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, 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.

7 responses

  1. Good info Sarah!
    Regarding your question “Are there enough sources of biochar?” The answer is yes.
    I am developing a project to produce biochar and biocoal of agave. Our ultra-high-density variety annually produces 500+ tonnes of biomass per hectare (50+ tonnes of dry-bone biomass-, yielding 3X more sugars than sugarcane in Brazil, 4X more cellulose than the fastest growing eucalyptus and 5X more dry biomass than the GMO poplar tree. Hectare per hectare, agave produces several time more biomass than any terrestrial ecosystem or commercial plantation.
    Agave thrives in marginal land, can be cultivated in semiarid and temperate climates (2/3 of the Earth’s inhabitable land), even on salty or acidic soils and steep hills; needs no watering nor agrochemicals; is easy to cultivate, very prolific and has a very low cost of production.
    Tens of biofuels and bioproducts can be derived from agave: bioplastics, cellulose and paper, geotextiles, ethanol (up to ten thousan gallons per hectare per year), inulin, fructose syrup, insulation foam, gel, acids, methanol, syngas, green gasoline, biochar, biocoal, phenols, biopolymers, pressed boards, detergent,… Agave is the ideal feedstock for a biorrefinery where electricity, biofuels and bioproducts are produced.
    My project aims to produce biocoal for electricity generating plants in USA and China -same energy density and characteristics as coal- and plan to sell it at a lower price than coal (under forty US dollars per tonne). Biochar could be sold at a low price too.
    Agave will play an important role in the new bioeconomy yet to come.
    Regards Arturo

  2. Magic Bullet for People, Planet & Profit?

    Sustainable Land Development Today Magazine
    August 2009

    SLDI Project Goes Carbon Negative
    Yours can too.

    “Climate change is inevitable, proceeding and even accelerating.”

    With those alarming opening words, British scientist James Lovelock, author of the new book, “The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning,” is delivering a sobering message to large and influential audiences around the world. He says there’s nothing we can do now but adapt and survive. He claims it is too late for sustainable development and says civilization’s best strategy is “sustainable retreat.” If we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, he explains, it wouldn’t do much. We’ve already released enough carbon over the past hundred years to push us past the point of no return.

    When pushed, Lovelock says, the only way we could do something meaningful to avoid catastrophe is to extract and permanently store CO2 from the atmosphere, in addition to dramatically reducing our emissions. And the approach with the most potential, says Lovelock, is to turn biomass material into charcoal, now re-branded as “biochar,” in a process known as “pyrolysis” and then bury it. The biochar, unlike the original biomass, can’t rot and release CO2 into the atmosphere. It doesn’t oxidize. It is chemically stable for hundreds of years, meaning the carbon is permanently sequestered. “This makes it safe to bury in the soil or in the ocean,” writes Lovelock.

    Lovelock isn’t alone in his enthusiasm for biochar sequestration. Australian biologist Tim Flannery, author of the bestselling climate-change book, “The Weather Makers,” is an avid supporter of the approach. James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a professor of Earth sciences at Columbia University, also sees an important role for turning biomass into charcoal as long as it’s done responsibly.

    Regardless of whether you believe human action can ultimately impact climate change, the overwhelming sentiment throughout the world is that we must do everything possible to reduce and offset human-emitted greenhouse gases. Strategies are currently being considered about the best ways to do just that. If we’re serious about halting the rise of – and eventually lowering – CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, biochar could prove the best way. The challenge, as with all other carbon-mitigation approaches, comes with reaching scale. Can biochar be produced to a large enough scale to make a measurable impact? The answer lies in the triple-bottom-line perspective. In other words, the only way it can happen is if it can be produced in ways that meet the needs of people, planet and profit.

    What makes biochar perhaps the most compelling solution is that it also provides significant benefits that go way beyond carbon mitigation. It allows us to more sustainably manage organic waste from municipalities, croplands, wastewater treatment plants. In addition, it can help manage a certain amount of residues from forested lands which are largely responsible for the rapid spread of forest fires.

    Biochar and Sustainable Land Development

    Key factors in developing the social, environmental and economic potential for biochar lie not only in its carbon-sequestration abilities, but in those other valuable properties that the process brings to sustainable land development best practices.

    Biochar production is modeled after a process begun thousands of years ago in the Amazon basin, where islands of rich, fertile soils called “terra preta” were created by indigenous people. Anthropologists speculate that cooking fires and kitchen middens along with deliberate placing of charcoal in soil resulted in soils with high fertility and carbon content. These soils continue to “hold” carbon today and remain so nutrient rich that they have been dug up and sold as potting soil in Brazilian markets.

    When added to soils, biochar’s impressive capacity to retain nutrients can reduce fertilizer requirements while increasing crop yields. It can also be used for commercial potting soils. Research is now confirming benefits that include:

    • Reduced leaching of nitrogen into ground water
    • Possible reduced emissions of nitrous oxide
    • Increased nutrient retention capacity
    • Moderating of soil acidity
    • Increased water retention
    • Increased number of beneficial soil microbes

    Plants simply grow better – far better – in biochar enriched soil! Biochar can improve almost any soil. Areas with low rainfall or nutrient-poor soils will benefit the most. Biochar systems can reverse soil degradation and create sustainable food and fuel production in areas with severely depleted soils, scarce organic resources, and inadequate water and chemical fertilizer supplies. Low-cost, small-scale biochar production units can produce biochar to build garden, agricultural and forest productivity. And with the addition of an engine or turbine, these systems can produce a biogas that creates distributed systems for heating, cooling and electricity.

    The total benefits that potentially flow from biochar production and use include waste reduction, energy co-production, improved soil fertility and structure, and carbon emissions mitigation. Not all of these benefits are well accounted for under current economic systems, but under the carbon-constrained economy most are projecting for the near future, the carbon emission mitigation benefit is likely to be accounted for as an economic benefit.

    Profitability of biochar systems will be especially sensitive to the cost and quality of the biomass feedstock that goes into the system, as well as to prices for energy and the carbon capping and trading markets. Farming and gardening systems stand to profit from the soil and water quality benefits biochar provides. Forested, preserve and agricultural land provides ready supply of the needed biomass feedstock. And as waste management systems and regulations “catch up” to this opportunity, therein lies another virtually unending supply of needed biomass.

    International Biochar Initiative

    The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) was formed in July 2006 at a side meeting held at the World Soil Science Congress (WSSC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the 2006 meeting, individuals and representatives from academic institutions, commercial ventures, investment bankers, non-governmental organizations, federal agency representatives, and the policy arena from around the world acknowledged a common interest in promoting the research, development, demonstration, deployment (RDD&D) and commercialization of the promising technology of biochar production.

    The mission of the IBI is to provide a platform for the international exchange of information and activities in support of biochar research, development, demonstration, and commercialization. IBI advocates biochar as a strategy to:

    • improve soil quality;
    • reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon; and
    • improve water quality by filtering agrochemicals.

    IBI also promotes:
    • sustainable co-production of clean energy and other biobased products as part of the biochar process;
    • efficient biomass utilization in developing country agriculture; and
    • cost-effective utilization of urban, agricultural and forest co-products.

    SLDI partners with Ocean Mountain Ranch in effort to go “Carbon Negative”

    Fossil fuels are carbon-positive — burning them adds more carbon to the atmosphere. Ordinary biomass fuels are carbon neutral — the carbon captured in the biomass by photosynthesis would have eventually returned to the atmosphere through natural processes — burning plants for energy just speeds it up. Biochar systems can be carbon negative because they retain a substantial portion of the carbon that would otherwise be emitted by the plants or waste matter when it rots. The result is a net reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    Located in the headwaters of the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area in Southern Oregon, Ocean Mountain Ranch (OMR) is a mixed-use development project that incorporates residential, agricultural, educational, recreational, and industrial uses. It overlooks the newly-designated Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve and the largest remaining old growth forest on the southern coast in Humbug Mountain State Park. OMR is planned to be developed pursuant to a forest stewardship management plan which has been approved by the Oregon Department of Forestry and Northwest Certified Forestry under the high standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). OMR will provide for long-term yield of high quality hardwood, softwood, and wildlife habitat. OMR is also serving as a pilot program and is expected to achieve carbon negative status through the utilization of low impact development practices, energy efficient buildings, renewable/clean energy systems, distributed waste management systems, biochar production, and other practices – with certification as a SLDI-Certified Sustainable Project.

    The land development industry is uniquely positioned to utilize SLDI best management practices to take advantage of emerging ancient and new biochar technologies to help address a multitude of pressing environmental, social and economic concerns by balancing the needs of people, planet and profit – for today and future generations.

    Sustainable Land Development International

    Promoting worldwide land development that balances the needs of people, planet & profit – for today and future generations.

    1. Hi, Can you please answer this question? Since this involves burning, will it contribute more to the pollution? One thing more, can we make bio char out of burned garbage that includes plastics etc..? Please email the answer because i won't be able to go to this website again.

  3. Hi, Can you please answer this question? Since this involves burning, will it contribute more to the pollution? One thing more, can we make bio char out of burned garbage that includes plastics etc..? Please email the answer because i won't be able to go to this website again.

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