It may come as a surprise that making Biochar is not new. In fact, Amazonian Indians used Biochar to produce agricultural soils that are still incredibly fertile, even now – 1,000 years later.
People from all over the world are coming to realise the amazing properties of Biochar and the myriad of things it can be used for. These ‘things’ are big ticket items too, things that can change our world – for the better.
Sustainable and efficient agriculture, climate change mitigation, clean and diverse fuel supplies and wastewater remediation are all critical to our survival and the health of the planet. And Biochar can help. Read on!
What exactly is Biochar and how is it made?
- Biochar is different from normal charcoal because it is produced differently and has different properties and uses.
- Biochar is made when organic matter is heated in the absence of oxygen to produce a type of organic, Carbon-rich charcoal.
- Normal charcoal is made by burning organic matter in an oxygen rich fire. The charcoal and ash produced is inorganic.
- Biochar is added to soil to improve soil health, remediate contaminated land and remove contaminants from soil water.
- Normal charcoal is used as fuel for heating, in the iron making process and as a colouring agent in industry and arts
Biochar for Sustainable & Efficient Agriculture: Application to the Soil
- Sustainably improves soil health – Biochar reduces soil acidity, provides habitat for beneficial soil microbes and enhances the ability of the soil to retain moisture.
- Improves soil productivity resulting in enhanced crop yields. Productivity increases are dependent on the in situ soil type, the crop being grown (e.g. wheat, rice, corn) and the type of biomass used to produce the Biochar (e.g. municipal green waste versus paper mill waste).
- Increases economic efficiency and food security – rapid return on investment in Biochar and more ‘food per unit of energy input’. Some aspects of the soil application process need to be managed for safe and effective use including potential combustion risk and the dustiness of the substance.
- Decreases impact of current agricultural practices (e.g. pesticide and fertiliser runoff) on surrounding ecosystems. Better soil and water management lead to sustainable land use systems.
Biochar for Climate Change Mitigation
- Capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide in the soil and slowing the return of carbon from plants to the atmosphere reduces the impacts of human-induced climate change. Deforestation and burning fossil fuels are in contrast to the Earth’s mechanisms for storing carbon (i.e. storing it in plants and in the soil). Biochar production is one way to reverse human impacts on the climate and increase our ability to remove carbon dioxide from the air and return carbon to where it came from!
Biochar for Energy Security: Diverse and Clean Fuel Supplies
- By-products (like gas) from the Biochar production process can be used to generate electricity – reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Capturing and using energy from Biochar production is more efficient than burning wood or other biomass like dried animal dung. Indoor smoke pollution is also reduced. This has positive implications for people in countries where burning biomass is the primary energy source.
Biochar for Soil, Water & Waste Remediation
- Biochar assists in the remediation of contaminated land and soil by stimulating plant growth and providing surface organic matter (similar to leaf litter) as part of revegetation projects.
- Biochar filters nutrients like phosphate and ammonia from wastewater as it moves overland and/or down through the soil profile. This makes Biochar useful in stormwater wetlands and wastewater wetlands that treat sewage effluent. Biochar can also filter pesticides used in agriculture. Nutrient and pesticide removal occur by a process called ‘adsorption’.
- Animal and crop wastes can be turned into a resource. Effectively dealing with waste products reduces the potential risk of polluting surface water bodies and groundwater aquifers. At the community scale, gardening waste and food scraps can also be turned into Biochar.
- Processing food and animal wastes by converting them to Biochar reduces methane emissions that would be produced by sending them to landfill (methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).
Biochar under an Electron Microscope has a honeycomb like appearance.
Well, that was all very interesting, don’t you think? I am always amazed when I discover a new technology or process that has many practical applications. To find out it has been around for many, many generations doesn’t necessarily make me smack my forehead in exasperation. It makes me think that humanity is on the right track.
If you have any technical questions, please contact Lise Bolton, Director and Engineer here at Ecoteam. You can contact Lise by email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (02) 6621 5123. Lise has just completed a 9 month trial using Biochar in wetlands and is writing up the results as I type!
I will be writing more blog posts on this fascinating substance in the coming months (including more info on the production process, characteristics, economics, soil application, commercialisation and policy and planning considerations) so stay tuned.
Our next featured blog post will be about the Jubullum Village Sewage Treatment System, a project we have been working on with the local Aboriginal community.
‘Til next time, all the best.
Stefanie Stanley, Business and Major Projects Manager at Ecoteam