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NRDC releases new Fact Sheet on biochar

Sasha Lyutse

Posted November 19, 2010 in Green Enterprise, Living Sustainably, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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This week, NRDC released a Fact Sheet entitled Putting U.S. Biochar Policy on the Right Track. The Fact Sheet comes a week ahead of the publication of an NRDC-sponsored scoping study on biochar, and highlights its key findings. Our aim? To give an overview of biochar production technologies, particularly as it relates to the potential environmental concerns associated with biochar production and use, and to make recommendations for a research agenda to support biochar policy development in the U.S.  

But first things first. What is biochar?

Biochar is a recently coined term for charcoal that is formed by heating biomass at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen and then added to soil to improve its health. Interest in biochar has peaked in the last few years, largely due to its potential as a tool to mitigate climate change. Research on ancient Amazonian terra preta soils, whose fertility seems to have been increased through the aboriginal practice of adding charcoal to soils, has shown elevated levels of carbon that have been stable for thousands of years. This provides the basis for claims that biochar could play a role in mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide—that is, absorbing it out of the atmosphere and storing it safely by creating highly stable pools of carbon in soils.

So why is NRDC interested in entering the conversation about biochar?

For a time, biochar seemed to enjoy status as a miracle cure to the global climate challenge. But a lack of commercially operating biochar production systems, which has resulted in  a shortage of biochars for actual field trials, means that there remains a great deal of uncertainty about the environmental and economic performance of different biochar production pathways. It also means that estimates of the potential for biochar production and carbon sequestration are highly uncertain and largely premature at this time. In addition, many environmental risks associated with the production and use of biochar must still be addressed before we can responsibly scale up its production and use.

Some of these concerns were echoed by Bill McKibben of 350.org, who recorded this message about two months ago to participants at an International Biochar Initiative conference in Rio in Janeiro.

While acknowledging the enormous attractiveness of technologies like biochar that promise to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, McKibben stressed that work on biochar must be undertaken carefully and with “our eyes as wide open as possible”, taking cautions “at least as seriously as the promise…that has attached itself over the years to [biochar].” He raised questions about “the scale with which [biochar] is being pursued”, compared to what he called “the relative puniness of the scale of the science on which it’s so far based”, and warned against industrializing technologies without adequate analysis to understand their impacts. In the case of biochar, this includes impacts to the ecosystems from which biomass feedstocks would be sourced.

NRDC believes that consideration of biochar’s multifold benefits—its potential to improve soil fertility, protect water quality by improving nutrient uptake, and generate renewable energy—makes a more robust case for developing our understanding of biochar systems than a narrow focus on biochar’s potential to sequester carbon. As the Fact Sheet lays out, we recommend an aggressive, well-coordinated national research and demonstration strategy to mitigate the uncertainties surrounding biochar and ensure that U.S. policy on biochar is environmentally sound. For more in-depth analysis on the promise and risks of biochar, and the path forward for biochar research, stay tuned for the release of our full report next week.

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Comments

Rachel SmolkerNov 19 2010 10:25 PM

It is beyond me to understand why NRDC thinks we NEED a US policy on biochar in the first place. HOw about a US policy on composting, or on reducing waste, or on getting serious about preventing soil erosion or practising sustainable, organic agriculture- or any of the MANY other practices that have a proven track record of beneficial impacts. WHy would we invest in turning plant material into charcoal and tilling it into soils, as if that is somehow more worthy and promising? NRDC apparently has drank the biochar koolaid...

and also: advocating using "waste biomass" and municipal solid waste (YUCK) to make biochar? If NRDC were paying attention they would note that every single scrap of "waste biomass" has already been spoken for by several different interests - from biomass burners generating electricity to biofuel facilities seeking to turn trees into fuel for cars... but of course mother nature does not consider any of it to be "waste". We live in a closed system where nutrients are recycled. Recycling!!! Now there is something the US needs a good policy for!

for more on biochar concerns, see:
http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/docs/biocharbriefing.pdf

Kevin ChisholmNov 19 2010 11:39 PM

The NRDC is to be commended for acknowledging that biochar is not an "agricultural panacea." Ms. Smolker is to be commended for getting the priorities correct... FIRSTLY, get soil organic matter up, and THEN worry about carbon sequestration.

Erich J. KnightNov 20 2010 12:48 AM

A more integrated nutrient & carbon management is the whole point of Char systems.
Biomass should never be just burnt, instead it should be fractionated to it's high value uses.
Biochar systems achieve this, particularly concerning Christoph Steiner's new work with Biochar and NH3 conservation in composting systems.

Recent NATURE STUDY;
Sustainable bio char to mitigate global climate change
http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v1/n5/full/ncomms1053.html

Not talked about in this otherwise comprehensive study are the climate and whole ecological implications of new , higher value, applications of chars.

First,
the in situ remediation of a vast variety of toxic agents in soils and sediments.
Biochar Sorption of Contaminants;
http://www.biorenew.iastate.edu/events/biochar2010/conference-agenda/agenda-overview/breakout-session-5/agriculture-forestry-soil-science-and-environment.html

Dr. Lima's work; Specialized Characterization Methods for Biochar http://www.biorenew.iastate.edu/events/biochar2010/conference-agenda/agenda-overview/breakout-session-4/production-and-characterization.html
And at USDA;
The Ultimate Trash To Treasure: *ARS Research Turns Poultry Waste into Toxin-grabbing Char
http://www.ars.usda.gov/IS/AR/archive/jul05/char0705.htm

Second,
the uses as a feed ration for livestock to reduce GHG emissions and increase disease resistance.

Third,
Recent work by C. Steiner showing a 52% reduction of NH3 loss when char is used as a composting accelerator. This will have profound value added consequences for the commercial composting industry by reduction of their GHG emissions and the sale of compost as a nitrogen fertilizer.


The N & P CYCLES;
Whole systems solutions based on building soil carbon take a while to filter through one's mind to see the manifold benefits. The "Eyes Glaze Over" microbial complexity, labile vs. recalcitrant carbon, Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) etc, all conspire to slow peoples comprehension .

Once thought through however, the elemental carbon nature of biochar understood, soil's reduced GHG emissions, the local economic stimulus perceived, then can be added that beyond rectifying the Carbon Cycle, biochar systems serve the same healing function for the Nitrogen & Phosphorous Cycles, Toxicity in Soils & Sediments and cut the carbon foot print of livestock by 1/2 with a 5%Char feed ration.

The production of fossil fuel free ammonia & char (SynGest, http://www.syngest.com/ ) and the 52% conservation of NH3 in composting with chars, are just the newest pathways for the highest value use of biomass.

The Soil Carbon Standard committee's work with USDA, EPA and Congressional Ag committees offers real hope, with expansion to ISO status, the world can all be on the same soil carbon page.

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.

Thanks for NRDC's efforts,
Erich

Erich J. Knight
Chairman; Markets and Business Review Committee
US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University, June 27-30
http://www.biorenew.iastate.edu/events/biochar2010/conference-agenda/agenda-overview.html

Edward SomeusNov 20 2010 03:15 AM

Message to Biofuelwatch from Edward Someus (Sweden), coordinator and key technology designer for industrial biochar systems under European Union FP5, FP6, FP7 and Ecoinnovation programmes, since 2002 (www-dot-3ragrocarbon-dot-com, or www.linkedin-dot-com zero emission carbon refinery group):

There are many different approaches on the Terra Preta/biochar from different groups world wide, also many (justified and non justified) critics made on the different types of biochar developments. Some of the initiated biochar programmes are low tech and the critics are certainly justified, others are very advanced, therefore it would be a fatal mistake to generalize (and say generally that dogs and birds are the same animal species, as both having two eyes).

However, an modern biochar technology providing zero emission processing performance, using regionally available feeds from non food and not from primer and secondary land use (including plant and/or animal based biochar byproducts), providing comprehensive and complex nutrient recycling strategy (NPK), does not using any chemosynthetic fertilizers or substances (produced by energy demanding processes), -- while using integrated thermal and environmental biotechnological high science (biochar biotech formulation) for economical industrial scale production of complex carbon products for multiple applications, including combinations of organic farming substances and composting.

In this context, it is to be mentioned that industrial scale biochar applications in open ecological soil environment is accredited official Authority permit required in the EU and other temperate climatic zone countries as well. From this point of view biochar is certainly not a fine ground energetic charcoal.

The biochar programmes in the developing countries are unregulated, and certainly there is a big difference in tropical and temperate climatic biochar programmes.

Our European temperate climatic biochar programmes seems to be far beyond advanced VS other continents biochar development status. This is why the European Commission supporting our coherently integrated all European biochar networks to unite knowledge from many EU countries and science to achieve results.

Therefore, I would like to state, that none of the generalized negative aspects your have listed in the biofuelwatch – biocharbriefing document are certainly not valid for our EU industrial biochar 3R development programmes and results.

Mark ColemanNov 20 2010 05:18 AM

In fact there is waste biomass in our forests and grasslands that nature disposes of effectively every dry season through fire. It’s a problem, or opportunity, that Native Americans solved through burning, and this produced, well, biochar. We’ve been most effective in suppressing fire, because it is thought to be a tragic loss. Meanwhile the plants in these ecosystems continue to grow and build fuels. Nature eventually takes care of this biomass with fires or sometimes pests and disease will attack the suppressed trees and weakened forests.

We love these wildlands so much that our homes are nestled within them. When the inevitable fire starts we expect society to fight the fire. The government tries to defend this space as best they can through thinning overstocked biomass, and it fights the fires when they occur. But we cannot afford to continue such a futile effort.

Thinned biomass is typically piled and flared to eliminate the problem. Flaring releases carbon dioxide, pollutes the air, and wastes energy, precious energy. Through pyrolysis, we can turn that continuously produced residual biomass into a crude oil and, well, biochar. Multiple distributed mobile pyrolysis units can operate in forests and on farms to produce the crude oil and return the biochar to the soil. If this is done right it will pay to protect our forests from fire, pests and disease, displace fossil fuels, sequester carbon, enhance soil productivity and create badly needed jobs. NRDC is correct to encourage the adoption of such an approach. They are also correct to carefully consider how to do it right.

tony lovellNov 20 2010 04:14 PM

Imagine if we had a process to remove billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere safely, quickly and cost-effectively - while at the same time building soil, reversing desertification, boosting biodiversity, enhancing global food security and improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people in rural and regional areas around our planet?

We do - it's called changed grazing management and soil carbon.

Please take a look at the presentations on http://www.soilcarbon.com.au/ to learn more.

Ronal Larson, PhDNov 22 2010 01:22 AM


   NRDC authors:   Thanks for the support you have provided for a needed R&D program.  For those of your readers who are new to Biochar, I want to take issue with the astounding reasoning of your first commenter -  Dr. Rachel Smolker.  First is to note that she NEVER once mentions any positive feature for Biochar.  Not sequestration, not soil improvement, not a reliable (ie energy-storing) carbon-neutral energy form, and not waste management. To demonstrate the narrowness of her viewpoint, I below comment on each of her remarks (all those in italics below). Apologies for perhaps too much length, but you deserve better treatment.

“It is beyond me to understand why NRDC thinks we NEED a US policy on biochar in the first place.” [RWL1: Thank goodness that Dr. Smolker is one of a very small number for whom understanding is “beyond”. Glad that NRDC sees how Biochar can impact four of the main problems facing every country – climate, soils, energy and waste management. ] “How about a US policy on composting, or on reducing waste, or on getting serious about preventing soil erosion or practising sustainable, organic agriculture- or any of the MANY other practices that have a proven track record of beneficial impacts. “ [RWL2: Biomass already DOES do all of these or does something better. See website given below.] “WHy would we invest in turning plant material into charcoal and tilling it into soils, as if that is somehow more worthy and promising? “ [RWL3: How about as starters – the big four “whys” (above) that NRDC and almost every other analyst sees.]?] NRDC apparently has drank the biochar koolaid... [RWL4: Very clever (Not). Shows not very deep analysis capability, I am afraid, when one has to resort to snide remarks.]
“and also: advocating using "waste biomass" and municipal solid waste (YUCK) to make biochar?” [RWL5: So what is her proposal for MSW? More land fills? More decomposition into methane and CO2?] If NRDC were paying attention they would note that every single scrap of "waste biomass" has already been spoken for by several different interests - from biomass burners generating electricity to biofuel facilities seeking to turn trees into fuel for cars... but of course mother nature does not consider any of it to be "waste" [RWL6: Dr. Smolker is not correct on the availability of waste . Huge fires are set annually in many developing coutnries. And there is a great supply of degraded land badly in need of what Biochar can supply – soil fertility. And Dr. Smolker is just not acknowledging what any serious scientist should - that Biochar has the potential to address each of the big “whys” (plus others identified by NRDC - like water, N2O, CH4, nutrients, etc). I recommend looking darn closely at anyone's analysis who cannot find a single possible beneficial aspect to something that is developing amazingly fast – AND that has thousands of years of practical application (in the Amazon's terra preta) ] “We live in a closed system where nutrients are recycled. Recycling!!! Now there is something the US needs a good policy for!” [RWL7. Dr. Smolker is not reading the Biochar literature – nutrient recycling is a major part of Biochar's benefits and economics. The data is showing there is no better approach than Biochar for recycling nutrients.]
“for more on biochar concerns, see:
http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/docs/biocharbriefing.pdf “ [RWL8: Yes. This “briefing” should be read by those with questions about Biochar. But do so critically. A good, partial rebuttal of this biased, inaccurate , out-of-date “analysis” is at http://www.biochar-international.org/sites/default/files/Biochar%20Misconceptions%20and%20the%20Science.pdf]. But this self-promoting view is understandable - Dr. Smolker and her co-author have chosen to attend none of the half-dozen IBI -sponsored conferences. Those presentations are (free) at the same IBI site and are seldom/selectively cited by BFW. Ron Larson]

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