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Date: 2024-06-23 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00004810


Climate Solutions: Biochar Goes Commercial But Struggles Without Impact Investment ... An ancient practice with modern promise to boost agriculture, tackle climate change, and promote new businesses is gaining ground.


Peter Burgess

Climate Solutions: Biochar Goes Commercial But Struggles Without Impact Investment ... An ancient practice with modern promise to boost agriculture, tackle climate change, and promote new businesses is gaining ground.


The word biochar, let alone the biological and chemical properties of it, is not widely understood. You know that biomass is, generally, plant wastes and you know charcoal is great for barbeque, but what on earth is 'biochar'?

In simplest terms, it is specialized charcoal appropriate for use as a soil amendment where its physical structure -- millions of tiny pores per cubic inch -- allow it to greatly enhance soil health, conserve water, and hold carbon.

Thousands of years ago when the native people of the Amazon were devising optimal land use practices, as described in Charles Mann's bestseller 1491, they figured out how to return carbon, sequestered by plants and trees, back into the soil in order to sustain and increase its well being. This black earth carbon or 'Terra Preta' is still there, accompanied by the resulting colonies of soil microbes. Industrial agricultural practices have strayed far from these roots, to be sure, but such practices are making a real comeback.

On both hyperlocal and large scales, the biochar industry is turning waste into “black gold” for agriculture – and the climate.

Spreading the Word on Biochar

One of the first experts a person journeying into the field of biochar will meet is Dr. Johannes Lehmann, a soil scientist at Cornell who has published many papers on the benefits of biochar as well as the textbook Biochar for Environmental Management Science and Technology. YouTube videos run the gamut from the easily digestible Biochar Bob series and various TEDx talks to the deep dive science of energy and agriculture with John Miedema along with thousands of small scale cook stove demonstrations of TLUDs (top lit up-draft units).

But without a sophisticated penchant for extra curricular study, Joe Q Public isn't learning about biochar and what it can do to restore denuded, compacted soils to absorbent, thriving ecosystems. Now, the United States Biochar Initiative (USBI) and the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) would like to change that. Both sponsor annual conferences and the next USBI North American Biochar Symposium will be at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst on October 13-16.

Further Research, Scaling Up Needed

As with any emerging industry, there are multiple complexities to be overcome.

The types of waste materials or feedstocks, used to produce biochar; the temperature at which the feedstock is heated or pyrolyzed; and the process of inoculating or preparing, the biochar before it is added back into the soil: these are all factors to be considered.

Standards have been developed by IBI, production kinks have been worked out, but many longitudinal studies with different types and amounts of biochar are still needed to support the entrepreneurs producing and selling char.

Like with any technology, we need higher volumes of biochar to drive down its price per ton and thus get many more farmers to use it.

And we need a larger market to encourage investors to capitalize larger production capacity and help biochar play a larger role in agricultural and climate solutions. Studies and field trials like one conducted by the New England Small Farm Institute can encourage policymakers to draft new guidance and move the market forward.

Market development thinking goes something like this:

“if only we could divert a significant percentage of funds from the current flow of money invested in harmful things by large foundations, venture capitalists, big name celebrities, the department of defense? ... we could finally and properly support the countless budding entrepreneurs ready, willing and able to make a real difference in the systems of agriculture, energy, community, education, and even help restore Mother Earth herself.”

Certainly the hope we are harvesting within the biochar industry is no different.

A Simple Thing To Consider About Biochar

Biomass left to rot, whether dying trees in a forest, manure on a farm, or decomposing peat bogs, releases the greenhouse gases it had once held. Converting these wastes into a high value soil amendment that also sequesters carbon for hundreds or thousands of years, can, perhaps, ensure soil health and mitigate climate disaster.

Taking part in this national and global movement to restore the natural well being of elemental ecosystems across the earth -- where any and all viable, high-impact actions are explored -- restores one's hope in the future.

We need this action NOW because solutions are rooted in patience, longevity ... time. And we're in danger of losing all three.

About the Author:

Karen Ribeiro is the principle of Inner Fortune, an environmental consulting and coaching firm in Amherst, Mass., and has designed a variety of in-person and online programs and tools to stimulate intuitive clarity. Ribeiro is currently the conference director of the 2013 USBI North American Biochar Symposium, and has just started writing a new book melding an extensive genealogy exploration with the intriguing exploration of biochar's impact on root structures. For more, visit

Michael LaBelle • 19 days ago I think that char, once inoculated with microbes then becomes biochar, has potential in agriculture, but it will take entrepreneurs using PRIVATE funding to move it forward. This is a classic case of 'build it and they will come' where the 'it' is irrefutable results that biochar enhanced soils out produce non-amended soils. My company, Mighty Grow Organics, manufactures organic fertilizer using poultry litter and beneficial microbes. I have experimented with adding some of the fines from my pelleting process along with some of the microbes to inoculate char for inclusion in potting mix. So far the results are promising. 1 •Reply•Share ›
Peter Burgess • 5 days ago

When I first saw this post I commented elsewhere that biochar won't get much traction because, while there is a good argument that biochar is a good way to go, but there is no quantification to get anyone's attention. This is a problem with almost all socially advantageous initiatives ... there are no value metrics, only metrics that measure money profit and how much wealth investors will gain.

There need to be valuemetrics that help to differentiate between different behavior ... and people should be able to get credit because they are doing the right thing. This would be possible in a situation where there is, for example, a complementary currency system like Ithaca Hours or Berkshares ... or Wir in Switzerland ... or any of hundreds of others.

In my own case, I compost kitchen waste rather than sending it into the trash and off to the landfill. Others perhaps use some form of small scale biochar system. But what is the difference between what I do composting and others do with a biochar system. What is the impact of composting 50 pounds of vegetable scraps versus dumping it in the trash versus doing something with biochar. What is the delta of carbon production? What is the delta of related impact value?

From my experience change is facilitated by a system of scoring ... when you change the way the game is scored, you change the way the game is played.

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dancing dragonfly • 7 days ago hello karen,

that's some snappy writing. sorta like playing conceptual hopscotch - skipping lightly, quickly from issue to issue. a few sentences have awkward phrasing or syntax, but still contribute to the hipskip style. makes my writing seem like plodding turtle tracks.

i like that you end with a big NOW -- we're not just in danger. we're at 400ppm, and out of time. climate change is just one of many planetary limits we've exceeded. our evolutionary imperative is NOW adapt or die.

the big question is, 'where's the money?' or, 'who's going to finance this revolution?'

my answer is, 'this isn't about biochar.' or about 'how to find investors to capitalize a new industry.' 'in-dust-trees' is the problem, and not likely the solution. turning trees into char won't assure human survival or revival. we need a whole new point of view on our human role in the earth community.

my answer is, 'it's about food. and soil to grow abundant, healthful, wealthful food.' terra preta was made to grow food. biochar is made to put in soil to grow food. the real market to drive this revolution forward is food. food is the cornerstone foundation of each and every community and economy, because every day every body in every household must eat. and have enough energy to cook that food.

thus, the key isn't an industry, it's agriculture. farmers, farms and farmland are ground zero in this effort to transform society, stabilize climate, and restore nature. biochar producers don't sequester the carbon. farmers do.

so the true issue here is how to inform, educate and inspire farmers to use biochar in their operations and soils. and the reality of farming is they grow food for consumers. so, ultimately, it is food consumers who are the drivers of this agricultural transformation and carbon sequestration. if consumers prefer to buy food grown by carbon-smart farming with biochar, the farmers will grow that kind of food. and thus, the market rules this shift to a new carbon economy.

and every day, by the simple consumer choice of what kind of food to buy, the essential capital is generated to finance agricultural change and carbon sequestration. this is the true economic equation -- a positive feedback loop.

or we can continue borrowing money against interest in a downward debt spiral. see more

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Karen Ribeiro dancing dragonfly • 4 days ago Dancing Dragonfly, great thinking here. I agree, 'a whole new point of view on our human role in the earth community' is needed - and this paradigm is indeed evolving rapidly by virtue of exploring important choices and appreciating our interdependent nature. The people investing their time, talent and treasure in biochar and other climate mitigation/ adaptation 'solutions' are leading this shift. But 'who' has defined our food choices over the past few decades? Big Money. Food sovereignty goes beyond choice; issues of access and affordability are daunting. No doubt that we are all eating machines in need of Foods 101. Fortunately the brave and resilient organic foods movement has led the way. As for the downward debt spiral, see my comment to Kurt for encouragement. •Reply•Share ›
Nancy Kellogg dancing dragonfly • 7 days ago David Yarrow's Cool-Food plan does just this....let's the food consumer vote with their fork for carbon smart food (grown with biochar). See current issue of Acres magazine (on-line) and article of David's work with Kansas farmers. •Reply•Share ›
Kurt Rihs • 7 days ago The knowledge about the beneficial use of biochar-microorganism combinations is old knowledge which has been commercialized in countries like Japan for decades. The secret to commercial success of this technology starts with the replacement of the word biochar with a brand commercial brand name suitable for organic fertilizers and / or soil conditioners and the confectioning of the biochar-microorganism combinations into a much more user-friendly products, dust-free and easy to apply by commercial farmers with their traditional mechanical seeders or fertilizer spreaders. The association of the word 'char' with something burned, useless and generally thrown away as waste is very strong and makes most people doubt that this kind of 'char' could be beneficial. Using Japanese technology and know how for our production in China, we have been exporting such biochar-microorganism combinations to Japan for many years and are now in a position to make them commercially available on a global scale. For more details on our products and their commercial use, for samples prices, etc. please contact us directly through our English language website: •Reply•Share ›
Karen Ribeiro Kurt Rihs • 4 days ago Great point about the word 'char' Kurt. The process is more accurately defined as 'roasting'. Seek Fertilizer is a positive brand name, much like Cool Food, Soil Reef, Super Stone Clean and others in the biochar (formerly known as 'agrichar' before the name was trademarked) space. Nancy's point about local production is a key aspect of building this market. Scalability doesn't have to mean industrial scale production. This market can and should fully develop on a sustainable community scale. Fortunately there are investors who understand this in the Slow Money arena and in countless other localized investment initiatives. Then the conversation about ownership comes into play. •Reply•Share ›
Nancy Kellogg Kurt Rihs • 7 days ago Systems-thinking and common sense requires the acknowledgement that locally produced goods, agichar included, not only eliminates fossil fuel transportation expenses but also builds strong communities through community engagement and support. The IBI had an article that suggested a radius of 22 miles for delivery. •Reply•Share ›
Pichard S. Stein • 8 days ago This is a much needed fescription of the advantages of biochar. It's use as a soil amendment is far superior to that for usual synthetic fertilizersers in that the latter require energy to manufacture and their run-off may pollute waterways. By using biochar along with these fertilizers, the amount required is less, as little as 1/2, as the biochar binds the fertilizer and also reduces run-off. Most believe that the added biochar remains in the soil for many years over which the initial investment for it may be amortized. Also, it has advantages over just adding biomass to the soil in that the biomass degrades in a decade or so and releases its carbon to the atmosphere. If one converts the biomass to biochar, about half of its carbon is converted to elemental carbon that is relatively inert and does not get released to the atmosphere. Other advantages are decreases in water requirements for irrigation and absorbtion of toxic materials from the soil, thus precenting them from entering the growing biomass. While there can be a net release of heat when preparing biochar from biomass, its fuel value is not a principal advantage since more heat could be obtained by directly burning the biomass. It's value depends on its use as a soil amendment. The biochar is not a fertilizer itself, but serves as a scaffold on which fertilizer is bound, so it must be used in conjunction with fertilizers or otherwise innoculated.
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