Biochar Details

Biochar has become a name for charcoal that is not used for fuel and is eventually applied to soils. Our position is that this is an unfortunate occurrence because there is little known about how any particular combination of charcoal and other ingredients are going to work on a specific soil and site until several or more years have passed. The text included here has been compiled over the past 7 years and carries some of the baggage of that early time.

One of the least common discussion points about the incorporation of charcoal in soil is the fact that this is a carbon negative process. For more details on this urgent topic see the Current Energy Position Paper page.
TREE 300  shown above just after thinning with a pile of biochar ready to be spread or injected.
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This is a short discussion of pertinent biochar literature.  Much more information is a available at bioenergylists or just search for biochar.  The International Biochar Initiative maintains an extensive site devoted exclusively to biochar and the ramifications of effective production and use.  The files attached are particularly encouraging in pointing toward things that can change conditions without patented processes or get rich quick schemes.

September 5, 2012 - Take a look at the file "EPA - Correct" dated 2006 by Eprida and cooperators,  This presentations has covered in complete detail   Included are many issues that are still being discussed with many confusing claims.  This definitive document should be a starting point for these discussions.

August 1, 2012 - A discussion of what to look for in gasification systems that also form charcoal suitable for agricultural use.

As with many other versions of this kind of system, I encourage as many operating demonstrations as possible.  The cracking or upgrading of the gaseous products or conversion to liquid fuels is certainly what is going to sort out the most successful players in the market.

It is not clear whether they are using a true pyrolysis or the partial burn system that the down draft gasifier that APL produces.  And if they are using pyrolysis where the heat comes from.  I believe that there is going to be a lot of progress made when the heat needed for gasification can be concentrated for use from the exothermic portion of the char formation reaction.  I have not yet seen that in practice.  This would allow minimal additional air to be added and thus concentrate the energy in gases free of N2.  I also have not seen the combination of hot char being used as the vehicle for promoting the water shift reaction using the water vapor  released in the pre-heating of wet feed stock.
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Some Interpretations of Biochar Mechanisms in Forest Soils:

Significant research into the action of biochar in soils has been done within the last ten years by J. Lehmann at Cornell University and many others. Lehmann's group and others have shown that the increased cation and anion exchange sites in soils having biochar incorporation come from charged areas on the carbon of the biochar. Dr. Ogawa of the Kansai Power Environmental group has studied the incorporation of biochar into soil by micro-organisms for much longer because the use of char in soils has been a significant part of Japanese agricultural practice for generations.

A recent discussion in the Yahoo Biochar Group accurately places what we know in perspective:

Nicholas Foidl wrote:

I am an advocate of biochar, working since years with good results. I have at the moment two big throughs on my balcony and in one after several days of drought and heat the plants are wilting and the other filled with biochar at a 50 Tons / ha rate is blooming like hell. Taking soil samples from both and determining the humidity , the humidity is same, no difference. Now doing the numbers in the lab even if the char as you put it, takes up 5 times more it would not matter in a 3 weeks drought where you will be below the wilting point, but you will experience that the char applied soil does not show signs of wilting. I made the same experience in 500 ha maize fields in big scale trials. So what can be the reason for this? In my experience the plants in charcoal loaded soil are more drought resistant and more cold resistant. This means that there are other mechanisms in place then water holding capacity. It could be that char causes the formation of stress proteins which change respiration, evaporation, opening of pores etc. after all the trials i made water holding for me is not the cause of the plant reactions, its something else. Same goes if you do the numbers for a lot of other effects people say char has. I think we are still at the very first beginning of un derstanding what happens in the soil when we add char and there is huge need of more investigation before we just accept every fairy tale. We have to ask the bad questions and thoroughly look for proof and not just accept what somebody says. with water holding, CEC, hiding place, mineral adding etc . i just mention some of the questions which pop up and which do not explain if you do the numbers what happens in soil and soil biota. I know out of years of experience that it works but to start something like a standardization of biochar and to define quality criteria i think we simple don't know enough at the moment to proceed in those undertakings, we have to do much more research before we standardize otherwise we have no clue what we are qualifying.

with best intentions Nikolaus



Bill McKibben's Message for International Biochar Initiative from 350.org on Vimeo.


NOTE:
The paper on Sustainable Biochar use states that CO2 emissions are growing at 3%/yr.  This is a measure of the growth of the rate of emission not the overall concentration growth which is now at about 0.7%/yr.  The basis for this statement may be found in the comparison of Raupach paper appended below with the Keeling graph in the Energy Position Papers page. 

NOTE: November 5, 2013 - SEE THE LETTER TO LORENSA for a discussion of how biochar and financial sustainability can aid all peoples globally.

There is little question that the incorporation of micro-organisms in biochar offers protected sites for beneficial bacteria to form commensual communities that are free from predator destruction and a site for deposition of additional carbon based materials (glomalin) that act as a glue to hold soil particles to the biochar granules. The biochar is also colonized by hyphae of soil mychorrizal fungi which move moisture, sugars, signaling compounds and nutrients to and from these sites and plant roots.

The effects of enhanced microbial populations in agricultural soils have been known in detail for soils without biochar and are described in publications by the USDA and Soil Science Society of America. The addition of biochar to soils acts to enhance the ability of the soil micro-biota to do their job and is likely to have many of the following predictable outcomes:

1. Improvement of soil porosity for air and water: biochar has a large surface to volume ratio that comes from the cellular structure of the plant material that was charred,

2. Extended Carbon Residence Time: Soil carbon having a much longer residence time in the form of biochar carbon than is possible for more reactive soil carbon from humus, (So if all else fails the carbon added as char will be stable for many human life times as a time of minimum duration.  Thus addition of local char to any soil is a carbon negative act and should have high priority as a climate crisis amelioration activity!)

3. Greater soil structural strength: this strength develops from the stable micro-biotic connections made between soil particles and biochar through the glues that are secreted by beneficial soil bacteria and fungi that reside in the biochar,

4. Maintenance of a productive relationship between plant roots and beneficial microbes : damaging soil organisms can overwhelm plant roots when the actions of these pathogenic organisms can not be effectively countered by weak responses from unaided or damaged plant roots – beneficial soil micro-organisms can quickly replace or substitute for an extensive plant root system thereby allowing the plant to concentrate energy that would have been used in plant root growth in other areas of the plant,

5. Increased ability of plant roots to gather water and nutrients during periods of stress: the same principle is at work here as in 4 above,

6. Effects of Reduction of Bulk Density: the volume of available soil water is increased because of the increased void space from the biochar added as well as from enhanced soil structure and the strong affinity that biochar has for the soil solution in general.

7. Strong retention of soil anions and cations: as mentioned above studies of biochar additions and enhanced microbial populations in agricultural soils have shown that both cation and anion exchange can be improved, there is no reason to expect that the same situations do not occur in forest soils.

8. Detoxification of organic molecules: the charged sites within and around biochar attract and hold organic molecules for extended periods; the proximity to protected populations of bacteria and fungi within and around the biochar and the long residence time for compounds held on charged sites on the biochar enable many different kinds of molecules to be broken into less toxic components.


These factors explain the rapid recovery of pine trees in Japan shown by Dr. Ogawa. The effective application of pre-inoculated biochar around the base of a tree will greatly improve the availability and rate of uptake of water and nutrients.


The “sweet spot” kind of site for tree growth (discussed elsewhere – that collection of forest conditions where there is no thinning needed and where the stand density may reach over 400 square feet of basal area per acre) is likely to be expanded by biochar for the same reasons. This highly productive set of forest site characteristics comes from a steady supply of soil water all summer long and adequate soil aeration so that the tree roots can do their job effectively. This is only part of the story however, because a tree may not be stimulated to use the excess sugar created unless the stem is deformed by wind. It is unlikely that biochar would have any stem stimulated effect unless the char was made from recent and regular thinnings that came from the location of interest.


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