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  • Michael Tye

What is biochar? (and how can it save the world?)

Biochar being spread onto soil by farmer

If you follow climate news and keep up to date with developments in sustainable agriculture, there’s a strong chance you’ve heard of a new wonder material called biochar.

Touted as the ultimate circular economy solution, biochar is a type of charcoal which is produced by heating up biomass (organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes) in a process called pyrolysis.

During the pyrolysis process, the organic material is converted into biochar, a stable form of carbon that can’t easily escape into the atmosphere so the carbon sequestered by the biomass during photosynthesis is in effect 'locked in'.

In simple terms, that means carbon previously in the atmosphere is taken out of the atmosphere, thus the greenhouse effect is lessened.

But that’s not all. Biochar, when applied to soil, enhances plant yield, reduces irrigation requirements, reverses soil degradation and reduces the need for fertilisers. Although biochar can be expensive (retail price between £200 and £400 a tonne for high quality biochar), the initial investment is offset by the reduction in fertiliser costs.

Studies around the effectiveness of biochar have nearly unanimously promoted the benefits of using biochar in agriculture. In addition to increasing plant yield, biochar has also been used experimentally as an animal feed additive, in purification systems and in construction.

If that wasn’t enough, the energy or heat created during the production of biochar can be captured and used as a form of clean energy which can be used to displace fossil fuels. This has the potential to lead to more emission reductions, and makes biochar the only renewable energy production technique which also removes and stores carbon.

So, if biochar production is so great, why don’t we see pyrolysis units everywhere?

Well for starters, the technology is expensive. Although small-scale biochar kilns can be purchased at a reasonable price, the industrial units cost upwards of £400,000.

As well as this, the biochar market itself is not well-established yet, meaning it can be hard to find buyers for the biochar once it has been created. These two factors alone are enough to scare off the more risk-averse investors.

However, there is a growing demand for carbon removal from big tech corporations like Microsoft and Amazon. By funding carbon removal activities, they can remove emissions from their own company reporting, meaning they can meet their emission reduction targets.

Over the next 10 years, biochar production rate is expected to massively increase. Biochar’s versatility and effectiveness has already earned it the nickname “black gold,” and its reputation is expanding all the time.

Some of the first discovered uses of biochar date all the way back to ancient Amazonian farmers, thousands of years ago. However, with new advances in technology and a growing appetite for novel carbon removal techniques, biochar is sprouting into one of the most promising agricultural technologies of the 21st century.

By Michael Tye ©

More information on biochar can be found below:


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