Studies Point To Biochar As A Solution To Environmental Issues

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March 1, 2019

If there is a magical, organic substance that can be added to the soil for better crop quality and higher yields, it just might be biochar. Gardeners around the world are treating their plants to it, and ongoing research is finding different ways we can use it to our advantage.

Biochar’s Many Benefits

It all begins with the soil, and improving its health should be a priority for everyone. Biochar, which is engineered charcoal, can help make that happen. Extremely porous, it interacts with the soil microbiology unlike anything else:

  • It provides a suitable habitat for beneficial fungi and bacteria.
  • It retains water and vital nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorous.
  • It sequesters harmful gasses. Studies show biochar-enriched soils can reduce CO2 and NO2 emissions by 50-80%!

How It’s Made

One of the ways to produce biochar is through pyrolysis, a process in which wood, straw, manure, or other organic materials are heated to scorching temperatures (up to 700°C/1300°F) in an oxygen-deprived setting.

Once it’s ready, biochar can be added to the soil and lasts for hundreds of years!

Biochar soil
Image courtesy of Walden Labs

New Research

Scientists at the University of Alberta have found biochar can be used to our benefit outside of the garden as well.

Researchers have discovered that biochar’s properties can be tuned and tailored to meet specific needs. For example, beyond its agricultural benefits, biochar’s porous quality make it an excellent tool for removing pollutants and toxins from water.

Meanwhile, at the University of California-Merced, a team of scientists is studying how biochar can help reduce the harmful effects of cattle and dairy farming.

Cow manure releases methane into the air, a harmful greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than CO2.

A $3 million grant has the research team looking into how biochar can be accurately used to mitigate the environmental issues associated with the farms. It’s creating a mobile biochar unit that can be brought anywhere in California.  

If successful, manure methane emissions could drop by 2.74 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents per year!

Beyond sequestering the gasses, the application of biochar can help raise the pH levels of acidic soil typically found in farmland due to ammonium nitrogen fertilizers.   

The team believes a mobile production machine will make biochar accessible to all farmers, reducing the need for transportation of biomass to the existing stationary units.

Machines are the Future

The idea is similar to the brainchild of a New Hampshire based company that is already using mobile technology to make biochar out of forest debris.

The Carbonator 500 takes tree limbs, leaves, and other leftovers from timber harvests and saves it from a burn pile, making something good with it instead.

In a story by the Capital Press, Ragnar Original Innovations claims the unit burns 15-20 tons of forest waste an hour and can convert about 5-10% of it into carbon-rich biochar.

The company says it plans on rolling out several more units this year, bridging the gap between forests and farms.

There is so much more research to be done on biochar’s benefits and uses, but it’s becoming more clear that it can be a solution to many different environmental problems.

Catherine Sherriffs
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Catherine Sherriffs

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her two young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.
Catherine Sherriffs
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