Sons of David Foundation on Paulownia: Biochar: Applying Ancient Knowledge in the Information Age

Monday, March 9, 2009

Biochar: Applying Ancient Knowledge in the Information Age

Source: Planet2025 News Network Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Biochar: Applying Ancient Knowledge in the Information Age

Careless development without regard for the earth’s natural balance, has led to potentially disastrous levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now, that we have to deal with the reality of climate change, we commonly find ourselves looking to modern technology to provide a solution.

NASA has just announced that in January 2009, it will make use of the latest technologies and equipment available to man, when it launches a new mission called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO). The goal of the mission is to obtain accurate measurements of the level of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and a more precise understanding of where it is being captured and stored on Earth.

For various reasons, precise information about how much carbon is being put into the atmosphere and where it is being absorbed by natural carbon sinks has been, up to this point, lacking. The OCO will use three high-resolution spectrometers to observe “sunlight reflected off Earth at the precise wavelengths that reveal the presence of carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen.”1 and will be able to obtain the most precise data on this subject ever collected which should allow them to uncover unknown patterns and cycles in the Earth’s carbon dioxide.

It is true that advances in technology, such as this mission by NASA, can give us the opportunity to better understand the natural carbon cycle of our Earth. Yet, relying on modern technology alone is an expensive and therefore, for many countries, inaccessible route towards solving the climate change problem.

Instead, many experts are pointing to the potential of an ancient, low-tech, carbon sequestration technique once used by the Amazonian Indians, called biochar, that could provide an integrated solution for the current and related issues of climate change, food security, and sustainable energy production.

When trees and other organic materials decay or burn they release all the carbon they had stored during their lifetimes, as part of a carbon neutral cycle. The process of making biochar involves the heating or burning of organic materials (can be waste materials) in the absence of oxygen, a process known as pyrolysis, which results in the production of a carbon-rich, fine-grained form of charcoal that is then buried. The heated, non-oxygenated decomposition that occurs in the “burning” stage, gives off energy that can be used as an efficient biofuel.

This process reduces the carbon that would be emitted by the natural decaying or oxygenated burn of the material by 90%, and stores that carbon in the leftover charred material. Therefore the production of energy in the biochar process goes beyond being carbon-neutral and is actually considered carbon-negative because it takes carbon dioxide out of its natural cycle and sequesters it in the soil, for up to 5,000 years.

In addition, the resulting biochar is extremely helpful when added to soils, because it holds onto nutrients and water. In recent experiments on 10 farms, using biochar as a fertilizer resulted in up to three times greater crop yields than without it.2 Biochar is also the secret ingredient behind the famously fertile terra pretta (dark earth) of the ancient Amazonians, that was first observed by European explorers in the 16th century.3 As reported by Reuters “Soils containing biochar made by Amazon people thousands of years ago still contain up to 70 times more black carbon than surrounding soils and are still higher in nutrients”.

The beauty of biochar is that it's a time-tested and integrated solution. Biochar minimizes waste, while producing energy, and sequestering carbon. It has also been shown to further reduce greenhouse gases by decreasing nitrous oxide and methane gas emissions from soil. It reduces the use of fossil-fuel based fertilizers, and increases soil fertility and crop yields. The “slash-and char” method, which involves slow smoldering of farm wastes to fertilize existing plots, could replace the less effective and more damaging slash-and-burn farming technique that generates greenhouse gases and destroys forests.

The main boundary to its use is that it has yet to be proven on a commercial scale. But perhaps that is about to change. Biochar is already being used on a number of small farms. For example, the Times Magazine recently reported on a chicken farm in West Virginia that uses chicken manure as the organic material for pyrolysis, which creates enough energy to run the farm. The farmer is also able to profit by selling the resulting biochar as fertilizer.

Just last Friday, a large-scale biochar enterprise created by British environmental entrepreneurs, Craig Sams, (one of the founders of the popular Green & Black organic chocolate company) and Dan Morrel, (co-founder of Future Forests, the first carbon offsetting company), got its first multi-million-pound investment from venture capitalists in California’s Silicon Valley.

This project will begin running trials with biochar in Sussex and Belize starting in early 2009, and hopes to build biochar into a worldwide enterprise. According to Mr. Sams, who called biochar “a treasure to be buried in the earth”, CO2 in the air could be reduced to pre-Industrial Revolution levels by 2050, if only 2.5% of the world’s productive land would be used to produce biochar.4

The ancient people of the Amazon who used biochar techniques could probably not have conceived of the OCO mission NASA will soon undertake, and yet they developed a land management technique that shows they had a superior understanding of the Earth’s delicate balance. Perhaps it is a sign of our true modernity that we are growing more willing to recognize and incorporate ancient knowledge alongside new technologies in our quest for solutions to the greatest crisis of our time.

Biochar techniques are one of the various agricultural processes being experimented with by the Enoch Olinga College (ENOCIS) at their Agricultural Extension Center “New Era Farms” in Chepo, Panama

By Mallika Nair


1. Discovery News “NASA Space Probe to Track CO2 on Earth” Dec. 5, 2008 by Irene Klotz.

2. Reuters “Scientists say ancient technique cuts greenhouse gases” Dec. 5, 2008, by Gerard Wynn

3. Carbon: The Biochar Solution Dec. 4, 2008 by Lisa Abend,9171,1864279,00.html

4. The Independent “Ancient skills ‘could reverse global warming’” Nov. 7, 2008, by Geoffrey Lean.

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Erich J. Knight said...

Biochar Soil Technology.....Husbandry of whole new orders of life

Biotic Carbon, the carbon transformed by life, should never be combusted, oxidized and destroyed. It deserves more respect, reverence even, and understanding to use it back to the soil where 2/3 of excess atmospheric carbon originally came from.

We all know we are carbon-centered life, we seldom think about the complex web of recycled bio-carbon which is the true center of life. A cradle to cradle, mutually co-evolved biosphere reaching into every crack and crevice on Earth.

It's hard for most to revere microbes and fungus, but from our toes to our gums (onward), their balanced ecology is our health. The greater earth and soils are just as dependent, at much longer time scales. Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel.

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.

Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth, TP), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!

Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration,10X Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.
Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration, Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels, 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, build it and they will come.
As one microbologist said on the TP list; "Microbes like to sit down when they eat". By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.

Senator / Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has done the most to nurse this biofuels system in his Biochar provisions in the 07 & 08 farm bill,

Charles Mann ("1491") in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.

Biochar data base;

NASA's Dr. James Hansen Global warming solutions paper and letter to the G-8 conference, placing Biochar / Land management the central technology for carbon negative energy systems.

GAIA's Dr. James Lovelock; "The One Way" to save the planet.

The many new university programs & field studies, in temperate soils; Cornell, ISU, U of H, U of GA, Virginia Tech, JMU, New Zealand and Australia.

Glomalin's role in soil tilth, fertility & basis for the soil food web in Terra Preta soils.

UNCCD Submission to Climate Change/UNFCCC AWG-LCA 5
"Account carbon contained in soils and the importance of biochar (charcoal) in replenishing soil carbon pools, restoring soil fertility and enhancing the sequestration of CO2."

This new Congressional Research Service report (by analyst Kelsi Bracmort) is the best short summary I have seen so far - both technical and policy oriented. .

Given the current "Crisis" atmosphere concerning energy, soil sustainability, food vs. Biofuels, and Climate Change what other subject addresses them all?

This is a Nano technology for the soil that represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.

Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.


Erich J. Knight

Shenandoah Gardens

540 289 9750

Biochar Studies at ACS Huston meeting;

Most all this work corroborates char soil dynamics we have seen so far . The soil GHG emissions work showing increased CO2 , also speculates that this CO2 has to get through the hungry plants above before becoming a GHG.
The SOM, MYC& Microbes, N2O (soil structure), CH4 , nutrient holding , Nitrogen shock, humic compound conditioning, absorbing of herbicides all pretty much what we expected to hear.



665 - III.


Company News & EU Certification

Below is an important hurtle that 3R AGROCARBON has overcome in certification in the EU. Given that their standards are set much higher than even organic certification in the US, this work should smooth any bureaucratic hurtles we may face.

EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests
Subject: Fwd: [biochar] Re: GOOD NEWS: EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests successfully completed

Doses: 400 kg / ha – 1000 kg / ha at different horticultural cultivars

Plant height Increase 141 % versus control
Picking yield Increase 630 % versus control
Picking fruit Increase 650 % versus control
Total yield Increase 202 % versus control
Total piece of fruit Increase 171 % versus control
Fruit weight Increase 118 % versus control


EcoTechnologies is planning for many collaborations ; NC State, U. of Leeds, Cardiff U. Rice U. ,JMU, U.of H. and at USDA with Dr.Jeffrey Novak who is coordinating ARS Biochar research. This Coordinated effort will speed implementation by avoiding unneeded repetition and building established work in a wide variety of soils and climates.

Hopefully all the Biochar companies will coordinate with Dr. Jeff Novak's soils work at ARS;

I spoke with Jon Nilsson of the CarbonChar Group, in their third year of field trials ;
An idea whose time has come | Carbon Char Group
He said the 2008 trials at Virginia Tech showed a 46% increase in yield of tomato transplants grown with just 2 - 5 cups (2 - 5%) "Biochar+" per cubic foot of growing medium.

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