BIOCHAR:  A black element for a greener future

Bio char could enhance plantation performance and restore soils

Biochar could enhance plantation performance and restore soils

Biochar, an upscale cousin of charcoal that is commonly used in water purification and related applications, is being examined as a potential soil builder for agriculture and silviculture in British Columbia forests.

A British Columbia company, Global Bio-Coal Energy Inc. (GBCE) has announced plans to add biochar to its production capacity with the aim of producing up to 50,000 tonnes of biochar per year at a facility planned for the Vernon area in the South Okanagan.

GBCE views biochar as a possible valuable asset for tree planters and at tree nurseries. Biochar could provide an answer to the quest for accelerated and healthier growth in transplanted seedlings.

Testing and research is underway at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and other research facilities in the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the world. It is worth examining the work of Johannes Lehmann, of Cornell University who is considered a leading expert on the subject. Much of his work shows up on the Internet.

Biochar is seen as a potent soil building agent that can bring marginal soils, such as is often found in dry, mountainous regions back to productivity by holding moisture and encouraging the natural forces at work that create arable soils. It has been touted as a means to prevent and even reverse desertification in areas like the Middle East and Africa.

Not new,  terra-preta, was found in the tropical forests of South America in 1879 and recognized for its remarkable properties. It is actually a pre-Columbian product created by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon regions.

Today it has been relabelled as biochar.

Following is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

“Biochar is recognized as offering a number of benefits for soil health. Many benefits are related to the extremely porous nature of biochar. This structure is found to be very effective at retaining both water and water-soluble nutrients.

Soil biologist Elaine Ingham indicates the extreme suitability of biochar as a habitat for many beneficial soil micro organisms. She points out that when pre charged with these beneficial organisms biochar becomes an extremely effective soil amendment promoting good soil, and in turn plant health.

Biochar has also been shown to reduce leaching of E. coli through sandy soils depending on application rate, feedstock, pyrolysis temperature, soil moisture content, soil texture, and surface properties of the bacteria. For plants that require high potash and elevated pH, biochar can be used as a soil amendment to improve yield.

Biochar can improve water quality, reduce soil emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce nutrient leaching, reduce soil acidity, and reduce irrigation and fertilizer requirements.[34] Biochar was also found under certain circumstances to induce plant systemic responses to foliar fungal diseases and to improve plant responses to diseases caused by soil-borne pathogens.”

According to Wikipedia Intensive research into manifold aspects involving the pyrolysis/biochar platform is underway around the world. Further research is in progress by such diverse institutions around the world as Cornell University, the University of Edinburgh, which has a dedicated research unit, and the Agricultural Research Organization (ARO) of Israel, Volcani Center, where a network of researchers involved in biochar research (iBRN, Israel Biochar Researchers Network) was established as early as 2009.

While much work is still ongoing, GBCE’s assessment of biochar is that it can make a significant contribution to improving and sustaining the forest lands of British Columbia and can ensure that the province’s silviculture targets are met or exceeded.

Bill McIntyre, GBCE’s Vice-President Business Development and Marketing, notes that biochar is actually an upgrade of its primary product which is biocoal. Biocoal can be used to replace natural coal in thermal power plants in order to reduce emissions to meet CO2 reduction targets around the world.

“While biochar has similar properties to biocoal it is a more refined product that retains its porous features making it suitable for a wide variety of applications for which biocoal is not suitable. Still it can also contribute to significantly the reduction of CO2 normally released from the soil. In addition it can be infused with other nutrients needed to enrich the soil,” he explained.

McIntyre added that a number of potential manufacturers of biochar are working on the product. According to McIntyre the torrefiers used to produce biocoal can also be employed in the manufacture of biochar by increasing the temperature and residency time of the fibre needed for the process. Both biochar and biocoal are manufactured from waste forest residues.”

GBCE has now reached the point, according to McIntyre, where we are hoping the government can be convinced to do a testing program under actual field conditions and wants to work with tree nurseries to include biochar at the germination stage of their seedlings to determine if growth and hardiness are improved.

The company’s first torrefier will be located near the Town of Lumby, east of Vernon, with construction to be completed in late spring of 2016. Its full biocoal production run of an initial 100,000 tons is already spoken for by offshore clients. In the interim the company will be assessing the biochar market to determine initial capacity.

Calculations by Professor Lehman suggest that emissions reductions can be 12–84% greater if biochar is put back into the soil instead of being burned to offset fossil-fuel use. Thus biochar sequestration offers the chance to turn bioenergy into a carbon-negative industry.

“We are continuing to work through UBC and the BC Bioenergy Network to cost-effectively manufacture biochar in BC and continue our efforts to be part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the use of biocoal and biochar,” concluded McIntyre.

*The above article was written and submitted by Bill McIntyre, Vice-President Business Development and Marketing with files from Wikipedia and other sources.