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Waste Not, Want Not

How farmers are cutting down on chemicals with a natural solution to soil degradation

Published: August 2, 2018

At age 56, Vietnamese farmer Luan is still actively working the land. She is also still learning new things and open to fresh ideas. In 2015, she agreed to turn part of her smallholding into a demonstration site as part of Biochar for Sustainable Soils – a three-year research and knowledge dissemination project backed by UN Environment and the Global Environment Facility and coordinated by Starfish Initiatives.

With assistance from researchers at Thai Nguyen University of Sciences, Luan learned to produce biochar, an organic soil enhancer, in her home and apply it to her crops. She is one of 100 farmers in Vietnam’s Bac Kan province to be trained in its use as a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers.

Biochar is made from heating organic or agricultural ‘waste’, such as rice husks or straw, without the presence of oxygen. This produces a charcoal-like substance which is not only rich in carbon, but is highly porous, helping the soil to retain nutrients and water.

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What is Biochar?

Biochar technology shows promise in mitigating climate change and improving soil quality, as well as reducing waste and producing energy as a byproduct. But what exactly is biochar and what is it made of?

Biochar is a charcoal-like substance that’s made by burning organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes (also called biomass) in a controlled process called pyrolysis. Although it looks a lot like common charcoal, biochar is produced using a specific process to reduce contamination and safely store carbon. During pyrolysis organic materials, such as wood chips, leaf litter or dead plants, are burned in a container with very little oxygen. As the materials burn, they release little to no contaminating fumes. During the pyrolysis process, the organic material is converted into biochar, a stable form of carbon that can’t easily escape into the atmosphere. The energy or heat created during pyrolysis can be captured and used as a form of clean energy. Biochar is by far more efficient at converting carbon into a stable form and is cleaner than other forms of charcoal.

In terms of physical attributes, biochar is black, highly porous, lightweight, fine-grained and has a large surface area. Approximately 70 percent of its composition is carbon. The remaining percentage consists of nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen among other elements. Biochar’s chemical composition varies depending on the feedstocks used to make it and methods used to heat it.

Photo credit: Rob Goodier/E4C

The concept of biochar is rooted in an ancient Amazonian practice

Although biochar technology is considered a more recent strategy for carbon sequestration, the practice of adding charred biomass to improve soil quality is not new. This process is modeled after a 2,000-year-old practice in the Amazonian basin, where indigenous people created areas of rich, fertile soils called terra preta (meaning “dark earth”).

Whether these soils were intentionally made or are simply a by-product of farming and/or cooking practices is still unclear. But one thing’s for sure: The fertility of terra preta is significantly higher than the otherwise famously infertile soils of the Amazon. This explains why plants grown in terra preta soil grow faster, and are more nutrient-dense, than plants grown in neighboring soils. In fact, terra preta soils continue to hold carbon still today.

How to make biochar: A closer look into biochar production

Biochar is produced during pyrolysis, a thermal decomposition of biomass in an oxygen-limited environment.

The quality of feedstocks, or materials burned, have a direct impact on the quality of the final biochar product. Ideally, clean feedstocks with 10 to 20 percent moisture and high lignin content must be used—some good examples are field residues and woody biomass. Using contaminated feedstocks, including feedstocks from railway embankments or contaminated land, can introduce toxins into the soil, drastically increase soil pH and/or inhibit plants from absorbing minerals. The most common contaminants are heavy metals—including cadmium, copper, chromium, lead, zinc, mercury, nickel and arsenic—and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons.

Biochar can be manufactured through low-cost, small-scale production using modified stoves or kilns, or through large-scale, cost-intensive production, which utilizes larger pyrolysis plants and higher amounts of feedstocks. One of the most common ways to make biochar for on-farm use is through pyrolysis using a top-lit updraft biochar machine.

Applications of biochar in agriculture: enhancing soil and compost properties

Soil degradation is a major concern in agriculture globally. To address this burgeoning problem, researchers suggested applying biochar to degraded soils in order to enhance its quality. Some of the ways that biochar may help improve soil quality include:

  • enhancing soil structure
  • increasing water retention and aggregation
  • decreasing acidity
  • reducing nitrous oxide emissions
  • improving porosity
  • regulating nitrogen leaching
  • improving electrical conductivity
  • improving microbial properties

Biochar is also found to be beneficial for composting, since it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and prevents the loss of nutrients in the compost material. It also promotes microbial activity, which in turn accelerates the composting process. Plus, it helps reduce the compost’s ammonia losses, bulk density and odor.

How to use biochar to improve soil quality

Biochar is applied to agricultural soils using a variety of application rates and preparation techniques. The rate of application and preparation of the biochar will largely depend on specific soil conditions as well as on the materials used to make the biochar. It is often recommended to mix biochar with compost or other materials to inoculate it with nutrients and beneficial organisms.

The recommended method for applying biochar will vary depending on how healthy or nutrient-depleted your soil is. Before you use biochar in your own garden or farm, you should first consider the state of your soil. For more information on how to apply biochar on different kinds of soils, check the guidelines on International Biochar Initiative and Wakefield Biochar.

Biochar: an environmental solution

Biochar may seem like a simple material, but it can help solve a variety of global problems simultaneously. For instance, the process by which it’s manufactured may help sequester a billion tons of carbon annually and hold it in the soil for thousands of years, where it’s most beneficial.

During the production of biochar, clean and renewable energy is produced as a byproduct—this can be used as an alternative to burning fossil fuels, which has exacerbated global warming by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Some of the other environmental benefits of biochar include decreased groundwater pollution, lower cost of water filtration, reduced amounts of waste and higher profitability for farmers. This technology also contributes to food security by increasing crop yields and retaining water in areas prone to drought.

The role of biochar in sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change

Biochar production is a carbon-negative process, which means that it actually reduces CO2 in the atmosphere. In the process of making biochar, the unstable carbon in decaying plant material is converted into a stable form of carbon that is then stored in the biochar. When biochar is applied to the soil, it stores the carbon in a secure place for potentially hundreds or thousands of years. To put it simply, the feedstocks that were used for making biochar would release higher amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere if they were left to decompose naturally. By heating the feedstocks and transforming their carbon content into a stable structure that doesn’t react to oxygen, biochar technology ultimately reduces carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Biochar also contributes to the mitigation of climate change by enriching the soils and reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, which in turn lowers greenhouse gas emissions. The improved soil fertility also stimulates the growth of plants, which consume carbon dioxide. The many benefits of biochar for both climate and agricultural systems make it a promising tool for regenerative agriculture.

Read next: Why Regenerative Agriculture?

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NASA Langley Scientist Touts Biochar: An ‘Environmental Superstar’

Author: Tamara Dietrich | Published: January 9, 2017

Over many centuries — perhaps millennia — primitive peoples plowed biochar into farm fields, turning poor soil into rich cropland.

In fact, it’s such a miraculous soil amendment that 20 years ago researchers found that biochar applied in the Amazon basin more than 500 years before is still enriching soils there.

“It hadn’t broken down, it hadn’t rotted or degraded or anything,” said Doris Hamill, a physicist at NASA Langley Research Center with a deep interest in green technologies. “And that made people say, ‘Hmmm, you know, if biochar can be put in soils and not break down for hundreds of years, this could be a real solution to global warming.’ ”

That’s right — global warming. That’s because an added benefit of carbon-packed biochar is that, by plowing it into farm fields, it removes the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide indefinitely from the carbon cycle.

But that’s not all.

Biochar can be made from common organic waste material — from chicken and cow poop to sticks and brush from your yard. It can make environmentally unfriendly synthetic fertilizers obsolete. It can trap nutrient runoff before it pollutes places like the Chesapeake Bay. It can even filter out toxic heavy metals from water.

“It’s an environmental superstar,” Hamill said. “It’s global warming, it’s soil fertility, it’s sustainable agriculture, it is protection of groundwater — it just does everything. It’s really kind of amazing.”

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NASA Langley Scientist Touts Biochar: An 'Environmental Superstar'

Author: Tamara Dietrich | Published: January 9, 2017

Over many centuries — perhaps millennia — primitive peoples plowed biochar into farm fields, turning poor soil into rich cropland.

In fact, it’s such a miraculous soil amendment that 20 years ago researchers found that biochar applied in the Amazon basin more than 500 years before is still enriching soils there.

“It hadn’t broken down, it hadn’t rotted or degraded or anything,” said Doris Hamill, a physicist at NASA Langley Research Center with a deep interest in green technologies. “And that made people say, ‘Hmmm, you know, if biochar can be put in soils and not break down for hundreds of years, this could be a real solution to global warming.’ ”

That’s right — global warming. That’s because an added benefit of carbon-packed biochar is that, by plowing it into farm fields, it removes the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide indefinitely from the carbon cycle.

But that’s not all.

Biochar can be made from common organic waste material — from chicken and cow poop to sticks and brush from your yard. It can make environmentally unfriendly synthetic fertilizers obsolete. It can trap nutrient runoff before it pollutes places like the Chesapeake Bay. It can even filter out toxic heavy metals from water.

“It’s an environmental superstar,” Hamill said. “It’s global warming, it’s soil fertility, it’s sustainable agriculture, it is protection of groundwater — it just does everything. It’s really kind of amazing.”

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3 Circular Principles for Healthy Agriculture

Author: Hunter Lovins | Published: February 11, 2017 

Proponents of the regenerative economy are realizing that it is dependent on the circular economy of soil. The soil is one of the key natural capitals on which we all depend. Its loss is our demise.

This chapter advocates three ways to move towards regenerative agriculture: return farming systems to harmony with nature’s cycles; make and use biochar; and implement holistic management across the world’s grasslands.

The challenge: climate destructive agriculture

Most of the climate crisis results from burning fossil fuels, but almost a quarter of the problem derives from agriculture. After 150 years of unsustainable practices, the earth’s soil has been depleted.

Modern agriculture worsens climate change. Unchecked, climate change will destroy our tenuous ability to feed ourselves. For every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the norm, yields of wheat, rice and corn drop 10 percent. Given that more than a billion people in the world already suffer from malnutrition, this is serious.

Soil that has been de-carbonized (lost its organic matter) requires large amounts of fossil fuel-based fertilizer if it is to grow crops at industrial scale. Petrochemical use in fertilizer releases greenhouse gasses (GHGs), especially nitrous oxide, a gas 300 times more potent per ton in causing global warming than CO2.  Plowing and poor nutrient management release the nitrogen from soils in quantities. When out of place, both carbon and nitrogen, key building blocks of life in nature, are serious threats to the stability of the climate.

Regenerative agriculture: there is a better way

Critics of current agriculture call for a beyond-modern approach, combining the best of traditional agriculture with the finest science, to deliver abundant, sustainable food and high-quality life to all the world’s people. The Rodale Institute, the Soil Association of the U.K., the Agroecology Lab at U.C. Davis, and the Leopold Center at Iowa State University are a few of the early centers of scientific research into organic agriculture. They are building bio-diverse systems to reintegrate us into living systems agriculture. It takes a longer view of production, not maximizing yields in any one year, but ensuring yield over many years and decreasing chances of crop failure in bad ones.

Regenerative farming practices increase soil-held carbon or organic matter. Farms using crop rotations and animal manure deliver better biodiversity than fields farmed with industrial practices. Organic fields reduce nitrogen runoff and the release of nitrous oxide. Systems that integrate livestock with vegetable production, use perennial pastureland and organic production deliver higher profitability while creating the circular economy of the soil. These methods include long crop rotations, leguminous crops and cover crops and manure produced by livestock as fertilizer.

They take carbon from the air and sequester it in soil. These regenerative methods treat the farms as holistic systems. Farmers use only what is produced on site. Such practices restore soil structure, build healthy topsoil, nurture soil microbes and promote biological activity, all of which contributes to long-term productivity and nutritious crops. Water use is optimized and the best practices in irrigation are applied. Farm worker safety and investment in local dollars sustain farming communities.

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How Crop Waste Can Give It Back to Soil and Keep the Air Clean Too

Author:  | Published on: October 10, 2016

NEW DELHI: US-based Brian Von Herzen and his team at Climate Foundation India believe that agricultural waste can be processed into not just something useful for farmers but also enrich the soil by putting back carbon into it.

Paddy straw and wheat residues are usually burned by farmers in Punjab and Haryana in the absence of affordable alternatives to dispose them of. Every year, in November and February , burning of agricultural res idue in these states causes severe air pollution in Delhi.

According to Climate Foundation India’s proposal for the Urban Labs Innovation Challenge, nearly 60 mega tonnes of rice straw is burnt openly annually . Haryana and Punjab comprise 48% of total emissions due to rice straw burning across India. “During the months rice straw is burned, PM 2.5 (fine, respirable pollution particles) levels commonly exceed 400 parts per million,” it said.

The team at Climate Foundation India proposes to make biochar out of the agricultural residue instead. Inspired by scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which explained how the soil can act as an effective sink for greenhouse gases, Brian’s team developed a “charvester”-an equipment that harvests grain and cuts the straw at the same time.

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Biochars multifunctional role as a novel technology in the agricultural, environmental, and industrial sectors

Authors: Jeff Novak, Kyoung S Ro, Yong Sik Ok, Gilbert C Sigua, Kurt Spokas, and Sophie Uchimiya

1. Introduction

The utilization of biochar as an amendment to improve soil health and the environment has been a catalyst for the recent global enthusiasm for advancing biochar production technology and its management (Atkinson et al., 2010; Verheijen et al., 2010). This rapid rise in understanding biochar technologies is a pro-active response to the anticipated stresses of meeting future global nutrition demands while also sustaining environmental quality. Hearty research efforts using biochar are focusing on improving soil health characteristics to obtain higher crop yields. Moreover, there is increasing realization that sustainable food security will be difficult to maintain considering future climatic shifts and the impact on agronomic and environmental systems. Employment of biochar as a specialized soil amendment provides a practical approach to address these anticipated problems in the agronomic and environmental sectors (Mukherjee and Lal, 2013; Zhang and Ok, 2014).

Biochar is produced by thermal pyrolysis of organic feedstocks under a very low oxygen atmosphere (Laird, 2008) or through hydrothermal carbonization of wet organic material by high pressure and mild temperatures (Libra et al., 2011). The thermal and hydrothermal processes, respectively, results in a product referred to as biochar and hydrochar. Both of these materials are highly porous, carbon [C] rich solids that contain a myriad of organic structures as well as inorganic elements. Biochars have been characterized using 13 C nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy as having a high proportion of highly-condensed aromatic graphene-like structures (Baldock and Smernik, 2002; Novak et al., 2009; Cao et al., 2011), which are known to increase soil C sequestration because of their resistance to microbial oxidation (Glaser et al., 2002; Sigua et al., 2014). The inorganic chemical composition of the ash material is an important soil fertility characteristic since
the ash is comprised of plant macro (e.g., N, Ca, K, P, etc.) as well as micro-nutrients (e.g., Cu Zn, B, etc.;Spokas et al., 2012; Ippolito et al., 2015). Besides boosting soil fertility conditions, biochar application to soils can increase their nutrient retention (Laird and Rogovska, 2015), improve water storage (Kinney et al., 2012; Novak et al., 2012), bind with pollutants (Uchimiya et al., 2010; Sun et al., 2011; Ahmad et al., 2014; Mohan et al., 2014), and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions (GHG;
Cayuela et al., 2014). These reports demonstrate that biochar can have multfunctional roles in the agricultural and environmental sectors.

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Biochar: The Oldest New Thing You’ve Never Heard Of: Wae Nelson at TEDxOrlando

Wae Nelson was employed as a mechanical engineer in the aerospace and defense industries for many years, working both as a designer and as a manager in manufacturing. Now he publishes the magazine beloved by local gardeners, Florida Gardening, and pursues his passion for biochar — a diy, scalable technique to both improve horticultural yields and sequester carbon simultaneously.

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Connecting the Dots Between Pollution, Global Hunger, and Water Scarcity

Global hunger, pollution, and water scarcity – how are these interrelated? Courtney White, a former archaeologist and a Sierra Club activist, connects the dots for us in his book Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country.

Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, he first became concerned about some of the environmental issues going on in the 1990s, at which time he joined the Sierra Club.

“I met a rancher at a Sierra Club meeting in 1996. His name was Jim Winder… This was back in the mid-’90s when ranchers and environmentalists were going after each other in court, in public opinions, in newspapers, and all kinds of things.

Jim said, ‘Let’s find some common ground between ranchers and environmentalists.’ He said, ‘I ranch differently. I move my cows around the ranch in a certain way trying to mimic natural grazing behavior of wild animals – bison, for example.

‘I said, ‘That’s interesting.’ I went to his ranch and saw what he was doing. He’s growing grass. He had water, wildlife, and all these things.”

The Quivira Coalition

In 1997, the activist and the rancher formed a non-profit organization called The Quivira Coalition, along with conservationist Barbara Johnson. Together, they advocated land management practices that help restore land back to health.One of the keys to land restoration is carbon sequestration. Carbon is the most abundant element on Earth after oxygen. Dark, rich soils contain high amounts of carbon. This element is the tie that binds grazing management, land health, food, water, and rising pollution levels together.

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