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Biochar: climate action

Action to combat climate change is a key goal of the EU. The organisation’s commitment to tackling the warming of the planet is exemplified in the estimated €3bn research investment budget under the Societal Challenges pillar of Horizon 2020. One substance which could assist in mitigating the effects of climate change is biochar.

Biochar (created by pyrolysis of biomass) can increase soil fertility and agricultural productivity as well as provide protection against some foliar and soil-borne diseases. The substance is under investigation as an approach to carbon sequestration to produce negative carbon dioxide emissions and consequently has the potential to help mitigate climate change through this process. Biochar can also reduce pressure on forests, though the degree to which results offer long-term carbon sequestration in practice has been challenged.

At the Agricultural Research Organization, part of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, scientists are working to improve the current understanding of how biochar functions in modern agricultural systems. Research includes the impact of biochar on plant productivity and resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses, pH-dependent nutrient release and surface properties of biochar, the effect of biochar amendments on pest and weed control, and the impact of biochar on soil microbial activity and community dynamics.

Professor Yigal Elad, of the Plant Pathology Office, outlines the need for more research into the potential applications of biochar, the future of biochar and its varied potential applications.

While biochar has clear uses at, for instance, the smaller scale, what more do you feel needs to be done to accurately describe the benefits for more large scale deployments?

More research is necessary in most, if not all, aspects of biochar deployment, because there are many things which remain unclear. When biochar is applied to soil, it will stay there for a very long time – it has a half-life in soil of hundreds, if not thousands, of years – and so if a mistake is made, the effects of that mistake will be almost irreversible.

Thus, more research is needed to ensure that there are no negative drawbacks for this type of activity, and then, once we are sure that biochar is safe, it can begin to be deployed on a large scale. Of course, it is important that farmers are made aware of biochar technology, and there are now various activities working in this direction. This is not only being undertaken by ARO scientists, as there are also several groups working elsewhere on biochar with the task of making it available for farmers.

In addition to this, the EU now backs research into biochar, as well as biochar mixed with compost and other areas, and so there is a distinct sense that things have begun to move in the right direction.

How would you like to see governmental co-operation evolve in order to work towards the successful deployment of biochar?

Biochar is multifaceted, in that it can be used to a variety of ends, and, therefore, there are many areas which require additional research. My own areas of expertise centre around the effects of biochar on plants and crops, particularly with regard to plant diseases. However, biochar also has a role in the mitigation of climate change through its ability to capture carbon dioxide, and, as it is embedded in soil, has a lot of potential to be a powerful tool in the fight against climate change. It is important, then, that governments come to emphasise the role of biochar in CO2 mitigation and/or capturing.

What are your views on current research priorities in the area, and how will the Volcani Center help to promote the use of biochar?

More research needs to be conducted into the various aspects of biochar and we have to be sure that no harm is done to the environment. While this may sound somewhat straightforward, any damage that biochar does do to the environment is not obvious, and so checks have to be made and evidence gathered.

With different types of biochar, which are from different biomass sources or are prepared in different ways (in that different temperatures can be used to prepare the biochar), may well dictate whether it is okay for use or not.

At the Volcani Center, we are running a project on biochar which is financed by Israel’s Minister of Agriculture’s Chief Scientist, and through which we are able to study the various aspects of biochar use, including both the negative and positive effects, under controlled conditions.

In addition, experiments are still running under field conditions in places where it is safe to use it. Once the biochar has been deployed, and after a certain, pre-defined time, we will collect the soil and other environmental materials and test them. It will be interesting to see what results are achieved from the controlled and field condition studies.

Generally, the EU is interested in alternatives for fossil fuels, and biochar can be used in this sense, while there is also the additional use of biochar in CO2 mitigation and so as a way to tackle global warming and climate change. As such, the EU should back more in depth research into the various aspects of biochar, either as an alternative energy source or as a soil amendment in a way that will be environmentally safe.

Biochar has a lot of potential in areas as diverse as climate change and (as I am discovering through my own research into the effects of biochar on plant productivity and plant diseases), even pest controls.

Thus, once we are sure how to use it and we are sure that it will not have any serious environmentally negative effects, I have every faith that we will see biochar coming to be used much more widely.

Professor Yigal Elad

Agricultural Research Organization, Israel


Research project to test viability of biochar

Published on: 7/5/2013 11:42:38 AM
By: Northern Ontario Business staff

Collège Boréal and EACOM Timber Corp.’s Nairn Centre sawmill are collaborating on the school’s first applied research project on the analysis and use of wooden ash produced by the forest industry as charcoal for agricultural use (biochar).

The ashes from the biomass combustion, a source of energy for EACOM’s sawmill, will be analysed during the first phase of the research process. Various doses of ashes (biochar) will also be applied to soil samples to assess their effect on the growth of jack pine and birch seedlings. This laboratory test phase will eventually be followed by observations in the field, in Collège Boréal’s experimental forests.

As early as summer 2014, the results of the research will allow a first set of large-scale experiments using biochar in the Greater Sudbury area. Results of the research could encourage the use of this charcoal, which has a high content of mineral nutrients, to remediate soil used by the mining and forest industries.

The project was made possible by the support of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

“Our efforts, along with the knowledge acquired with over 15 years in environmental research, are all the more noteworthy now that, with the support of the NSERC, Collège Boréal will benefit for the first time from recognition by an agency with one of the highest levels of research in Canada,” said Brian Vaillancourt, dean of the School of Trades and Applied Technology, in a news release.

“This new research project is another one among the many initiatives that already enrich our students’ curriculum, allowing them to work to preserve our lakes and our regions and acquire real field experience thanks, among other things, to our two experimental forests.”

Collège Boréal’s Xstrata Nickel Biodiversity Applied Research Centre, as well as professors and students in the natural resources and environmental chemistry programs will conduct the present study, which will be completed in November 2013.

Biochar Carbon Protocol Development


Program: Accelerate

University: University of British Columbia

Discipline: Forestry

Partner: Haliburton Forest & Wildlife Reserves LTD

Sector: Environmental industry

Intern: Kahlil Baker
Faculty Supervisor: Dr Gary Bull
Biochar is charcoal that is used as a soil amendment to increase plant productivity and as a means of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Although a number of voluntary carbon standards allow for soil carbon projects to generate carbon offsets, no protocol has been developed for biochar. The overall objective of this research project is to develop a protocol for quantifying the greenhouse gas emission reductions from the production and incorporation into soil of biochar in agricultural and forest management systems that can be adopted by an internationally applicable carbon offset standard. The secondary objective will be to apply this methodology to the Haliburton Forest & Wildlife Reserve (HFWR) context that is currently developing biochar on an experimental scale. Ultimately, the goal is to enable HFWR and other companies doing similar things to sell carbon offsets for the production and use of biochar within the forestry sector. Monetizing this resource could allow HFWR to scale-up its current activities.

Biochar Squelches Emissions From Biofuel Crops


by Beth Buczynski

On the surface, biofuels seem like the perfect solution to our oil and gas addiction. Make the same kind of fuel from plants and make cars that can run on it. Simple right? Well, as EarthTechling writer Mat McDermott explains, it’s actually much more complex. The luster has long disappeared from first generation biofuels (like biodiesel, ethanol) as we discover that calling biofuels green requires a lot more than plants.

Now that most have realized food stock-based biofuels aren’t the answer, the search continues for other biomass that could accurately bear the mantle of a petroleum substitute. New research shows that biochar may be key to producing just such an alternative.

Image via mattdil/Flickr

Soils are among the biggest sources of UK emissions (surprising huh?). A team of scientists from that country’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) published a study that suggests applying biochar before planting biodfuel crops could cut soil greenhouse-gas emissions by around a third.

In an attempt to meet the EU’s target of a fifth of energy coming from renewable sources by 2020, the UK have been cultivating crops like miscanthus and coppiced willow for the production of non-food biofuels. Now it appears that by adding biochar as a soil treatment, cultivators could further reduce emissions associated with such production, and even increase the soil’s natural carbon storage capacity.

To test their theory, researchers monitored a plantation of miscanthus for two years. The plots treated with biochar emitted 37 percent less greenhouse gases than those that hadn’t, while in the lab the impact was even bigger at 55 percent.

“We’ve shown that adding biochar suppresses CO2 emissions very significantly over several years,” says Sean Case, a PhD student at NERC’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and lead author of the paper. “Previous studies have found this effect in the lab and over short periods, but this is the first time anyone has looked at bioenergy crops in the field, and at the effects of biochar over a long period.”

Using biochar in this way could also help close the biofuel loop, as waste fron biomass burned for energy could be returned to help bolster future crops.

Hemp acres on rise in Canada

Feb 22, 2013 1:41 PM

By: Phil Franz-Warkentin
Commodity News Service Canada

Rising demand and good returns will see more acres devoted to industrial hemp production in Western Canada this spring, according to industry participants.

Canadian hemp plantings have risen steadily over the past few years, with about 55,000 acres licensed in 2012, according to government data.

Due to industrial hemp’s association with its cousin marijuana, farmers need to be licensed through Health Canada and pass a criminal record check in order to grow the crop. Testing is also required to confirm levels of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — are below the allowable 0.3 per cent.

“We’re anticipating a 10 to 15 per cent increase (in acres),” said Kim Shukla of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance at Steinbach, Man.

Rising demand for the food products was behind rising demand for growing the crop, Shukla said.

“We’ll see similar (acres) or a slight increase,” said Anndrea Herman, of The Ridge International Cannabis Consulting and president of the Hemp Industries Association.

Licensed acres in Canada could come in as high as 70,000 acres in 2013, but larger gains would come in future years. Most of the current industry is geared toward grain production, but the growth will be in the crop’s use for fibre as that demand expands.

“That dynamic will change as we move forward and there’s more demand for the fibre component,” said Hermann, pointing to a number of international developments, including using hemp fibre for building materials.

On the grain side there is also room to create more demand. Hemp is currently not registered as an animal feed, but chicken feeding trials are underway in Canada. Hermann said hemp was producing comparable results to feeding flaxseed to chickens.

Farmers can expect to bring in $200-$300 per acre gross margin growing hemp, said Hermann, noting those returns compare favourably with other options and only take into account grain production.

“Farmers will only grow something that will be lucrative for them,” said Shukla, adding “hemp has proven to be a great rotation option and provide a good return as well.”

From a rotational perspective, hemp is a heavy nitrogen user and is best suited following a legume, such as soybeans, said Shukla.

A rising global demand for Canadian-made hemp products, as more countries approve its use as a human food, has helped make it an attractive crop for producers to grow. With hemp production still restricted in the U.S., end users around the world generally look to Canada first for quality hemp seed and products, said Hermann.

While efforts are underway in the U.S. to gain federal approvals for growing hemp, Hermann did not expect U.S. production would be detrimental to Canada’s industry if, or when, the country starts growing the crop as well.

“We’re not even scratching the surface,” she said regarding demand for hemp.

– Phil Franz-Warkentin writes for Commodity News Service Canada, a Winnipeg company specializing in grain and commodity market reporting.

Industrial Hemp in Ottawa

Biochar: a brief history and developing future

Commentary by Ryan King, special to mongabay.com
January 02, 2013

    I said in my recent book that perhaps the only tool we had to bring carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels was to let the biosphere pump it from the air for us. It currently removes 550bn tons a year, about 18 times more than we emit, but 99.9% of the carbon captured this way goes back to the air as CO2 when things are eaten. What we have to do is turn a portion of all the waste of agriculture into charcoal and bury it. Consider grain like wheat or rice; most of the plant mass is in the stems, stalks and roots and we only eat the seeds. So instead of just ploughing in the stalks or turning them into cardboard, make it into charcoal and bury it or sink it in the ocean. We don’t need plantations or crops planted for biochar, what we need is a charcoal maker on every farm so the farmer can turn his waste into carbon. What we have to do is turn a portion of all the waste of agriculture into charcoal and bury it. Consider grain like wheat or rice; most of the plant mass is in the stems, stalks and roots and we only eat the seeds. So instead of just ploughing in the stalks or turning them into cardboard, make it into charcoal and bury it or sink it in the ocean …Incidentally, in making charcoal this way, there is a by-product of biofuel that the farmer can sell. If we are to make this idea work it is vital that it pays for itself and requires no subsidy. Subsidies almost always breed scams and this is true of most forms of renewable energy now proposed and used. No one would invest in plantations to make charcoal without a subsidy, but if we can show the farmers they can turn their waste to profit they will do it freely and help us and Gaia too.
    Dr. James Lovelock

Biochar – charcoal produced from pyrolysis of biomass – has received tremendous attention and support in recent years, and championed as one of the potentially most useful techniques for soil restoration and carbon sequestration in the modern era. Although a multitude of initiatives in biochar research and application have sprung into action many critical details remain uncertain.

Fortunately, the production and soil effects of biochar have a lengthy historical precedent as well as a remarkable ease of global distribution. These factors, combined with collaborative biochar databases, online forums, and outreach projects provide the foundation for what may rapidly become a breakthrough trend in ecological investigation and environmental restoration: do-it-yourself adaptation to 21st century global change issues.

The use of biochar for soil nutrient retention and improvement is thought to have originated over 2,000 years ago in the Brazilian Amazon. Archeological studies indicate populations of native Amazonians prospered in agrarian civilizations sustained by amending nutrient-poor tropical soils with application of charcoal (aka biochar) and organic matter. These populations appear to have flourished from a period between 400 BC until they were decimated by pandemic introduced by Spaniard expeditions as recently as 500 years ago.

Amazonians were believed to have produced biochar by igniting then burying and smoldering biomass to create the low-oxygen conditions necessary for the creation of charcoal. This technique is known as slash-and-char agriculture and results in as much as 50% carbon sequestration, as opposed to slash-and-burn methods which yield higher levels of ash and only 1% to 3% carbon sequestration.

In the mid 1500’s, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana led several hundred infantrymen and horsemen into the deltas of the Brazilian Amazon (Xingu) with the purpose of establishing settlements within the mouth and interior of the river. Orellana reported an advanced civilization thriving in the Amazon region at the time. Evidence of geoglyphs and extensive terra preta (biochar) amended soils dating between 0-1250 AD support Orellana’s claims. Contemporary archaeological investigations led by Michael Heckenberger and Eduardo Goes Neves have exposed remnants of ancient cities, 60 foot wide “highways,” and soils made fertile by biochar in regions of the Amazon visited by Orellana’s expedition. A population of about 5 million is believed to have been thriving in the area in 1500 AD, reduced by pandemic to 1 million by 1900 and less than 200,000 by the 1980s.

At present, thousands of hectares of anthropogenic, nutrient-rich biochar soils remain in the Xingu region of the Amazon, distinguished from the generally depleted tropical soils. These unique soils have provided scientists, horticulturalists and environmentalists with evidence of the enduring beneficial effects of biochar and verified it as a stable, sequestered form of carbon with the potential to mediate modern greenhouse gases concentrations.

The image above at the left is a large strangler fig tree near Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica. Many trees and plants of the new world tropics have adapted to the typically nutrient-poor, highly-weathered tropical soils by creating complex root structures and buttresses that extend in wide yet shallow areas around the central trunk. Since the vast majority of plant-available nutrients in tropical forests tend to be located in the upper layer of the soil, these adaptations allow plants to support large structures without extending deep roots. When a tropical forest is destroyed or degraded, the loss of constant input of fresh biomass renders the soils infertile. Biochar amendments to these soils offer a range of long lasting benefits and generally support increased productivity. The image to the right of the strangler fig compares a typical nutrient-poor reddish tropical soil (oxisol), contrasted on the right with a darker, more fertile biochar-amended oxisol.

The archaeological discoveries of the Amazonian tribes and terra preta soils suggest fascinating connections between historical applications of biochar in non-hierarchical, persistent complex human societies, presenting compelling possibilities for present-day models of networked resilient techniques. Author and biochar advocate James Bruges recognizes the link between fertile soils and non-hierarchical complex human societies in his text, “The Biochar Debate.” Bruges comments on Orellena’s observations, writing, “In this and other descriptions there is no mention of pyramids as in the Maya civilization, no ramparts, no hierarchy of grand buildings surrounded by hovels. Is it too much to speculate that the abundant soil fertility did away with the need for a highly centralized authoritarian society?”

Just as stable, fertile soil may have bolstered the framework of past decentralized societies, biochar and improved agricultural techniques are useful for individuals, small groups and resilient communities seeking food independence.

The technical expertise needed to create and apply biochar in soil amendments, bioremediation, and carbon sequestration is minimal and may be easily researched and instructed through online forums, community seminars and outreach projects. Modern human populations may be able to harness many of the advantages of biochar to regain elements of freedom from inefficient, unsustainable industrial and commercial agricultural practices.

A prototype of UIRI’s biochar stove with thermoelectric generator.
A prototype of UIRI’s biochar stove with thermoelectric generator.

Biochar applications have been tested in a variety of soils and climates, commonly demonstrating positive effects in a wide range of global ecosystems. In degraded soils of Midwest North America, for instance, researchers at Iowa State University’s Agricultural Engineering Research Farms report increased crop yield with the use of biochar. The Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI) in conjunction with the China Bamboo Research Center (CBRC) have noted positive results in plant productivity in nutrient poor soils with biochar from agricultural waste and excess bamboo. UIRI and CBRC projects in Uganda have developed biochar stoves capable of generating electricity and heat, while reducing smoke and pollution typical to wood burning stoves.

Biochar production offers a wide range of economic and environmental benefits in three major categories:

  1. Reduction of greenhouse gases – many of the details of biochar’s ability to retain carbon in inactive sinks for thousands of years and to suppress soil emissions of potent greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxide and methane, have been scientifically reviewed and substantiated. The complex, systemic nature of climate change, however, necessitates much deeper levels of experimentation and collaboration. Biochar may prove to be one of the most useful techniques in carbon sequestration but must be combined with enormous efforts to reduce emissions.
  2. Soil amendment – includes restoration of impoverished soils, nutrient retention, and bioremediation. Biochar has shown positive results in the remediation of heavy metal toxins, fertilizer runoff, petroleum spills, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and a variety of revegetation processes.
  3. External effects and bi-products of pyrolysis – reduction of pollution from wood-burning stoves, generation of heat, production of biofuels. A wide range of biochar processors and prototypes have been developed to harness a variety of the beneficial side streams of production. Most of these designs are freely available online and relatively easy to build.

For more information regarding biochar’s applications in developing communities, I consulted Seattle Biochar Working Group (SeaChar) co-founder and President Art Donnelly. Donnelly has over 20 years of experience working with custom metal design, and holds a BFA degree from the University of Washington and an MFA degree from Rhode Island School of Design. Working with coffee farmers in Costa Rica, SeaChar launched the Estufa Finca (“Farm Stove”) project in January of 2010. The biochar producing Estufa Finca cook-stove was initially designed by Donnelly for use by the migrant coffee bean-pickers, living in migrant farm-workers camps. All of the project’s stoves are built in Costa Rica using local materials. The past two years has seen a constant process of stove refinements. To date the Estufa Finca team of partners has been involved in building and distributing 260 Estufa Finca cook-stoves.

With a local women’s group now building and distributing stoves in coffee country, SeaChar’s focus has shifted to the Talamanca region of South East Costa Rica.

SeaChar’s Art Donnelly elaborates on the details of the project:

    We are now working with the indigenous Bribri cacao and banana farmers of this area. The opportunity to work with a resident population living in their own homes has allowed us to do more in depth field testing of our innovative community based approach to promoting the stoves, how to support new stove users, and building a market value for the biochar the stoves produce. A 2011 grant from National Geographic has allowed us to hire and train local community stove promoters to sell stoves and teach their neighbors how to use them. Our new stove owners are offered the opportunity to participate in our biochar “buy-back” program. Some of our cooks are earning an extra $30 a month, by saving and selling us their biochar.

    In the first 5 months of this program we have collected over two tons of high quality biochar from stove users. The biochar we are buying is being used in ongoing plot and pot-testing with our University and commercial nursery partners, some has been donated to two local school garden projects that we are working with and more has been used in our ongoing series of biochar workshops for farmers. We are also now selling biochar to a small number of nurseries and organic producers.

    On a particularly gratifying day in the pueblo of Suretka recently, I was at the home of the family who would soon be hosting the upcoming round of cooks’ training workshops. Don Daniel, the grandfather of the household, has been a cacao farmer for nearly 60 years. Don Daniel had attended one of our biochar workshops for farmers. He saw one of our 55-gallon drum biochar kilns demonstrated. Don Daniel invited me back to his garden where he proudly showed me the copy of our kiln, which he had built from a good memory and available scrap. The char in his raised beds showed he was getting good use out of it.

    SeaChar is also working with the Center for Tropical Agricultural Investigation and Education (CATIE) on a multi-year study of the effect of biochar on banana and cacao cultivation. Brazilian graduate student Julliano Hojah da Silva has been the lead researcher this past year. Among the hypotheses we are testing is that the application of biochar around the drip line of trees can reduce the incidence of

    fungal disease in organic cacao. We will be releasing Juliano’s 1st year data in mid-December. Preliminary results look promising. Testing with biochar and bananas will begin in 2013. Biochar and biochar technology represent a powerful new development platform. However, for these concepts to become reality a family of simple, elegant and durable tools must be developed and tested in the real world. SeaChar is co-creating this technology in the field with local partners. We plan to share the lessons we learn here as widely as possible.

    Large-scale biochar production through cogeneration projects represents a very real investment opportunity. Costa Rica’s economically important high-end export crops like coffee, cacao,

    bananas, and pineapple need both effective organic soil amendments as well as clean burning biomass heat. Growth in demand for premium organic product is exceeding the capacity of the region’s producers. A major limiting factor is the current lack of effective organic soil amendments and fertilizers. Charcoal is already in demand for use in the enzyme-rich compost known as bokashi. The challenge will be to

    differentiate biochar, which will need to sell at a higher per kilogram price, from the fines left over from traditional charcoal making.

    At the same time a changing climate is driving the increased demand for heat energy to dry commodities like coffee and cacao beans. For agricultural producers like our partner APPTA (1200 member organic growers association) the lack of cost effective, environmentally sustainable drying technology is a major constraint on production.

SeaChar’s integrative approach to biochar exemplifies its usefulness in socially and environmentally conscious system design, combining soil restoration with scientific research in bioremediation, agricultural amendment, carbon sequestration, economic opportunities and the vast potential for further development.

Biochar organizations featuring DIY production information may be found through the following links:

Fall Greenworks Newsletter

What a beautiful summer and as always, too short! As the kids prepare to head back to school, we turn our thoughts to fall and the Fall Edition of YREA’s Greenworks Newsletter.  If you subscribed at a recent event and this is your first issue of Greenworks, welcome!  This edition contains some great articles, including:
Fall Greenworks Newsletter
• Reflections on my Summer Vacation
• Living, Breathing Compost
• Saving the North Gwillimbury Forest
• Single Family Dwellings: A Housing Crisis?
• 2012 Moraine Heroes
• Ontario Nature AGM

If you missed one of our past issues, or the link above doesn’t work for you, you’ll always find back issues of our newsletters on our website.

Stop by and visit our booth at the Kettleby Fair on Saturday, September 8th  or listen to the presentation by our Executive Director, Gloria Marsh at Transition Barrie’s Harvestfest on September 22nd.  We are always looking for volunteers to help at events and with keeping our website up to date, please contact Fiona if you are interested.

I hope you enjoy our newsletter,

Fiona Wood, Outreach Coordinator

Biochar research

Biochar is a fine-grained, highly-porous charcoal produced from carbon-rich biomass, including yard and landscaping waste and agricultural waste. Biochar is produced by pyrolysis or gasification of biomass (heating the biomass with little or no air). A primary function of biochar works to improve soil and enhance soil fertility. Further, biochar acts a natural cleanser, filtering out and retaining nutrients from percolating water in the soil. The technology is simple, but the results are quite profound.  By pyrolyizing (heating in the absence of oxygen) biomass, and mixing the resulting char into the soil, it is possible to produce: 1) Energy; 2) Carbon sequestration; 3) More fertile land.

Furthermore, biochar resists ordinary decomposition in the soil, and hence stays there for centuries, even the millennia as a carbon sink (removing carbon from the atmosphere). Therefore, biochar generates long-term soil fertility as well as works as a long-term contributor to climate change mitigation.

Agricultural Uses: Although biochar alone has not been shown to enhance soil fertility, its complex surface area and intricate pore structure is hospitable to beneficial soil bacteria which help plants absorb nutrients from the soil.  Consequently, biochar has a remarkable ability to act as an agricultural catalyst, enhancing plant growth by 30% to 300%. Even more remarkable, biochar need only be applied once as it is not consumed, and therefore significantly cuts costs. The growth promotion takes place from the absorbent carbon acting as a slow-release agent for nutrients and host for soil microbes. Thus, this growth promoter can be utilized to reduce fertilizer consumption, resulting in greater plant growth and lower fertilizer applications. The end result is more food production and lower fossil fuel consumption from lower fertilizer demand.

Another benefit to the agricultural industry is that crop waste can be utilized as the source of biomass. Thus, the industry could be self-sufficient in biochar supply to promote plant growth while promoting climate change. If future trials confirm current research, the market potential is astronomic.

Dr. Bruno Glaser with biochar treated plant on right, NPK treatment in middle and control on far left. Biochar & Soil Benefits: The porous biochar attracts worms and captures nutrients for plants that would otherwise run off the land. On large scale applications, such absorption reduces nutrient loading and need for fertilizer.  In this way, biochar has also shown to be beneficial in absorbing and removing phosphate from water for sustainable water quality treatment. Research at Cornell University in New York, US, suggests that burying biochar appears to double the capacity of soils to store organic carbon. New studies at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, show that biochar may almost double plant growth in poor soils. “Research on biochar began back in 1947,” says Dr Bruno Glaser, a researcher from the University of Bayreuth. “Now there is a lot of excitement about what biochar can achieve.” Dr Glaser is working on studies to see how effective it proves to be on poor soils in northern Germany.

Read more: http://www.bioril.com/biochar/

Biochar in Agricultural Systems

Rory O. Maguire, Assistant Professor, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech; Foster A. Agblevor, Professor, Biological Systems Engineering, Virginia Tech


There has been a great deal of interest in biochar recently for many reasons, including bioenergy production, carbon sequestration, use as a soil amendment to improve productivity, and as an end use for animal manure. This publication serves as a brief introduction to biochar and many of the issues surrounding its generation and use. As a relatively new topic, it is developing rapidly. Hopefully, many of the unknowns discussed will be resolved soon.

What Is Biochar and How Is It Produced?

Most people are familiar with charcoal, which is produced by combusting wood in an oxygen-depleted environment and then used as a heating fuel. Biochar is produced in a similar fashion, but the term “biochar” is used primarily when the end use is a soil amendment. As with charcoal, biochar is a black product with a high carbon content. Biochar can be produced by a number of techniques, such as fast or slow pyrolysis and gasification. Fast pyrolysis produces bio-oil that can be used for energy, but this lowers biochar yield. Slow pyrolysis and gasification do not produce bio-oil but produce a higher yield of biochar. However, biochar yields do not typically exceed 40 percent by weight of the feedstock; therefore, a large fraction of the biomass is lost.

Variations in the temperature of biochar production also have a huge impact on the properties and quantity of the biochar produced. Biochar can be produced from a wide variety of lignocellulosic materials, such as wood, crop residue, and manure. Because it is a combustion process, the material must be reasonably dry. For example, poultry litter with a moisture content of about 25 to 30 percent can be pyrolyzed, but dairy manure that has a moisture content of around 95 percent must have the solids separated from the liquids before combustion is possible.

Biochar is not the same as activated carbon, which is a compound used for purifying liquids and gases due to its high absorption capacity. Biochar would need to go through an activation step, which is too expensive for land application purposes. Because of the widely varying feedstocks and processing practices utilized, it is important to understand that all biochar will not be alike.

Why Consider Amending Soils With Biochar?

Many native soils in the Amazon basin are infertile, but “terra preta” soils were discovered that had been enriched with carbon before the arrival of Europeans. These soils have enhanced fertility, nutrient-use efficiency, cation-exchange capacity, water-holding capacity, and crop yields relative to the native soils. Exactly how these terra preta soils were amended is unknown. However, it is thought that charcoal products were used, which is why there is interest in amending soils with biochar to increase soil quality and productivity.

The fact that these terra preta soils are still enriched in carbon hundreds of years after they were amended has also generated interest in biochar applications to soils for carbon sequestration. The carbon in biochar has a different structure to that in soil organic matter because it is primarily made up of aromatic rings that are more stable and long-lasting. If carbon can be taken from the atmosphere by crops and turned into biochar that is a stable soil amendment, then there is a huge potential to sequester carbon in soils while also benefiting soil productivity.

Will Biochar Always Increase Soil Productivity?

Most studies show that biochar can increase soil productivity, but some do show decreased productivity. This is almost certainly due to the wide variety of biochars that can be produced and the variability between soils. Biochar can increase soil productivity through either the application of the nutrients and lime it contains or through improving soil properties. Minerals present in the feedstock are concentrated in the biochars produced, but much of the nitrogen and sulfur is lost during pyrolysis. Therefore, supplemental nitrogen will generally be needed when using biochars as a nutrient source.

The primary benefits of biochar to soil quality are thought to be through increasing the active surface area that can retain nutrients and increasing the water-holding capacity. We need a better understanding of these variables before widely recommending biochar applications to soils. For example, freshly produced biochars are hydrophobic and have low surface charge, but with time after land application, the surface of biochars can become oxidized — and thus, more reactive. Therefore, the full benefits of applying biochar to soil may not be realized for years. There are many ongoing studies on biochar production techniques and how the biochars produced will affect soil properties and productivity. Hopefully, we will have recommendations for biochar applications in the near future.

Feedstock Material for Biochar Production

A wide variety of feedstocks can be used depending on location, cost, and availability. The use of manure as a feedstock is particularly attractive in areas such as the Chesapeake Bay watershed that are under significant environmental pressure to curtail surface application of manure. Regulations in many areas limit the rate of manure that can be land-applied, so pyrolyzing manure into biochar and bio-oil could be beneficial. However, these regulations normally limit the land application of phosphorus and the phosphorus in the manure is retained in the biochar.

The phosphorus in biochar is of lower availability and higher concentration than it was in the manure, but the release rate into the soil is much lower than that from manure; therefore, it has the potential of being land-applied with lower nutrient runoff problems. The biochar is also much lighter than the manure it was produced from, and if it is then seen as a value-added product, it will make long-distance transport and use out of areas of animal production more feasible.

Biochar Application Rates

Biochar is not like fertilizer, which generally needs to be applied annually. As biochar is stable in soils, it could be built up to an optimum level which will then remain constant indefinitely. Currently, we do not know what these optimum rates are, but some studies have reported adding biochar up to 20 percent of the soil by volume. Biochars from manure may have high salt contents — which would limit annual application rates — but as these salts are leached, more biochar could be applied.


Biochar production holds great promise for bioenergy, a value-added manure product, and a soil conditioner. However, as there are so many variables in feedstock and biochar production, many details remain to be refined. As this new and exciting technology advances, the role of biochar in agricultural systems will probably increase.

For further information:

Lehmann, J., and S. Joseph, eds. 2009. Biochar for environmental management: Science and technology. Sterling, Va.: Earthscan.

Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Alan L. Grant, Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.

August 20, 2010