Biochar – Clean Energy, Soil Restoration, and Economic Viability

biocharWhen I first heard the word “biochar,” it didn’t exactly conjure notions of sustainability, clean energy, or economic viability. The word’s syllables, strung together, sounded more like a reference to some sort of eco-firewood. Close, but no cigar: turns out biochar is a relatively carbon neutral technology that could hold its own in the biofuel market. Is this a concept too good to be true?

Biochar is, essentially, man-produced charcoal: biomaterial (i.e. wood, municipal, and agricultural waste) heated in a low oxygen environment. (The carbon in biochar resists degradation, making it relatively carbon neutral, and biochar byproducts [primarily oils and gases] can be used as fuel, making biochar a significant clean energy development.) Biochar can be used used for soil amendment (restoration of soil’s natural balance for improved plant growth, plant disease protection, fertilization, and other benefits) as well as heating, cooking, and power generation. While naturally-occurring charcoal has been used to in farming for thousands of years or more, current industrial biochar production techniques have the potential for large-scale economic and environmental benefits, including the curbing of CO2 emissions, provision of easily-accessible fuel, and the increasing of food production capacity in soil- and water-depleted areas.

In terms of economic feasibility, there are a number of companies already actively developing biochar-related technologies and/ or businesses – Best Energies, Carbon Diversion, Dynamotive, and 3R Environmental Technologies, Ltd., the Biochar Fund, and Eternagreen among them. Each of these companies contributes, in their own respective ways, to the biochar movement. For example, 3R obtained an Application Authority permit from the EU in March, and it now sells its biochar as an approved organic farming substance. The Biochar Fund coordinates efforts between biochar producers and global communities in order to reduce food deficits, energy insecurity, and climate change. Eternagreen offers a number of biochar products and serves as a re-selling coordinator for other biochar producers.

Is biochar a realistic solution to the world’s pressing energy and financial needs? At this point, it seems biochar technologies are still in their developmental phases, and perhaps only time will tell. I do wonder though: are there sufficient sources of biochar? According to www.Biochar.info, small Brazilian communities have been using – and selling – biochar for at least 2,500 years. Will these communities benefit from its wide scale manufacture and sale? And, how readily will industrial societies embrace the concept of biomatter-derived fuel?

I also wonder: what are your thoughts on the matter?

Sarah Harper is a professional writer based in San Francisco, California. Her interests include sustainability, government policy, and international politics. In her free time, Sarah enjoys toying with the idea of holistic health, overanalysis, and plotting world exploration.