Biochar then and now

What if there was a way to make poor soils more fertile.  Well of course today we have plenty of fertilizers, some natural some not so much.  But what if we added in the thought that we wanted our solution to use extra natural materials or bio-waste to produce this product.  Then you would have biochar.  At a basic level if you burn biomass and bio-waste with limited air you’ll produce a charcoal and if you put that into the ground it will improve the soil quality.  This is a naturally occurring process, as it can happen during forest fires for instance.  But mankind has employed this method of soil preparation as well.

Scientist are at a bit of a loss as to how far back this technique goes.  There are sites that have been found in numerous jungle areas, but most specifically in the Amazon where it has been employed.  These sites are called ‘Terra Preta’.  There are large stretches of deep rich soil, even though jungle soils are normally very poor for growing plants.  Some say that these were naturally occurring and the early people who farmed there just found a lucky spot.  Others say that they may have learned the technique watching nature and then used it to improve their chosen farmlands.

Whatever the case may be, these highly fertile areas allowed them to avoid the slash and burn process to clear more and more farmland.  If the land you have is already producing enough crops then what need do you have to clear more.  The problem comes from the production of the charcoal to put in the ground.  Traditionally you get a bunch of wood and pile it up with dirt while it is burning.  This limits the air and produces charcoal.  The downside is it produces a lot of gas and smoke that aren’t good for people or the environment.

Several thousand years later we’ve discovered the process of biochar again.  But this time we have a better understanding of everything that it can do for us.  We also have learned how to make the process of making the charcoal a bit easier on us all.  The charcoal is now produced in closed systems, meaning we can better limit the air to the fire and capture all the greenhouse gases that are released.  These can be rerouted back into the system to provide more fuel and breakdown to less harmful gases.

We also know that in the process we can take plant waste, wood chips and some sewage and burn them to form a synthetic fuel and biochar.  The fuel can be used to generate electricity or heat.  The biochar can then be added to garden or farm plots to improve the soil.  As an added benefit this process takes the carbon from the wood chips and other materials and sequesters it into the ground where it will slowly be released.  If it was just burned normally it would be put into the atmosphere and add to global climate change.  This also has the potential to provide a slew of new jobs and business opportunities.