Biochar was one of those terms that when first heard left me none-the-wiser. You mean it’s charcoal but with a different name – why’s that? You bury it – that seems a waste, why not burn it? In case it’s a new term to you, here’s a brief overview of biochar.
Biochar – what is it?
Biochar is a plant-based product, generated by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen. It can be made from wood, in which case it is no different in from charcoal, except that producers say the manufacturing process is more efficient and greener with the modern equipment used for biochar production than old-fashioned charcoal kilns. It also differs from charcoal in that it can be made from other plant material including straw, grain, stalks and roots. It is normally of fine size, for example tiny fragments or even dust.
How is biochar made?
By burning in a kiln without oxygen and at very high temperatures, typically over 350°C, the plant cells breakdown with the cellulose and lignin forming amorphous carbon (biochar), CO2, water and some other volatiles. The technical term for this process is pyrolysis.
Biochar – what’s the big idea?
Biochar first surfaced when Peter Read, a research fellow at Massey University in New Zealand, coined the term in 2005 to describe finely divided pyrolysed biomass material prepared specifically for soil improvement. Biochar can improve soil fertility, structure, acidity and water quality, while also reducing the need for fertilisers and watering. Biochar is not a new idea but one based on a technique used by Amazonian Indians to improve soil conditions, where it is called Terra preta.
What really excited environmentalists was the idea that biochar can sequester carbon (capture it). Instead of burning organic material (as in the traditional use for charcoal), if biochar is buried instead then the carbon ‘locked’ in it will be permanently removed from the atmosphere. Therefore, using biochar could in theory help us lower our carbon emissions and prevent climate warming.
Biochar – debate and contention
Biochar has attracted much heated debate. Among its supporters is James Lovelock, the founder of the Gaia hypothesis, while against has been Biofuelwatch, the Organic Consumers Association, and the Rainforest Action Network. One of the most interesting discussions was initiated by a damning article by environmental commentator George Monbiot in UK newspaper The Guardian in 2009. In the defence of biochar, both originator Peter Read and James Lovelock, responded in what turned out to be a fascinating debate.
- Original article by George Monbiot: Tuesday 24th March, 2009
- Response by James Lovelock: 24th March 2009
- Response by Peter Read: 27th March, 2009
“This gift of nature is the best way to save us from climate catastrophe. Biochar schemes would remove carbon from the atmosphere and increase food supply.” Peter Read
“There is an outside chance that one procedure could really turn back the clock on Global warming and that is burying carbon. All you have to do is get every farmer everywhere to make a profit by turning all his agricultural waste into char and burying it. “James Lovelock
- The Biochar Debate: Charcoal’s Potential to Reverse Climate Change and Build Soil Fertility
By James Bruges. 120 pp. Chelsea Green Publishing. (2010)
- Oxford Biochar
- Biochar Innovation