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NRDC releases new report on Biochar: Assessing the Promise and Risks to Guide U.S. Policy

Sasha Stashwick

Posted November 29, 2010 in Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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Last week, I blogged here about a new NRDC Fact Sheet on biochar, which previewed the publication of NRDC’s biochar scoping study. Today, I’m happy to announce the release of that study, entitled Biochar: Assessing the Promise and Risks to Guide U.S Policy.

For those who want to dig a bit deeper on biochar, the report describes biochar production pathways—different combinations of  biomass feedstocks and conversion processes that can be used to produce biochar—and the energy co-products that result and their potential uses. It goes on to assess what is known about the potential benefits of biochar use and the key environmental risks of biochar systems, including a discussion of prospective feedstocks and conversion technologies and their relative strengths and drawbacks in terms of environmental performance. It then takes a critical look at estimates of global potential for biochar production and carbon sequestration, and gives a brief overview of existing domestic and international policies on biochar, before concluding with NRDC’s recommendations for a research and demonstration strategy to help mitigate uncertainties about biochar’s lifecycle environmental impacts and ensure U.S. policy on biochar is developed on the basis of sound science.

The report groups the environmental concerns surrounding biochar into two buckets. The first includes those associated with bioenergy in general—namely concerns about the sustainable supply of biomass for biochar production, including the impacts of biomass production, harvest, transport, and conversion. The second relates specifically to biochar, including the technical uncertainty about the characteristics of various proposed biochar systems, inconclusive or insufficient data on the agronomic performance of biochar in soils and the stability of biochar-based carbon in soils, and the challenge of monitoring and verifying carbon offsets based on biochar application.

A key theme is that the environmental performance of biochar systems depends on the feedstock used, the conversion process employed, and the manner in which the biochar is handled, transported, and applied, and that any assessment of the impacts of individual biochar systems—particularly their net carbon benefits—must take into account the energy required to produce, collect, transport and process the feedstock, as well as the potential for soil carbon loss during the production, harvest and application of the biochar. However, we identify the lack of commercially operating biochar production systems—and, therefore, a shortage of actual chars for field trials—as a major barrier to understanding the performance of different biochars. (More on that in a bit when I discuss our recommendations).

Based on what is known, the report points to already concentrated sources of waste biomass, such as animal manures, organic municipal solid waste and urban wood residues, as preferable to primary biomass, since these do not incur the energetic costs and carbon emissions from land-use change associated with producing primary biomass. It highlights slow pyrolysis as the optimal process for maximizing biochar output and large production systems, uniform feedstocks, and tightly controlled application regimes as likely more reliable from a monitoring and verification standpoint.

As I wrote last week, recent interest in biochar has largely focused on its potential as a climate mitigation tool and enthusiasm has been buoyed by a series of studies offering very large estimates of both our global potential to produce biochar and biochar’s potential to sequester carbon. The report provides a critical discussion of these estimates, arguing that they are largely premature at this time and too uncertain to be considered anything more than upper bound indications of technical potential, while actual achievable potential is likely significantly lower. Instead of focusing just on carbon sequestration, our view is that considering the multiple benefits that flow from well-designed biochar systems—water quality benefits from improved nutrient management, an ability to utilize multiple biomass waste streams as feedstocks, and to produce a variety of renewable energy resources—makes a more robust case for further developing biochar systems.

The report concludes with our recommendations for coupling this more holistic approach with an aggressive, well-coordinated and well-funded research and demonstration strategy. A combination of federal support for the construction and operation of five to 10 biochar production systems and a coordinated five-year national field trial program will ensure that we make available a wide variety of biochars to test on a wide range of soils. This will go a long way towards providing the data we need to systematically classify different biochar systems based on environmental performance and help inform the development of environmentally sound policy on biochar in the U.S.

 

 

 

 

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Comments

Erich J. KnightNov 30 2010 01:37 AM

I would have expected more from Stephen Brick. He was director of the IBI for a short time

Yes, I agree he gives little attention to the Ozzie's 6 years of field work, nor the decades of work and organic certification for agriculture in Japan.

He missed the bio-ammonia / char pathway of SynGest, soon to be at commercial scale.

Also Not talked about in this otherwise too critical report 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.

I guess that Mr. Brick didn't get to review the presentations at the 2010 US Biochar conference at ISU

Thanks for your 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

EcoTechnologies Group Technical Adviser
http://www.ecotechnologies.com/index.html
Shenandoah Gardens (Owner)
1047 Dave Barry Rd.
McGaheysville, VA. 22840
540 289 9750
Co-Administrator, Biochar Data base & Discussion list TP-REPP
http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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