Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Biochar? What the heck is Biochar?

Today's technology post is actually about a not so techie technology.

According to Google technology is defined as: "the practical application of science to commerce or industry".

I love wired and I am a frequent reader of everything new and sexy in how-to apply science to create new businesses. But the ideas that really get me, I mean the ones that launch me out of bed in the morning (much to the chagrin of my lovely girlfriend) are those old ideas the really old ones that find new life and rebirth in a modern age.

I think Biochar might just be one of those.

But first, what the heck is Biochar? (according to wikipedia) Biochar is charcoal created by pyrolysis of biomass.

Charcoal - I get that - its what makes my grill delicious in the summer (that and a tasty beverage). Biomass, simple enough, plants and other gunk that comes from biological material. But pyrolysis? Ok, that is the key. Well, (again Wikipedia to the rescue) it is the decomposition of one material into charcoal using heat.

This is pretty cool, we can burn plant matter, and we get the triple threat.
  1. Sequester Carbon
  2. Produce surplus energy (that is green)
  3. Improve biodiversity and crop yields
The first two make sense, as you burn the material you get energy, and what is left is carbon from the original plant in the very stable form of charcoal which might sit as such for 100s if not 1,000s of years. But the third one takes a bit more explanation.

According to well informed friends of mine in Seattle the idea behind number three is that charcoal makes a great home for soil-positive bacteria. Think of it like a frat house for bacteria - dirty, yes - but they seem to just replicate under every nook and cranny.

Fill the biochar full of bacteria and sprinkle it over the soild and voila you get health soil, and the carbon is sequestered for a long period of time.

But what about the numbers? Well, this is where I fall short. I can't find reliable numbers anywhere on the internet for what this is capable of.

How much does it cost to setup an infrastructure for creating the char, filling it with bacteria and planting it again?

How much carbon can be sequestered and how big an impact would that make?

How much energy do you get from this process and in what form?

What are the negative impacts of burning all of this biomass? Does it put particulate matter into the atmosphere? If so how much, how dirty? etc.

Pretty cool, people have been burning their crops for centuries... and it just might be one of the keys to tackling climate change, soil erosion and biodiversity all at once. But it is still a new idea and lacking in firm numbers to back it up.

Please please please leave comments? Do you know anything about biochar? Can you fill in some of the questions above? Drop me a line...

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