The Big Picture: What is Biochar?
Biochar, in it’s most basic description, is charred biomass material.
For as long as fire and plant life have co-exited, regular patterns of burning have deposited char onto the surface of soils around the world. It has been isolated in soils ranging from the Terra Preta soils of the Amazon basin to the rich black soils of the American plains. People from cultures around the globe have found uses for this material, most importantly perhaps to improve the fertility of soils and the value of cropland. Click the link below to find out more about the Origins of Biochar.
The story of biochar begins in the forests and the fields where biomass grows and accumulates year after year. In the forests of California, decades of management practices based on fire-suppression have led to an accumulation of woody biomass and the increased risk of catastrophic wildfires. As many who live in fire-affected areas note after the devastation and disturbance of wildfire we often observe lush green springing forth from the ashes (and char). Click the link below to find out how biochar can be used in Biomass Management.
Biochar is created in a process called pyrolysis where biomass is heated in a limited-oxygen environment and combustible gases are released. This process occurs in wildfires and also in controlled combustion systems. During pyrolysis cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin fibers decompose thermally, releasing smaller molecules as gases and transforming complex carbohydrates into increasingly stable carbon structures. Combustible gases expand and escape through the same channels used to transport water and nutrients in the growing plant. Growth rings, radial lines, xylem, and phloem channels remain visibly present in the finished material and give biochar its immense porosity and sponge-like quality. In large-scale facilities the combustible gases are captured and burned to generate electricity. Click the link below to find out how making biochar can be used for Energy Production.
The benefits of biochar have already been realized by people who have used char and ash to improve the fertility of their soils for millenia. The physical structure of biochar and its unique surface characteristics create an ideal micro-habitat for soil biology acting as a reservoir of air, water, and nutrients. Water conservation and nutrient management are also improved by the charcoal filter-like quality of biochar. Click the link below to find out more about biochar in Farming and Agriculture.
Last, but certainly not least, biochar can be an effective tool in the fight against climate change. Due in part to increased erosion and poor soil management practices we are losing carbon from our soils at an alarming rate. Fossil fuels are burned extensively to generate electricity, releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Inappropriate biomass and forest management practices can release massive quantities of greenhouse gases every year. While biochar is not a “silver bullet” solution it is a vital tool for promoting good management practices to mitigate the effects of climate change. Click the link below to find out how biochar plays a role in Climate Change Mitigation.
Excessive accumulation of biomass in California forests has led to catastrophic wildfires and a massive woody biomass problem. Find out how biochar can be a sustainable tool for managing biomass resources.
Plants capture energy from the sun. Some of that energy is used to transform carbon dioxide into more complex forms of carbon within their bodies. When that plant matter is exposed to high temperatures, the energy that was used to create their bodies is rapidly released.
Climate Change Mitigation
There is a carbon imbalance. This imbalance is the seen as the most influential factor in the great Climate Change that we are beginning to experience. Biochar, when adopted on a large scale, will be able to help correct the carbon imbalance.