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Biochar: ‘chicken soup for the soil’

At a time of increasing global concern about greenhouse gases approaching the “tipping point” in the atmosphere and how to feed the increasing world population, biochar is emerging as a practical solution to both these issues.


October 24, 2013
By Don Harfield

At a time of increasing global concern about greenhouse gases approaching the “tipping point” in the atmosphere and how to feed the increasing world population, biochar is emerging as a practical solution to both these issues.

By co-operating rather than fighting with nature, biochar sequesters the carbon as a soil amendment to increase soil productivity as an extension of the natural photosynthesis cycle. After maximizing the initial value for such things as fibre from the forest and food from agriculture, the remaining cellulosic material can be converted to biochar.

Biochar is carbon produced through a simple process called pyrolysis, which is basically heating up biomass (such as wood or straw) in a no- or low-oxygen environment while producing excess heat. It’s sort of like combustion without air. 

Biochar has many high-value applications and may be classified in three major quality grades, for simplicity: premium grade, mid-grade and regular grade. These are similar to what we are already accustomed to when we fill up our family vehicle with gasoline. Premium grade is useful as a substrate medium for growing tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers in greenhouses. Mid-grade is great when blended with compost or manure and added to potting mixtures for potting plants, flowers and gardens. Regular biochar can be blended with compost and/or manure for field application or land reclamation. Specialty higher-value uses for premium biochar include filtration removal of toxic compounds from air or industrial waters, and removal of phosphate from ponds and lakes negatively affected by algae bloom.  After the biochar is treated, it can be reused in soil applications. Once in the soil, it is considered fully
sequestered carbon.

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Around the globe, soils have generally declined in their carbon content over time, and once-fertile breadbasket and forested areas have become infertile or marginal lands. In combination with good soils practices, biochar can be used to reclaim or improve poor soils, and good soils can be made better to increase food production and make this a better world to live in for future generations. Biochar, therefore, can be considered “chicken soup for the soil.”

Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (AITF), in collaboration with Lakeland College and industry partners, has established the Alberta Biochar Initiative to help bring biochar products to the marketplace. With financial assistance from Western Economic Development Canada, industry partners have access to two portable demonstration units, each designed to produce one tonne of quality biochar in a 24-hour day. AITF has the expertise to ensure the biochar quality meets consumer and marketplace requirements, and the design experience to develop a system specific to a business application. Lakeland College has a Centre for Sustainable Innovation, which includes hands-on training for college students to equip them for a career in sustainable agriculture, livestock and alternative energy.

Given the increasing interest in maximizing economic opportunities from the forest and agriculture through biorefineries and nanotechnology to produce a higher-value product, producing biochar from residual biomass is a great way for companies to grow their financial bottom lines. Biochar is a quadruple win – it reduces carbon dioxide emissions to improve the environment, it improves soil productivity to increase food and forestry production, it reduces waste, and it adds economic value to the community.

Contact the Alberta Biochar Initiative to learn how biochar can be a part of your business success story. Go to albertabiochar.ca/ or contact Don Harfield, AITF, at 780-632-8271. •


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Don Harfield is team leader for research and biochar product development at Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures in Vegreville, Alta., and the technical leader for the Alberta Biochar Initiative.


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