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Biochar emerges as soil amendment for agriculture

Biochar emerges as a new soil amendment in agriculture.
Laura Pires, Contributing Writer

Biochar has potential as a valuable tool for the agricultural industry with its unique ability to help build soil, conserve water, produce renewable energy and sequester carbon.

Biochar, a soil amendment, is a specialized form of charcoal suitable for use in the soil. The product can be created from a wide variety of feedstocks, including wood and plant matter and even manure.

To create biochar, feedstock is heated to high temperatures under controlled conditions. The biochar-making process is called pyrolysis when no oxygen is present and gasification when low amounts of oxygen are used.

The gas or oil produced from heating feedstock can be used as clean energy. The carbon left behind is biochar. The production process eessentially concentrates carbon that would have been released back into the atmosphere as the plant or manure decays, therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Biochar is extremely porous which allows it to retain nutrients and water — which plant roots can access when the biochar is added to soil.

Research is underway to quantify nutrient availability to the plant. Since biochar can be made from several feedstocks and in numerous ways, its characteristics and impact on plant health can vary.

International Biochar Initiative

In 2006, the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) was formed during the World Soil Science Congress. The founders acknowledged a common interest in promoting the research, development, demonstration, deployment and commercialization of biochar technology and production.

“The biochar market is still in its early stages,” says IBI’s Thayer Tomlinson. “Different biochars can behave differently in soils depending on the feedstock and conditions of pyrolysis.”

The 2013 IBI report is available online at www.biochar-international.org. The report provides a broad overview of the state of the biochar industry as identified by surveys and other data and provides a snapshot of commercial and non-commercial biochar operations and activities.

One of the highlights of the report is the increase in scientific research. The number of peer-reviewed, biochar-related publications increased nearly five-fold over the last five years. More than 380 papers were published in 2013.

In the spring of 2012, the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) established long-term biochar experimental plots through the university’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility located near the main UC Davis campus.

The Russell Ranch facility is a 300-acre facility dedicated to investigating irrigated and dry-land agriculture in a Mediterranean climate.

This article was originally published at Western Farm Press and was retrieved on 09/05/2015 and shared here for educational and information purposes only.


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