixed with the feed is returned to the soil, closing the organic cycle. The fact that biochar returned to the soil this way can be of interest for agriculture was already described by Perotti back in 1935. For him, the presence of biochar in the soil meant an improvement in its microbiological properties and a better supply of chlorophyll for the plants.
In his view, the benefits of biochar were as follows:

1. Moisture retention
2. Increased adsorption of ammonium salts
3. Decreased dispersion of nitrates
4. Adsorption of microbial metabolites

Söhngen (1913) sees the formation of ammonium carbonate combined with the char adsorption as playing a key role in the longer-term development of rich cultures of bacteria which find their way into their surroundings through desorption. In a slightly acidic environment in particular, this process of alkalization through the adsorption of carbon only takes place slowly. Schirrmann (1984) reports that the oxidisation reactions on activated carbon can be improved through increasing the nitrogen content. Nagel (1990) studied activated carbon populated by bacteria, without being able to find any efficient method of desorbing adherent bacteria. Proving the existence of bacteria via excreted metabolites was not possible, and the only way of determining adherent cell counts was through the use of a gamma-ray marker (Fe-59).
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The use of biochar in cattle farming

Biochar was administered at a dosage of 200-400g per cow and day in the farms I myself am responsible for, on the basis of studies by Feldmann (1992), who conducted in vitro experiments with activated carbon. But the adsorption capabilities of chars gained by pyrolysis show major variations. Chars produced from wood and plants are unable to exceed the level of the so-called “blood carbon” which contains a further adsorbent, bentonite, and is activated at higher temperatures. Feldmann (1992) studied the effects of activated carbon on fermentation processes in rumen fluid (in vitro), detecting an up to 25% increase in the pH-level, an up to 32% decrease in the redox potential, a reduction in the concentration of volatile fatty acids (though the production rate remained constant), and a rising adsorption rate with increasing chain lengths of the volatile fatty acids. These effects were dependent on the char dosage.
The use of biochar as a feed ingredient is subject to strict food quality rules under EC Regulation 178/2002 and to the strict regulations for organic livestock feed under EC Regulation 834/2007. In particular, the levels of heavy metals, dibenzodioxins and dibenzofurans play an important role as limiting factors, whereby biochar produced under the European Biochar Certificate meets all the animal feed threshold values. In our own tests, the only biochar used was inert biochar (carbo ligni) made by means of a technical pyrolysis using the so-called “Schottdorf reactor”. The safety of biochar as a feed additive has been certified by Biocheck, a laboratory for veterinary diagnostics and environmental hygiene. Preliminary tests on the adsorption capacity of the biochar used were performed by the Central Laboratory of German Pharmacists, comparing it with commercially available activated medical charcoal using the phenazone adsorption test. The adsorption capacity of 16.7 g phenazone/100g dried biochar is about one-third of the levels reached by medical charcoals of 40g phenazone/100g charcoal. These results confirm the findings of Luder, W. (1947), who studied the adsorption capacity of carbo ligni and carbo adsorbens and came up with a ratio of 1:3-4.
Now that biochar can be produced economically (i.e. it is available at low cost and high quality), the long-known benefits of feeding biochar can be feasibly put into practice.

Practical use of biochar in feeding cattle

21 farm managers, each with an average herd of 150 cows, gave their impressions of the effects they had observed during and after the administration of biochar. It should be noted that biochar administered as treatment for dysbiosis was concomitantly supported in about 1/3 of the farms by sauerkraut brine (acetylcholine, lactobacilli, enterococci, B-vitamins, vitamin C).
Observations of initial effects (1 – 4 weeks after starting biochar administration):

• Generally improved health and appearance
• Improved vitality
• Improved udder health
• Decreased cell counts in the milk (interrupting the administration of biochar leads to higher cell counts and a drop in performance)
• Minimisation of hoof problems
• Stabilisation of post-partum health
• Reduced diarrhoea within 1-2 days, faeces subsequently generally more solid
• Decline in the mortality rate
• Increase in milk protein and/or fat
• Combining biochar and sauerkraut brine has proved worthwhile
• Marked improvement of slurry viscosity, with less stirring needed and less scum on the surface
• Slurry not smelling as bad as it used to

Preliminary tests on the slurry show that adding biochar via the gastrointestinal tract or via direct application:

• Increased ammonium nitrogen
• Reduced nitrate and nitrite

Summary and conclusions

The use of biochar in livestock farming offers solutions to the increasingly complex problems of modern-day farming, the result of a combination of profit maximisation and disrespect for the physiological needs of the animals. The adsorption qualities of biochar permit a wide range of toxic substances to be bound in the gastrointestinal tract. They also lead to the detoxification of already resorbed toxins (in particular lipophilic toxins) in the plasma via “enteral dialysis”. The oxidation and deamination of biogenic amines also play a particularly stabilising role in the intestines. Dysbiosis can be very efficiently and positively influenced by biochar, and eubiosis can be maintained much longer despite environmental fluctuations in the digestive tract.
A clear separation of the impact in the pro- or metaphylactic field and the therapeutic approach is desirable in theory, though in practice these effects are overlapping. In cases of acute intoxication, the parallel administration of saline laxatives is recommended (Wiechowski 1914).
One current problem affecting Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony in particular is the high level of nitrate pollution in drinking water, the result of intensive farming. The scientific methods for reducing nitrates in the soil have been known for more than a century. Reductions can be achieved by the intelligent use of commercial fertilisers based on biochar. Reports in this area have been published by Sommer (2005). Similarly, the changed economic conditions under which farms operate mean that what is now needed is a re-assessment of certain practices from an epidemiological perspective. These include the disposal of placentas via the slurry system and the widespread use of bone meal as a fertiliser especially on account of increased maize production. One option available for minimising expected epidemiological and drinking water problems involves the inclusion of inert biochar in agricultural cycles of organic matter.
Also necessary are tests on the biochar used, making sure that it complies with the structural, chemical, physical and biological requirements of the European Biochar Certificate (EBC). This is the only way to achieve a transferability of the results gained in the use of different chars to other studies.

Achim Gerlach is a vet working for the Schleswig Holsteinschen Landkreis Dithmarschen and is probably the expert with the most experience in Europe on the administration of biochar in livestock feed. Should readers wish to directly contact the author, please just drop us a line.

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Literatur

Krüger, Große-Herrentey, Schrödel, Gerlach Rodloff: Anaerobe, 18 (2012) S.221-223
Böhnel u. Gessler: Tierärztliche Umschau, 67, 7 (2012)
Krüger, M.: Vortrag Bad Fallingbostel 2012
Kranich, J.: Tierärztliche Rundschau (1920)S.610-612
Luder, W.: Unters. ü. d. Bakt. Adsorption durch Holzkohle – Diss. 1947 Univ. Bern
Mangold, E.: Der Forschungsdienst (1936) Bd.1 S.862-867 Hrsg: Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaften d. Landwirtschaftswissenschaft
Volkmann, A.: Beh. vers. der Kaninchen- bzw. Katzencoccidiose… -Diss. Univ. Leipzig 1935
Haring,F.:Mitt. f. d. Landwirtschaft 52 (1937)S.308-309 Hrsg: Reichsnährstand
Barth und Zucker: Z.f. Tierernährung und Futtermittelkunde 10 (1955) S.300-307
DoThiThanVan, Nguyen Thi Mui, Inger Ledin: Animal Feed Science and Technology 130 (2006) S.242-256
Kana, Teguia, Mungfu, Tchoumboue: Trop. Anim. Health Prod. (2011) S.51-56
Iwase, Matui, Hoshi, Motoyoshi: XVI Congresso Mundial DE BUIATRIA, Salvador –Brasil,(1990)S.436-440
Leng, Inthapanya u. Preston: Biochar lowers net methan production from rumen fluid in vitro
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Schirrmann,U.: Aktivkohle u. ihre Wirkung auf Bakterien… Diss. 1984 TU München
Ariens u. Lambrecht: Schriftenreihe d. Bundesapotherkenkammer zur wiss. Fortbildung,Meran 1985, 20. Intern. Fortbildungskurs f.prakt.u. wiss. Pharmazie, S.
Perotti,R.:Bolletino delle Sezione Italiana di Microbiologia 7 (1935)S.449-452
Söhngen, N.L.: Centralblatt f. Bakt., Parasitenkunde u. Inf. Krankheiten 38 (1913)S.621-646
Nagel, S.: Unters.z. bakt. besiedelter Aktivkohle, Diss. 1990 Univ.Stuttgart
Feldmann, M.: Auswirkungen von Aktivkohle auf Fermentationvorgänge im Pansensaft des Rindes (in vitro), Diss. 1992, Tierärztliche Hochschule Hannover
Starkenstein, E.: Feldärztliche Beilage zur Münch.med.Wochenschr. (1915) S.27-29
Hellerich,B.:Diss.TiHo( 2008) Zusammenhänge zwischen Fütterung, Haltung sowie Managementaspekten und der Tiergesundheit in Milchviehbetrieben.
Dechow,CD; Smith,EA;Goodling,RC: The effect of management systems on mortality and other welfare indicators in Pennsylvania dairy-herds. In:Animal Welfare 2011;20:145-158
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Graber,Tsechansky,Gerstl,Lew:Soil Sci.Soc.of Am.J. (2011) 75:1365-1373
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Kongreß f. Innere Medizin, Wiesbaden (1914)

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Biochar and soil carbon sinks encourage ‘soil-first’ farming

DON GRAVES

Where is the best place to store carbon? Is it in the air, oceans, trees or soils? Where is the most effective place to store water for crops? Is it in man-made irrigation dams or where it falls, in soils?

Despite environmental restrictions on urban fire emissions from domestic fires, many orchardists regularly use low-cost burnoff methods, which can reduce regional air quality and increase public health risks. These burning-off practices are an echo of historic practices that cleared and burnt large tracts of bush for human settlement in Aotearoa and elsewhere.

In contrast, green wastes can offer new environmental solutions and economic opportunities to make renewable “syngas” fuels, while also producing biochar as a byproduct to improve soil and air quality, improve crop productivity, increase the effectiveness of fertiliser and water use, and reduce input costs. The “source – sink” concept describes processes that release or store resources transferred between different parts of natural or industrialised ecosystems.

The atmosphere is a sink for greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide. Plant leaves use photosynthesis to transform sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy in the form of plant sugars, starch and wood. Plant roots provide energy to symbiotic soil microbes in exchange for nutrients and water.

Decayed plant and animal wastes eventually may become soil carbon sinks, including humus or fossil fuels. Soil is the second largest reservoir of carbon compounds on the planet, exceeded only by oceans and lakes.

Biochar is a name for charcoal used to adapt soils for particular purposes. Charcoal is produced in kilns by heating plant or animal waste in the absence of oxygen. Compared with other organic matter, biochar resists decay and lasts for several thousand years and is thus a very effective carbon sink.

Biochar binds on to nutrients in a similar way that Velcro binds to fluff. Biochar retains soil nutrients in topsoil where they are available for crops. Biochar could thus help communities to protect riparian or surface water quality and avoid nitrate contamination of drinking water or groundwater.

Carbon-rich compost, soil organic matter and biochar increase the capacity of soil to store water where it lands and is needed by plants and soil biology. The micro pore structures contained in biochar provide environmentally stable micro-habitats for beneficial soil fungi and bacteria, which enhance plant roots access to soil nutrients and water.

As organic matter decomposes, it releases mineral nutrients, feeds soil biology and improves soil and crop health. Regardless of whether we choose to add, remove or prevent organic matter supplies being returned to soil food webs, soil microbes decompose organic matter and produce carbon dioxide or methane.

The rate that soil carbon is lost to the atmosphere or physically removed by wind or water erosion is accelerated where soil surfaces are laid bare by herbicides, the removal or burning of crop residues, intensive ploughing or rotary hoeing.

Research continues to seek improved methods to avoid losses of soil carbon stores and soil fertility, which underpin valuable primary industries. New Zealand farmers, regional authorities and researchers have decades of experience planting millions of trees in an attempt to slow soil erosion rates and protect waterways from excessive siltation effects.

Planting ground covers or green manure plants during or between crop rotations can protect bare soil surfaces under vines or orchard trees. Mulching soil surfaces, “no-dig” gardening, “no-tillage” or direct seed drilling methods minimise effects of soil disturbance and vegetation clearance during crop establishment.

Pre-contact Maori and Amazonian Indians added biochar to enrich physical and biological qualities in garden soils. Pre-plough gardening methods and a cultural heritage of biochar use may provide lessons from the past and inspiration to guide future generations of gardeners and farmers to adapt to the land use challenges of climate change.

“Soil-first” farming methods offer new ways of looking at old traditions of storing water, nutrients and carbon in soils.

  • Don Graves has a MSc (Hons) in Plant Biology. 50 Shades of Green is contributed fortnightly by the Nelson Environment Centre.

– © Fairfax NZ News

http://www.stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail/features/lifestyle/going-green/9271729/Biochar-and-soil-carbon-sinks-encourage-soil-first-farming

Biochar in Soils Cuts Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Once again, research has shown that biochar can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by changing the activiy of the microorganisms in the soil. For a full report please see:   http://www.nanowerk.com/news2/green/newsid=32610.php

Biochar: A solution to climate change, soil fertility and energy production

Courtesy of Ben Discoe/Picasa

Biochar has made waves in academic and agricultural circles within the past decade as a solution to climate change, soil fertility and energy production.

Biochar is created from biomass through a process called pyrolysis – high temperature heating within an enclosed environment – similar to the way that charcoal is made. The result is a high-carbon soil enhancer along with various byproducts.

Syngas, or synthesis gas, a combustible hydrocarbon is given off by this process. It has been used as fuel for power plants and vehicles.

The long-term introduction of biochar into agricultural soil allows for greater nutrient and water retention. Migration of soil contaminants and runoff is significantly minimized.

As an environmental consequence, the carbon contained in these biomasses is put into a more chemically stable form. Proponents describe biochar as carbon ‘negative’ instead of carbon neutral.

“Instead of chipping trees into the wood, we should take some of those chipped trees and make biochar out of them,” said Dr. Stephen Hebert, director of the Center for Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts.

Despite enthusiasm, large scale and practical field studies do not yet exist.

“Farmers are not going to take biochar and dump it on their fields if they don’t know what it’s going to do,” Herbert said. He encourages skeptical farmers to perform small-scale experimentation on their own fields.

This lack of real-word field trials have led Emily Cole, a graduate student at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, to begin a test of the biochar in a cornfield in South Deerfield with various concentration of char. While not yet ready for empirical data, her biochar fields have demonstrated very encouraging results in the past two years.

“We are beginning to see promising results even in the first year of data collection,” she said.

New England is a prime testing ground for such studies. The effects of biochar are discriminating based on soil types and on contents. Different types of biochars are to be created based on the needs of the soil, encouraging the development of designer biochar.

“In 10 years I think we can get to a point where we know general characteristics through a specific feed type,” Cole said.

Added Cole: “Just like farmers send in soil to the lab to get its characteristics, I think we can start sending biochar into the lab.”

According to Cole, these engineered biochars are a next step in agricultural proliferation.

Professor Baoshan Xing at Stockbridge is one such professor who seeks to write a biochar prescription for a given soil ailment.

“You make biochar with a purpose: to remediate, to amend soil,” Xing said.

Some of his research has focused on laboratory-produced biochars for agricultural purposes.

“Not all biochars are the same,” Xing said. “You have to know your soil [and] what kind of problem you have. Then you make the char to fit that problem.”

Proponents and researchers of biochar will arrive at UMass next month to discuss, present and promote biochar at the 2013 North American Biochar Symposium. The upcoming symposium will feature researchers, regulators and individuals advocating biochar and presenting studies.

The symposium is sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Biochar Initiative (PVBI), a local group involved in the proliferation and production of biochar within the region.

A few farms in the region have begun to integrate biochar in their fields and more have expressed interest. PVBI assists these farmers with logistics and supply of biochar.

The upcoming 2013 North American Biochar Symposium will be held Sunday, Oct. 13 through Wednesday, Oct. 16. Presentation schedules are available online at symposium2013.pvbiochar.org.

The New England Small Farm Institute will also hold a field day and workshop in Belchertown as a part of the symposium. More information for these events is available at www.smallfarm.org.

Gavin Portwood can be reached at gportwoo@umass.edu.

http://dailycollegian.com/2013/09/26/biochar-a-solution-to-climate-change-soil-fertility-and-energy-production/