What is Biochar?

Terra Preta- Indigenous made Biochar soils.

Biochar excites me. I think it could be the answer to world hunger and trigger huge reductions in rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere. Sounds alright, hey?!

Biochar, or Terra Preta, is a type of charcoal and like any is created through the process of Pyrolysis (burning when no or very little oxygen is present).
Archaeologists exploring Brazil’s Amazon basin recently discovered that certain areas, where previous ancient indigenous communities were known to have been, had black soils- rich in charcoal and organic matter.

Further studies showed that this was no accident and that in fact the elements present in the soils allowed crops and harvests to flourish. This was to be a revolutionary discovery the Amazonian soils, despite all their abundance, are known to be severely lacking in basic soil nutrients- but here was an ancient method of agriculture that through the natural introduction of Terra Preta was turning the soils into some of the most fertile.

With deforestation the beast it is today, slash and burn techniques destroy huge swaths of forest. Current techniques mean all nutrients runs off the land very quickly and new forest must be felled – an on going and hugely unsustainable process. But slip the  potential of biochar into that process and the future of the Amazon becomes a far more hopeful tale than the one it remains today.

Moreover, slip a few Pounds of Biochar into your home garden, or even a few kilo’s into your farmers fields and suddenly the future of food and farming has its silver lining.

What we now know about Biochar, is that it sequesters Carbon from the atmosphere. James Lovelock is a huge ambassador for the ancient and now re-emerging technology, suggesting that “Biochar not only contains the potential to revolutionize modern agricultural practices, but it could also play a key role in keeping CO2 in our soils”.

If this unearthing (excuse the pun) of such an indigenous secret can truly help rebalance our planet today, surely this can only be a testament to what we still have to learn from the indigenous cultures who personified connection between Man and Earth.

In my next post, I take you through a step my step process of how to make Biochar at home in your Garden and from there we will look at how to apply it and gain the best benefits from this true black-gold, an ancient wisdom, destined for the future.

For those interested in further info, this BBC Horizon Documentary gives a nice historical context to the discovery- as well as a glimpse at its potential. Please note this documentary is old and the studies since have gone a long way further in uncovering it’s benefits.


3 thoughts on “What is Biochar?

  1. Black Swan of Biochar

    Short a nano material PV / thermoelectrical / ultracapasitating Black swan,
    What we can do now with “off the shelf” technology, what I proposed at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, to the EPA chiefs of North America.
    The most cited soil scientist in the world, Dr. Rattan Lal at OSU, was impressed with this talk, commending me on conceptualizing & articulating the concept.

    Bellow the opening & closing text. A Report on my talk at CEC, and complete text & links are here:

    The Establishment of Soil Carbon as the Universal Measure of Sustainability

    The Paleoclimate Record shows agricultural-geo-engineering is responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. The unintended consequence, the flowering of our civilization. Our science has now realized these consequences and has developed a more encompassing wisdom. Wise land management, afforestation and the thermal conversion of biomass can build back our soil carbon. Pyrolysis, Gasification and Hydro-Thermal Carbonization are known biofuel technologies, What is new are the concomitant benefits of biochars for Soil Carbon Sequestration; building soil biodiversity & nitrogen efficiency, for in situ remediation of toxic agents, and, as a feed supplement cutting the carbon foot print of livestock. Modern systems are closed-loop with no significant emissions. The general life cycle analysis is: every 1 ton of biomass yields 1/3 ton Biochar equal to 1 ton CO2e, plus biofuels equal to 1MWh exported electricity, so each energy cycle is 1/3 carbon negative.

    Beyond Rectifying the Carbon Cycle;
    Biochar systems Integrate nutrient management, serving the same healing function for the Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles.
    The Agricultural Soil Carbon Sequestration Standards are the royal road for the GHG Mitigation;

    The Bio-Refining Technologies to Harvest Carbon.
    The photosynthetic “capture” collectors are up and running all around us, the “storage” sink is in operation just under our feet, conversion reactors are the only infrastructure we need to build out. Carbon, as the center of life, has high value to recapitalize our soils. Yielding nutrient dense foods and Biofuels, Paying Premiums of pollution abatement and toxic remediation and the growing Dividend created by the increasing biomass of a thriving soil community.

    Since we have filled the air,
    filling the seas to full,
    soil is the only beneficial place left.
    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

    • I read recently that BP had divested their solar power efforts, well solar’s loss seems to be Biochar’s gain. BP invests in CoolPlanet Biofuels
      Is it fossil fuel ?…or is it biofuel? … only your radiocarbon isotope tester knows for sure.
      The farm scale reactors are producing a high surface area char, 600 sq meters / gram, Or, One ton of has a surface area of 148,000 Acres!!
      Now for conversion fun: 148,000 Acres which is equal to 230 square miles!! Rockingham Co. VA. , where I live, is only 851 Sq. miles
      Now at the middle of research application rates: 1 lb/sq ft or 20 tons/acre, yielding 4,600 Sq miles of surface area per Acre. VA is 39,594 Sq miles. An eighth of Virginia in every acre.

      What this suggest to me is a potential of sequestering virgin forest amounts of carbon just in the soil alone, without counting the forest on top.
      Cool’s field trials in poor desert sandy soils have produced 4X increases in lettuce growth.
      Given the due diligence rigors that Google, GE & BP have put Cool Planet through, I will assume that their Quantum-Well Nano “Magic Catalysis” for bio-oil to tank ready fuels must really have some proprietary magic in it.

      A Cool 4,000 Gallons Per Acre,…
      4,000 gallons/acre biomass to gasoline conversion…. in the lab.
      The 4000 headline is total “best” case scenario, but when you start with 25 tons/acre FREEDOM Mississippi giant Miscanthus, with a BTU Value of 400M, than1000 gallons of gasoline equivalent at 125M BTUs, looks great enough, 4000 at 500M BTUs, seems to push the envelope too far, unless I’m missing something in my conversions.

      As big a head line, is the 25 tons per acre Mississippi Giant Miscanthus, http://www.repreverenewables.com/ ,
      the highest I’ve ever seen, of any biomass crop hybrid C-4 plant.
      The perennial beauty of miscanthus is in the land use issues, out-year gains in SOC and soil structure with reduced compaction, erosion and nutrient use.

      Cool Planet BioFuels Announces a Major Advance in Renewable Cellulosic Gasoline

      CoolPlanetBiofuels’ Mike Cheiky presenting to a Google audience his company’s plans for “Negative-Carbon” biofuels, soil improvement, and

      poverty reduction.

  2. Pingback: How to make Biochar at home « The Exploration

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