By Katerina Seligman
There is a process that offers solutions to some of the major social and environmental issues of the day: third world poverty, nitrogen losses from soils (which pollute rivers and lakes), depletion of soil productivity, and above all climate change.
I want to tell you about biochar and its huge potential to reverse some of the world’s most challenging problems. Please give this your attention for as long as it takes to read this short article and watch the half hour video below. If you read my short article and watch the half hour video it should not take more than 45 minutes of your time. That may be all you choose to do. If you get excited about biochar, as I have done, then you may wish to learn more and spread the word to key people in your community.
To begin with the biggest of the issues listed above, climate change, it is well known that the maximum safe level of carbon equivalents in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm). The amount in the atmosphere at present is an astounding 400 ppm and climbing fast. Way over the safe limit. It is no longer enough to reduce carbon emissions. We must find ways to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lock it away safely. And here’s the good news: it is possible and is being done. But the news gets better. Making biochar is a way of both taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and enriching the soil and making it more productive. It also protects waterways from nitrogen run-off, generates heat is to produce electricity and produces high octane fuel.
Here’s how it works in a nutshell: Charcoal has been used as a soil amendment for thousands of years. The rich black soils of the Amazonians supported huge populations on what otherwise would have been very poor soil. This very old practice is being revived and used on a fairly large scale in some places, as explained in the video. When plants grow, they take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When the plants die, the carbon is released back into the atmosphere. If the plant mass is converted to charcoal and the charcoal incorporated into soil it is known as biochar. The carbon that was in the plant is locked into the soil instead of being released into the atmosphere. Charcoal has a very large surface area and provides an excellent habitat for microorganisms which are essential for healthy soils. (One gram of charcoal has a surface area of approximately 1000-2500 square metres because of all the micro-pores.) Charcoal therefore has a very large holding capacity for microorganisms, water and nutrients. In short it is an excellent soil amendment and is being used to rejuvenate useless, depleted soils, bringing them back into production, and increasing the land’s re-sale value as well.
Charcoal is made by heating biomass (plant and animal material) in the absence of oxygen. The fumes that are driven off can be fed back to fuel the furnace, and can also be captured to produce high octane fuel. The heat produced can be used to generate electricity. The charcoal is returned to the soil where it stays unchanged for thousands of years. Through this process, carbon is taken from the atmosphere and locked safely into the soil where it enhances food production. The soil is used to produce more plants which can then be converted to charcoal, and so on.
Growing tall grass-like crops like corn, sugarcane, sorghum, or giant miscanthus are ideal as they are fast growing, and produce excellent quality charcoal.
Biochar is starting to be produced on an industrial scale and operations large and small are beginning to spring up all over the world. Some of the world’s poorest community have already benefited by the installation of relatively small biochar production units which supply them with power, enhance their food growing capacity and provide employment. It takes four to eight years to convert desert soil to productive and valuable land. Big companies such as Google, BP, and General Electric are investing in this technology, and the momentum is building.
My goal is to help this momentum build and to raise awareness about the potential of biochar to solve environmental issues in our local communities as well as globally. Nitrogen run-off into rivers and lakes from dairy farms is a big environmental challenge that can be mitigated with the use of biochar. Local air pollution from the burning of waste wood from horticulture and forestry could be prevented, by converting the biomass into charcoal and putting it back into the soil, enhancing the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil and reducing fertilizer needs.
I hope I have given you enough information to spark your interest. I recommend you watch this half hour video embedded above right to the end. It’s called “Biochar: The Next Stage in Climate Action” and the information is taken from a Biochar Conference held in the USA in 2012.
Biochar is not the only way to take carbon out of the atmosphere but it is in my opinion the most hopeful. Some of the other ways are also described very briefly in the video.
With warm wishes to you, Katerina