Biochar

The Terra Preta Prayer

Our Carbon who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name
By kingdom come, thy will be done, IN the Earth to make it Heaven.
It will give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our atmospheric trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against the Kyoto protocols
And lead us not into fossil fuel temptation, but deliver us from it’s evil
low as we walk through the valley of the shadow of Global Warming,
I will feel no evil, your Bio-fuels and fertile microbes will comfort me,
For thine is the fungal kingdom,
and the microbe power,
and the Sequestration Glory,
For ever and ever (well at least 2000 years)
AMEN

Soil Carbon Commandments:

1) Thou shalt not have any other Molecule before Me
2) Thou shall not make wrongful use of the name of Biochar, It will not acquit anyone who mis-charactorizes it’s name
3) Observe the Fallow days and keep them, as Sustainability commands thou
4) Honor your Micro Flora & Fauna , as the Soil Carbon commands you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that High Soil Carbon has given you.
5) Thou shall not murder the Soil Food Web
6) Neither shall thou adulterate the Soils with Toxicity
7) Neither shall thou steal Biomass from the Soil Food Web
8) Neither shall thou bear false witness against your neighbors Biochar, or about Thy own
9) Neither shall thou covet your neighbor’s Fertility
10) Neither shall thou desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or Pyrolysis Reactor, or farm implements, or anything that belongs to your neighbor, as thou may Create thy Own

Soil Carbon Dream

I have a dream that one day we live in a nation where progress will not be judged by the production yields of our fields, but by the color of their soils and by the Carbon content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, a suite of earth sensing satellites will level the playing field, giving every farmer a full account of carbon he sequesters. That Soil Carbon is given as the final arbiter, the common currency, accountant and Judge of Stewardship on our lands.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made forest, the rough soils will be made fertile, and the crooked Carbon Marketeers will be made straight, and the glory of Soil Sequestration shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see a Mutually assured Sustainability.

This is our hope.

Thanks to Erich from Biochar Project Australia for the above wonderful Biochar Crusader Rhetoric from Erich!

 

Biochar Basics

Australia’s Climate Change Commissioner, Professor Tim Flannery, has described Biochar as representing the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental and agricultural future. Dr Flannery states:

Technically, biochar science is complex and evolving but its essence  is straightforward. If you heat almost any biological material to a certain temperature, and restrict or exclude oxygen, a process called pyrolysis occurs. The material changes form and you get two very useful end-products: charcoal and synthetic gas.

  1. Syngas: The synthetic gas can be used in the same way as other fuels, including generating electricity.
  2. Charcoal: The charcoal end-product has remarkable, unique qualities. When added to soil, the charcoal is called biochar.

Biochar amends and improves the soil and does so permanently: biochar is a very stable form of carbon and will endure for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. In the soil, biochar retains moisture and acts like a coral reef for microbes and fungi that are beneficial to soil and plant growth. Studies have proved that biochar can improve crop yields.

At the same time, biochar in the soil sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, because otherwise the decomposing material used to produce biochar would have deposited more carbon into the air. This sequestration actively draws down atmospheric carbon and can start reducing our global carbon debt.

Producing and applying biochar can transform abundant, readily available biological material usually considered waste (ie. crop waste left rotting in the field after harvest, fallen limbs in a forest) into a renewable, environmentally friendly resource.

These benefits are well within reach. The technologies for producing biochar already exist have been in use for centuries, dating back to the ancient Amazon basin. Those technologies have low-tech roots, making them more accessible to farmers in developing countries.

For all of these reasons, biochar has profound potential. It can be a key part of the solution to the daunting, interlaced challenges we face, because above all other options offered to date, biochar represents a practical, scalable approach that can address those challenges simultaneously.

Because biochar-making techniques are readily accessible to everyone, and the need is so pressing, we can all contribute and help make a genuine difference now from the ground up without having to wait for our governments and institutions to fully mobilize. Those interested can try making their own biochar and by sharing their results, add valuable data to the worldwide knowledge base. Others can make an impact by participating in community biochar initiatives.

If enough people at the grass roots literally and figuratively take some of the small, easy steps outlined here, the cumulative power of the many will lever dramatic, sustainable, and revolutionary change for us all.

Figure. 1: Biochar system components (Lehmann and Joseph, 2009).

What is Biochar?

Biochar is charcoal produced by heating organic material at a high temperature in limited oxygen. It is a stable, aromatic product, very rich in carbon, used to lock carbon into the soil.

 

What are the benefits of Biochar?

Digging Biochar into the earth has been shown to improve water quality, increase soil fertility and raise agricultural productivity. It can

  • increase the water holding capacity of the soil
  • increase crop production
  • increase soil carbon levels
  • increase soil pH
  • decrease Aluminium toxicity
  • change the microbiology of the soil
  • decrease soil emissions of the greenhouse gases CO2, N2O and CH4
  • improve soil conditions for earthworm populations
  • improve fertiliser use efficiency

The effects of biochar will vary with soil type and the particular biochar used.Studies thus far have shown that the greatest positive effects of biocharapplications have been in highly degraded, acidic or nutrient-depleted soils.

How is Biochar made?

Biochar can be produced from any organic material such as household green waste, paper waste or agricultural waste. It is made in a specially constructed incinerator that heats the organic material under pressure at temperatures above 430 °C The process, called pyrolysis, efficiently decomposes the bio matter, producing the biochar solid, a small amount of bio-oil and gases that can be use to create electricity. The production of Biochar is thus a carbon negative process overall.

How does Biochar help with cllimate change?

The burning of trees and agricultural waste contributes a large amount of the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere and is a significant factor in global warming. The production and use of biochar breaks into the CO2 cycle, releasing oxygen and drawing carbon from the atmosphere to hold it in the soil.

(Source: The Biochar Project)

The soil fertility benefits of biochar rest on two pillars:

  1. Extremely high affinity of nutrients to biochar and other compounds (adsorption)
  2. Extremely high persistence of biochar (stability)

High Nutrient Affinity

  • All organic matter added to soil significantly improves various soil functions
  • One important soil function improved by organic matter is retention of several nutrients that are essential to plant growth
  • Biochar is much more effective in retaining most nutrients and keeping them available to plants than other organic matter such as for example leaf litter, compost or manures.
  • This is also true for phosphorus which is not at all retained by ‘normal’ soil organic matter (Lehmann, 2007)

High Persistence

  • Biochar is much more persistent in soil than any other form of organic matter that is commonly applied to soil
  • Associated benefits with respect to nutrient retention and soil fertility are longer lasting than with alternative management
  • Long persistence of biochar in soil makes it a prime candidate for the mitigation of climate change as a potential sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide
  • Success of effective reduction of greenhouse gases depends on the associated net emission reductions through biochar sequestration
  • Net emission reduction can only be achieved in conjunction with sustainable management of biomass production
  • During conversion of biomass to biochar about 50% of the original carbon is retained in the biochar, which offers a significant opportunity for creating such a carbon sink (Lehmann, 2007)

Other Potential benefits

  • Beneficial effects of biochar on both soil microbial functions and soil water availability are highly likely but not yet sufficiently quantified to be effectively managed
  • Biochars are able to correct undesirable pH similar to lime and can therefore be of value to improve acid soils

Adsorption and stability can be used effectively to address some of the most urgent environmental problems of our time:

  1. Soil degradation
  2. Water pollution by agro-chemicals
  3. Climate change

Figure 2: Biochar system from input of residues or purpose-grown biomass to biochar production, generation of bio-energy and sequestration of approximately 50% of the carbonfrom the biomass in soil (Lehmann 2007).