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Trees, Carbon, and Biochar

Most trees are natural carbon sinks, at least for the span of their growing lifetime. If the wood is harvested and used for furniture, home building etc., the carbon within the wood is sequestered for the lifetime of its use. In a time of excess carbon in our atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels that have been stored for millions of years and are being depleted in hundreds of years, ways to offset carbon are in high demand. While trees are a good source of short term carbon sequestration, eventually they decompose or burn and contribute to carbon into the atmosphere. One possible solution in extending the sequestration period being researched and experimented by many entrepreneurs and Universities, including the University of Georgia, is biochar. Biochar is created through pyrolysis of biomass (e.g. woodchips), which entails burning biomass at high temperatures in furnaces with very little oxygen, locking the carbon into biochar, a charcoal like appearing product. In biochar the carbon is locked in for thousands of years and can be used in agriculture where carbon has been proven to be a very effective soil amendment. You can imagine the potential in the South, where 2 of every 5 acres is devoted to forestry and much of the remaining land can be used for agriculture. In essence, excess biomass from forestry can be used to create energy as biofuel in creating biochar which in turn can be used to make healthier soils and store carbon. As typical in sweeping new biotechnologies there are potential problems. For one, the use of pyrolysis is not as efficient in energy production as traditional burning of biomass, creating an opportunity cost. Also, extraction of wood biomass using destructive practices could out weigh the benefits. Moreover, using biomass for biochar production ultimately deprives the land from an important source of soil hummus and all the associated benefits of such hummus. While not the end-all answer and if not taken to extremes, biochar has the potential of being one more tool to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and create energy in the forest rich south. Given the resources University of Georgia has spent on it, I am guessing they think it is worthy of looking into. To see the biochar process first hand, view; Can biochar save the planet?

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  • Recent NATURE STUDY;
    Sustainable bio char to mitigate global climate change

    Not talked about in this otherwise comprehensive study are the climate and whole ecological implications of new , higher value, applications of chars.

    the in situ remediation of a vast variety of toxic agents in soils and sediments.
    Biochar Sorption of Contaminants;

    Dr. Lima's work; Specialized Characterization Methods for Biochar
    And at USDA;
    The Ultimate Trash To Treasure: *ARS Research Turns Poultry Waste into Toxin-grabbing Char

    the uses as a feed ration for livestock to reduce GHG emissions and increase disease resistance.

    Recent work by C. Steiner showing a 52% reduction of NH3 loss when char is used as a composting accelerator. This will have profound value added consequences for the commercial composting industry by reduction of their GHG emissions and the sale of compost as a nitrogen fertilizer.

    Biochar Soils.....Husbandry of whole new Orders & Kingdoms of life

    Biotic Carbon, the carbon transformed by life, should never be combusted, oxidized and destroyed. It deserves more respect, reverence even, and understanding to use it back to the soil where 2/3 of excess atmospheric carbon originally came from.

    We all know we are carbon-centered life, we seldom think about the complex web of recycled bio-carbon which is the true center of life. A cradle to cradle, mutually co-evolved biosphere reaching into every crack and crevice on Earth.

    It's hard for most to revere microbes and fungus, but from our toes to our gums (onward), their balanced ecology is our health. The greater earth and soils are just as dependent, at much longer time scales. Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel. Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent.

    Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,

    Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.

    Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

    Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw;
    "Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes;
    "Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !".
    Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar.
    Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
    Microbes like to sit down when they eat.
    By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life.
    ( These oxidised surface charges; carbonyl. hydroxyl, carboxylic acids, and lactones or quinones, have as well a role as signaling substances towards bacteria, fungi and plants.)

    This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it.
    Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web. The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet. Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure we need to build out.

    To me, in the long run, the final arbiter / accountancy / measure of sustainability will be
    soil carbon content. Once this royal road is constructed, traffic cops ( Carbon Board ) in place, the truth of land-management and Biochar systems will be self-evident.

    Global Clean Stove Initiative:

    Another significant aspect of low cost Biomass cook stoves, that produce char, is removal of BC aerosols and no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing "Three Stone" stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria & Aids combined.
    The Biochar Fund :
    The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that, and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )
    Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon

    State Dept. Release;
    100 million clean-burning stoves in kitchens around the world.

    WorldStoves in Haiti ;

    NSF Awards $1.6 million in grants;
    BREAD: Biochar Inoculants for Enabling Smallholder Agriculture

    Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left.
    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

    Thanks for your efforts.

    Erich J. Knight
    Chairman; Markets and Business Review Committee
    US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University, June 27-30

    EcoTechnologies Group Technical Adviser
    Shenandoah Gardens (Owner)
    1047 Dave Barry Rd.
    McGaheysville, VA. 22840
    540 289 9750
    Co-Administrator, Biochar Data base TP-REPP
  • Excellent example of how the urban forestry perspective can inform important larger community issues. Thanks for a great post!
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