Maximpact Blog

Biochar: ‘Black Gold’ With a Hundred Uses

SINTEF researchers Maria Kollberg Thomassen and Markus Steen hold handsful of biochar at the Skjærgaarden nursery. 2017 (Photo by Lisbet Jære courtesy SINTEF) Posted for media use

SINTEF researchers Maria Kollberg Thomassen and Markus Steen hold handsful of biochar at the Skjærgaarden nursery. 2017 (Photo by Lisbet Jære courtesy SINTEF) Posted for media use


By Sunny Lewis

OSLO, Norway, October 17, 2017 (   News) – Biochar can help address many environmental challenges, as people in Norway are just now discovering. This form of carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and storage reduces the need for fertilizers and may lead to better crop yields. It also can remove heavy metals from the soil.

Biochar is plant matter, such as wood, straw, woody debris, or corn stalks, that has been heated to high temperatures in a no-oxygen environment. The result is a black, carbon-rich material similar to charcoal.

Biochar technology, which is not widely known in Norway, makes it possible to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and store carbon in the soil. It offers benefits to the agricultural sector because it makes soils more nutrient-rich and counteracts the effects of drought conditions.

Norway has taken on the ambitious climate goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. This will require major changes in many sectors, and Norwegian agriculture has moved into a central role in the national debate on climate change.

Among the greenhouses at the Skjærgaarden nursery is Norway’s first biochar plant. The nursery is hosting the first biochar demo plant in Norway, which has been installed in collaboration with the cross-disciplinary research project CAPTURE+.

“Our motivation for starting biochar production is to improve the soil,” says Kristin Stenersen, who runs the Skjærgaarden nursery together with her husband Bjørge Madsen. “We want more robust and healthier plants, and to reduce our use of synthetic pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Of course, the fact that biochar also binds CO2 is an added benefit,” she says.

“If 4,000 Norwegian farms and nurseries produced biochar and mixed it with the soil, we could halve our emissions from the agricultural sector,” says Erik Joner at NIBIO, one of the partners in the CAPTURE+ project.

NIBIO is the organization with the longest track record in biochar research in Norway. Entirely natural, this approach also produces robust and healthy plants.

“People are welcome to come and see for themselves how it works in practice,” says Maria Kollberg Thomassen, project manager for CAPTURE+ and a senior researcher at Trondheim-based SINTEF, the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia.

In mid-June, the nursery welcomed more than 70 representatives from both private and public sector organizations, research scientists, and representatives from the agricultural sector in connection with the opening of the new biochar production plant.

Kollberg Thomassen picks up a handful of biochar from the plant, which can convert biomass to biochar at a rate of about 300 kilograms per hour. This plant is designed for small-scale production and can be used by everyday farmers.

“The project is ground-breaking because, on the one hand, we’re looking into how biochar technology can be improved by applying bio- and nanotechnologies,” says Kollberg Thomassen. “On the other, we’re studying the economic, social and political aspects linked to the use of a new technology.”

Sweden, Norway’s neighbor, is utilizing biocoal to a much greater extent. Kollberg Thomassen has recently returned from a visit to the Swedish water and waste management company Stockholm Vatten. It utilizes garden waste to produce biochar which is used to help cultivate trees and other plants in Stockholm.

The process is profitable because the plants require less care. It also has the advantage of handling surplus water following heavy rain.

In 2010, a research article was published in the journal “Nature” estimating that 12 percent of human-caused CO2 emissions could be captured in biochar each year without conflicting with other biomass utilization objectives.

Joner says that biochar contains stable carbon that is bound in the soil and does not return to the atmosphere. Coalification changes the molecular structure of the material such that bacteria and fungi are unable to break it down. When mixed with soil it constitutes about one half of one per cent of soil content.

In the Amazon region, NIBIO has found charcoal, or biochar, formed from residual plant material in the soil that is between 1,000 and 1,500 years old. The soil here is still more fertile today than soils which have not been provided with such additions of carbon.

Joner compares biochar with humus, which he calls the “black gold in the soil.”

NIBIO has estimated that the first two million tonnes of CO2 that can be bound each year in biochar in Norway can be sourced from easily accessible forestry and agricultural waste.

“Norway’s natural vegetation is rewilding, and there’s a lot of forestry waste just lying around and rotting away,” says Joner. “Timber volumes in Norwegian forests have increased by 25 million cubic metres, but only 12 million of these are harvested. The forests will benefit from thinning aimed at promoting growth and healthy forests.”

Professor Stephen Joseph from the University of New South Wales has been researching biochar for years and has visited Skjærgaarden to demonstrate how the plant works.

He has seen how biochar is being used for everything from the removal of heavy metals from soil, to the positive results from tests carried out in Australia where cattle manure has been added, and how the Chinese have now started to invest in biochar, which they mix with artificial fertilizer.

At the Skjærgaarden nursery, the initial plan is to mix the biochar with compost as a means of providing nutrients for plants and crops. Stenersen believes that biochar is an excellent agent for returning nutrients to the soil, and that it is a more natural and sensitive approach, similar to the methods used before artificial fertilizers became the norm.

“We’re only in the starting blocks and it will take time for us to find our feet. But the possibilities are enormous,” she says. “Stephen Joseph has inspired us to carry out an experiment that involves mixing biochar with silicon-rich waste from larvikite quarries. This can be used in addition to, or as a replacement for, artificial fertilisers,” says Stenersen.

Another benefit of adding biochar is that it raises the pH of the soil. Currently, Norwegian farmers use lime to increase pH values.

Markus Steen is a research scientist at SINTEF looking into the kinds of political measures required if biochar is going to become a means of mitigating climate change. He has also been studying the barriers that arise when a new technology is introduced.

If biochar is to become a factor in Norway’s climate change bookkeeping, a certification plan must be established to make sure that the carbon remains in the soil. This is essential if a carbon compensation scheme, paying farmers to plough biochar into the soil, is introduced.

At SINTEF, the scientists call biochar a “kinder egg” on the basis of all the opportunities it offers. It has the potential to address many challenges, including reducing the need for fertilizers and increasing crop yields.

Steen believes that during the start-up phase, it is important to provide incentives for establishing test plants at different scales, and in different parts of Norway. Users should be closely involved because this promotes interaction and confidence in the product.

“The public sector has an important role to play, and can take the lead in creating a niche market,” says Steen. “A good example of this is the inter-municipal waste management company IVAR, based in Stavanger and Sandnes in western Norway. IVAR is planning to invest in a biochar facility, from which the surplus heat will be used to heat public buildings,” says Steen.

Jon Randby works in the agriculture division at the offices of the County Governor in Vestfold, and has been following developments at the demonstration plant at Skjærgaarden. He agrees with Steen that incentives to start testing must start now.

“Biochar offers major opportunities to farmers, and there is now a greater willingness in the farming community to test new initiatives than there was 10 years ago,” he says. “For this reason, intensive research is needed to demonstrate that it works. We’re seeing that soils are becoming increasingly nutrient-poor, so we have to act now. Not least, we need climate change mitigation measures.”

The chemical giant Elkem is one of the world’s largest producers of silicon and ferrosilicon and is planning to use more biochar in its production processes in Norway. Elkem intends to increase the proportion of biochar in its reducing agent mixtures to 20 percent by 2021 and 40 percent by 2030.

This is equivalent to emissions reductions in Norway of 450,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). The emissions reductions will be achieved by replacing fossil coal with biochar.

“We’ve just started a four-year research project called PyrOpt, funded by the Research Council of Norway, in which our aim is to optimize the pyrolysis process used to manufacture biochar so that it meets Elkem’s requirements,” says Geir Johan Andersen, who is project manager for the PyrOpt project at Elkem.

The company is also aiming to exploit all pyrolysis by-products such as bio-oil, and surplus energy in the form of steam. There may also be some fractions of biochar that are more suited to purposes other than as a reducing agent.

Says Andersen, “We’re looking into opportunities to collaborate in the construction of a biochar plant of this type, and this is why it is useful to meet others and participate in demonstration projects such as that at Skjærgaarden.”

A world away in the U.S. state of Kansas, ICM Inc. plans to build a new state-of-the-art biorefinery next to its headquarters in Colwich. The US$175 million facility will showcase the company’s cutting-edge technologies.

The ICM patented gasifier there is capable of converting biomass and forestry feedstocks into producer gas or syngas, while cogenerating a biochar product with many applications.

In Texas, Rice University researchers have found that biochar from recycled waste may both enhance crop growth and save health costs by helping clear the air of pollutants.

Rice researchers in Earth science, economics and environmental engineering have determined that widespread use of biochar in agriculture could reduce health care costs, especially for those who live in urban areas close to farmland.

The study led by Ghasideh Pourhashem, a postdoctoral fellow at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, appears in the July 2017 issue of the American Chemical Society journal “Environmental Science and Technology.”

Pourhashem and his colleagues demonstrated that urban dwellers in the American Midwest and Southwest would gain the greatest benefits in air quality and health from greater use of biochar.

“Our model projections show health care cost savings could be on the order of millions of dollars per year for some urban counties next to farmland,” Pourhashem said. “These results are now ready to be tested by measuring changes in air pollutants from specific agricultural regions.”

“Agriculture rarely gets considered for air pollution control strategies,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice. “Our work shows that modest changes to farming practices can benefit the air and soil too.”

Cornell University research published October 2016 in the journal “Nature Communications” suggests that biochar can be part of an economically viable model to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to thwart global warming until other removal methods become economically feasible and in regions where other methods are impractical.

“If we continue on current emissions trajectories, we will need to draw down excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere if we’re going to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change. We’re offering a mitigation model that can do that. It’s not a silver bullet, but it may be among the tools we need in a portfolio of carbon dioxide mitigation strategies,” said Dominic Woolf, Cornell University research associate in crop and soil sciences and lead author of the study.

Although it has been omitted from major atmospheric mitigation scenarios until now, the new model shows that including biochar in a suite of options unlocks the ability to achieve cost-effective CO2 removal earlier and deeper than would otherwise be possible.

But an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia, UK warns that radical new ways of removing CO2 from the atmosphere – such as adding biochar to millions of hectares of soil – could prove to be a risky business.

Dr. Phil Williamson, employed by the Natural Environment Research Council at UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, published “Scrutinize CO2 removal methods” in the February 10, 2016 issue of the journal Nature.” He writes that much more research is needed before the wheels are set in motion on global-scale climate geoengineering’ schemes.

“Crucially, large-scale CO2 removal, by whichever means, will have knock-on effects for ecosystems and biodiversity. There could be benefits, but damage seems more likely,” says Williamson.

“For example, the amount of bioenergy crops we would need to grow could use up to 580 million hectares of land – or half of the land area of the U.S. This would in turn accelerate the loss of forests and natural grassland with impacts for wildlife, whilst also having implications for food security.”

Featured Image:  Biochar made from beetle-killed lodgepole pine, 2016. (Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service) Public domain.