Is biochar the answer for ag?

MADISON, WI, August 2nd, 2010 — Scientists demonstrate that biochar, a type charcoal applied to soils in order to capture and store carbon, can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, and inorganic nitrogen runoff from agriculture settings. The finding will help develop strategies and technologies to reduce soil nitrous oxide emissions and reduce agriculture’s influence on climate change.

A research team led by Bhupinder Pal Singh from Industry and Investment New South Wales and Balwant Singh from the University of Sydney, tested the effects of four types of biochar on nitrous oxide emission and nitrogen leaching from two different soil varieties. Their results are reported in the July-August 2010 Journal of Environmental Quality, published by the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America.

The study revealed for the first time that interactions between biochar and soil that occur over time are important when assessing the influence of biochar on nitrogen losses from soil. The scientists subjected soils samples to three wetting-drying cycles, to simulate a range of soil moistures during the five-month study period, and measured nitrous oxide emissions and nitrogen runoff.

Initially, biochar application produced inconsistent effects. Several early samples produced greater nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate leaching than the control samples.

However, during the third wetting — drying cycle, four months after biochar application, all biochars reduced nitrous oxide emissions by up to 73%, and reduced ammonium leaching by up to 94%. The researchers suggest that reductions in nitrous oxide emissions and nitrogen leaching over time were due to “ageing” of the biochars in soil.

“The impacts of biochars on nitrous oxide emissions from soil are of interest because even small reductions in nitrous oxide emissions can considerably enhance the greenhouse mitigation value of biochar, which is already proven to be a highly stable carbon pool in the soil environment,” according to senior author Bhupinder Pal Singh. “This research highlights that impacts of biochar on nitrogen transformations in soil may change over time and hence stresses the need for long-term studies to assess biochar’s potential to reduce nitrogen losses from soil.”

In addition to the three wet-dry cycles, the soil samples also received glucose and nutrient applications to supply of carbon and inorganic nutrients for optimal microbial activity. The research team tested biochar from two different sources, wood waste and poultry litter. Biochar is made when organic material is burned at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen.

Research is on-going at Industry and Investment NSW to investigate the causes of the reductions in nitrous oxide emissions by biochars, especially under field conditions, and to determine optimal rate and timing of biochar and fertiliser applications to agricultural soils to maximize the greenhouse mitigation value of biochar.

This study was funded by the New South Wales Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, and the biochars were supplied by Pacific Pyrolysis (previously known as Best Energies, Australia).

The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at https://www.agronomy.org/publications/jeq/abstracts/39/4/1224.

The Journal of Environmental Quality is a peer-reviewed, international journal of environmental quality in natural and agricultural ecosystems published six times a year by the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). The Journal of Environmental Quality covers various aspects of anthropogenic impacts on the environment, including terrestrial, atmospheric, and aquatic systems.

The American Society of Agronomy (ASA) www.agronomy.org, is a scientific society helping its 8,000+ members advance the disciplines and practices of agronomy by supporting professional growth and science policy initiatives, and by providing quality, research-based publications and a variety of member services.

3 thoughts on “Is biochar the answer for ag?”

  1. I agree with the two previous comments and I have read the recommended material.
    I have a question as to what the biochar community is calling biochar. Am I the only one that sees unknown carbon mostly charcoal being called biochar by said community. Has the biochar community come to an agreement as to what range of temperatures and time it takes to create biochar? Would it not be helpful to include these in the studies, writings, and articles? Is charcoal just as good?

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  2. “The Biochar Revolution” with “The Biochar Solution”
    http://biochar-books.com/
    The Biochar Revolution collects the results and best practical advice that these entrepreneurs have to offer to the biochar community. When practice and theory advance to the point where they meet in the middle, then we will truly see a biochar revolution.

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  3. Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent. Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon, Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw; “Feed the Soil Not the Plants” becomes; “Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !”. Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar. Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come. Microbes like to sit down when they eat. By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life. ( These oxidised surface charges; carbonyl. hydroxyl, carboxylic acids, and lactones or quinones, have as well a role as signaling substances towards bacteria, fungi and plants.)This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it. Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web. The photosynthetic “capture” collectors are up and running, the “storage” sink is in operation just under our feet. Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure we need to build out.For those looking for an overview of biochar and its benefits, These authors have done a very nice job of distilling a great deal of information about biochar and applying it to the US context:US -Focused Biochar report: Assessment of Biochar’s Benefits for the USA http://www.biochar-us.org/pdf%20files/biochar_report_lowres.pdf

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