Biochar – A Burning Desire

This essay was submitted by Sulibhavi Suvarna for the 2019 NxG Science Communicator Competition.

An Ancient Solution to a Modern Problem?

At a recent Regeneration International conference in the UK, health food pioneer, Craig Sams- founder of “Green & Black’s” chocolate, spoke of his latest venture as the co-founder of Carbon Gold. His business involves the production of “charged” biochar, an organic soil enhancer that improves the nutrient content of soil and aids water retention. These properties are combined with the added benefit of locking large amounts of carbon into the soil, which would otherwise end up being released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

The use of biochar is not new. It dates back thousands of years to when it was used by tribes in the Amazon rainforest. What is new, however, is the use of modern biotechnological processes to tailor specific nutrient rich variants of biochar, to suit different uses. There are varieties to suit both agricultural and arboreal habitats.

Biochar, although similar in appearance to charcoal, has distinctly different properties. It is produced using a controlled burning method known as pyrolysis. This method involves carefully controlling oxygen levels while burning biomass (forestry or agricultural waste). Pyrolysis causes the decomposition of organic material though the process of anaerobic heating. By controlling the levels of oxygen during the burning process, it is possible to ensure that very little carbon is released into the atmosphere, and that the bulk of the organic material is left intact in the form of a porous charcoal matrix.

Depending on its composition, biochar in its raw form, can contain trace amounts of nutrients. Best results are achieved however, when it is used in conjunction with other organic composts to form a symbiotic relationship with the soil. It is important to use the right amount of soil additives, as too much can have a detrimental effect. Adding biochar during the composting process has been shown to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrogen oxide and reduced ammonia. Adding it to this stage also allows the porous matrix of the biochar to become “charged” with valuable nutrients without breaking down the substrate in the process.

The porous nature of biochar can help to improve the water retaining properties of soil and also raise the overall volume of water that can be held. This results in more water for crops over a longer period of time. Research suggests that it is the presence of a large amount of micropores in the structure of biochar that aids water retention and greater water-holding capacity. Biochar of fine particle size can further improve these characteristics by tightly packing soil particles to hold water against gravity. These properties are especially useful in arid regions and areas prone to drought or where limited irrigation is available. I feel it would be of great benefit to explore the use of recent developments in biochar technology in relation to existing farming practices in rural parts of India. The opportunities offered by the implementation of a system of soil enrichment and water management and the use of organic bioproducts would be of immense benefit.

India is a rapidly developing nation and it is of vital importance that this development happens in a sustainable way. If we look at India’s neighbour, China’s huge economic growth has come at the cost of its environment. Changing global weather patterns are now becoming more severe and scientific consensus is that human behavior is the cause.

I am from a farming background; my family grows cereal crops in Karnataka. This year, the state endured prolonged and devastating storms, which wiped out a large proportion of the agricultural produce. Despite gaining knowledge of global issues through social media and better connectivity, farming communities still feel powerless to effect change, often due to their low level of income and social status. Having first-hand experience of the traditional community structure, I feel that in order to empower these communities, it is important that any interventions that are made, are at a level that can be achieved by the farmers themselves using methods that they are familiar with.  These should be of low cost and not too labour-intensive.

At a basic level, the process of making biochar is relatively easy. Simplistically, a trench is filled with organic matter, which is then set alight. The skill is in knowing when to cut off the oxygen supply from the burning charcoal, to extinguish the flames and allow the anaerobic heating process to take over. A dampened layer of jute fabric is placed over the burning biomatter and the pit is covered with sand or soil. All of these techniques are already used on a regular basis by farming communities. Hence, applying these skills to the making of biochar would not be a big challenge. The making of compost which will later be added to the charcoal to “charge” the biochar is another method that could be added to the existing skill set.

My plan is to introduce a small- scale trial of the technique in my home village with the ambition of testing various compositions of biochar to discover which would be the most suited to the specific needs of the local farming community. It will also be a good testing ground for the development of a production infrastructure within the local area. These interventions would be relatively risk-free as little or no harm will be caused to the soil or crops by adding biochar, as long as it is done incrementally until the correct proportions are achieved. It is well within the capabilities of the farming population to develop their own formulas of composts to suit their specific crop types. In addition to the environmental benefits, producers can sell any of the excess production of soil enhancers for income, benefiting the community as a whole.

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References:

1. Carbon Gold’s Story .   https://rootsandall.co.uk/portfolio-item/episode-11-biochar-with-craig-sams-of-carbon-gold/   8th  Nov 2019.

2. Bierderman, Lori A and Harpole, W Stanley, Biochar and Managed Perennial Ecosystems: (2012). Iowa State Research Farm Progress Reports. 136. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/farms_reports/136

3. Crombie, Kyle et al, The effect of pyrolysis conditions on biochar stability as determined by three methods: (2012). Global Change Biology Biology.

4. Laird, David A, The charcoal vision: a win-win-win scenario for simultaneously producing bioenergy, permanently sequestering carbon, while improving soil and water quality. (2008). Journal of Agronomy.

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