How Biochar Is Triggering a New Industrial Revolution
Reproduced from original article:
- Pollution and destructive agricultural practices are devastating the ecosystem and influencing our global weather patterns. Adding biochar to soil and building materials of all kinds is a simple and inexpensive strategy that can remediate much of this damage
- Biochar added to cattle feed helps eliminate the need for antibiotics. When grazed on pasture, the manure from cows fed biochar improves plant growth, reducing cattle feed and water requirements, speeds up field rotation as the pasture recovers faster, and helps the land resist floods and droughts
- Aside from adding activated biochar to farm fields, there are myriad other uses. It can be added to steel, concrete, asphalt, buildings, bridges, roads and tunnels
- We do not need to burn trees to create biochar. Alternative waste stream sources that can be used include chicken litter, paper mill waste, municipal sewage, industrial pallets, textile scraps, sawdust and scrap wood from furniture factories, just to name a few
- For entrepreneurs, biochar now offers opportunities on par with those available at the beginning of the industrial revolution. There’s enormous opportunity for microenterprise, new businesses and, indeed, whole new industries to start up
In this interview, Albert Bates, director of the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology and author of “Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth,” discusses how biochar can transform agriculture while simultaneously normalize our climate.
Biochar also has a wide range of other industrial uses that can allow us to radically reduce carbon in our atmosphere. Many believe climate change is a fabrication concocted by political scientists with a vested interest.
But the reality is, we have changed our world with pollution and destructive agricultural practices that are devastating the ecosystem and influencing our global weather patterns. The good news is, adding biochar to soil and building materials of all kinds is a simple and inexpensive strategy that can remediate much of this damage.
Moments of Revelation
Bates began his investigation into this issue while working as an attorney. He explains:
“I was doing environmental law and represented a group of plaintiffs who were suing a chemical company for polluting a local water supply … an aquifer, which is federally protected. It was kind of a slam-dunk case.
But the chemical company came into court and argued that there’s plenty of water in Tennessee. We don’t need to be protecting sources that are 1 kilometer underground. I brought in experts to show climate change is going to change the amount of water that we need in the future.
Population growth is going to change the amount of water we need. We really should be protecting those sources … I won the case, but I lost my nerve. I began to [think], ‘Oh my gosh. What’s going to happen here on Earth?’ … I had this revelation at that time. I left the practice of law and went off and became a mushroom farmer …
It was a time for me to just take stock, to sit back and to be with my forest and to think about things and not be in the conflict zone until I’d sorted it out … Eventually I became more involved with permaculture. I became a permaculture instructor.
That took me to a conference on permaculture in Brazil. While there, I [saw] what they call the ‘terra preta de indio’ … the Amazonian dark earths. This was a mystery that had been around for 400 years.
How did people living at the equator make these rich, deep black soils that go meters deep into the ground, when, really, everywhere you look that’s at that latitude, it’s a two-season system with a rainy season and a dry season?
The ground doesn’t store the nutrients. The plants do. When a plant dies, it’s immediately taken back up into the living biomass. There’s really no soil wealth like we have in the temperate zones. So how did it happen that they have this rich, deep black soil in the Amazon?
The answer was that they had made it. They had made that fertile soil … I had to understand, ‘How does this work? How did you actually build soils?’ It turns out the secret ingredient was charcoal … they had created a structure in the soil. It wasn’t chemistry that was making the fertility. It was biology. That hard, mineralized carbon became a habitat for soil microbes.”
The Importance of Soil Biology
As explained by Bates, soil microbes create what you might think of as a coral reef in the soil — a highly fertile area of water storage, air storage and nutrient storage that can nourish a wide variety of soil microbes. This soil biology makes for very nutrient-dense plants. That, in turn, allowed large civilizations to flourish in the Amazon.
The charcoal also takes carbon from the atmosphere, sequestering it in the earth for long periods of time — thousands of years, typically, provided you don’t use destructive agricultural processes such as tilling. So, this carbon sequestration benefits not only soils and plants but also the atmosphere.
“Right now, at this point in time, we really need [carbon sequestration] for another reason; we need to have that timeout to give us some time to slow our emissions down, to go carbon-neutral.
This is what you might call carbon-negative or a drawdown effect of carbon actually leaving the atmosphere, leaving the ocean and coming back into the land, where it had been, as fossil fuels, before.”
How Biochar Is Created
Now, a simple wood fire is not sufficient, as this will merely create ash, which doesn’t create the carbon structure needed. What you need to do is burn the biomass without oxygen. This creates a type of charcoal typically referred to as biochar.
“Biochar is distinguished from charcoal,” Bates explains. “Every fire goes through two stages. The first stage is you warm up the material or maybe strike a match and the phosphor in the end creates the flame. That heats up the match for just a moment, and then you get the burning, the smoke and the flame.
As it begins to burn down the match, it leaves behind a charcoal stick. That’s the first phase of the fire. That’s carbonization. That’s actually the burning of the gases … Each [gas has] its own kindling temperature. The last to go would be carbon. Finally, what happens is the carbon oxidizes and joins with oxygen.
It turns into CO2 or CO. As that carbon stick on the end of the match turns into ash, that’s the second stage of the fire. In the process of making charcoal — I’ll distinguish that from biochar in a second — the process is to stop it before it oxidizes.
The way you do that is to deprive the fire of oxygen … So, you’re baking at the first stage. You’re burning off the gases … And then you’re holding that last stage, the hard carbon stage, in a permanent condition and not letting it go to ash and not creating smoke. That’s the pyrolysis process. That’s the carbonization …
If you look at it under a microscope, you see that it’s got all of these pores. Some of that is the original plant structure and some of that is the volatile gases. As they explode, they cratered the sides of the original vessels of the plant and left behind the skeletal structure …
What you get there is this ability to absorb and adhere things. It’s got a cation exchange. It’s kind of magnetic in the way that it sticks things to its walls. It’s particularly strong in sticking nitrogen [and] sulfur …”
Biochar for Detox and Cattle Feed
The ability to absorb is what makes activated charcoal and biochar so effective for detoxification. Caution needs to be used when taken internally, as it will chelate beneficial minerals as well. I like to take it at least one hour before or two hours after a meal.
But it’s really inexpensive and something, I think, most people can benefit from, considering it’s nearly impossible these days to avoid toxic chemical exposures. You need some type of detoxification agent to help eliminate some of these toxins. Biochar can be an effective tool for that. Biochar is also used to great benefit in livestock. When you add biochar to the animals’ diet, it helps eliminate the need for antibiotics.
“It’s especially significant in cattle,” Bates says. “Cows have enteric digestion. They’ve got their rumen. They’re doing fermentation in their stomachs. You’ve got this process of fermentation, which is a microbial soup. It’s bacterially active ferment.
If you can add a little bit of biochar to that, it actually improves it the same way it improves the microbial habitant in soil. It becomes that coral-reef effect within the gut of the animal … Their rumen gets really good. The antibiotic need diminishes to zero. They then add weight faster.
They have a higher efficiency of feed conversion, so less food puts on more weight or produces more milk than it had before they started supplementing 1% to 2% biochar into their diet. Not only that, when it comes out the back end of the animal, first off, you’re getting about 30% less methane production … when you add biochar to the diet at 1%.
But now, that manure is now rich in biochar, and so, it’s going to compost about one-third or a quarter faster than normal composting operations would take. It scavenges nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. It takes those elements that would become greenhouse gases in the composting process, holds them, uses them and puts them back into what’s the final product that’s going into the soil.
A cow that’s been grazed in an open pasture and is being fed biochar as a supplement is fertilizing that pasture to the point where the roots of the grasses grow deeper and thicker. The grasses come up faster and more nutrient-dense, so that, again, reduces the cattle feed requirement.
You can graze more cattle on the same amount with faster rotations because of this. And then you have the effect of the cattle — the pasture recovering [faster] and being able to resist floods and droughts. It just continues to get better year after year because the biochar is slowly being added to the soil from the cow. So, you’ve got this beneficial loop.”
In his book, Bates features an Australian farmer, Doug Powell, who fed his cows biochar and added large amounts of dung beetles to his fields. The beetles roll up balls of manure and bring them underground. In the first year, he increased profits by $20,000 simply by bringing more biochar into the ground. This is just one innovative solution offered in “Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth.”
Climate in Crisis
Bates has investigated the predicted effects of 1, 2 or 3 degrees Celsius of warming. In his 1990 book, “Climate in Crisis,” Bates made some predictions that are now coming to pass.
“Right now, we’re seeing this breakdown of the polar vortex … We used to have just this circular motion around the pulse of the Jetstream. The North Pole, in particular, had this very even circular motion. It had a little bit of waves in it.
We get cold fronts every now and then coming down to the Northern United States. But for the most part, it was a fairly even average distribution. Then, starting about two to three years ago, we had what we call Rossby Waves.
They may begin to break and dive deep into the continent and at the same time drive heat far up into the Arctic. That’s had the effect of accelerating the melting of the Arctic, the Greenland ice [and] Siberian permafrost, which is an accelerant, because the permafrost is full of methane …
That’s now being released to the atmosphere. This year we’re seeing forest fires above the Arctic Circle … There are methane fires coming out along the coastlines. We’re seeing this rapid melting of Greenland and of the Arctic …
If you look at a map today, right now, where is the temperature at this moment in the world? You will see it’s really hot in Greenland. And then just right next to that, in Scandinavia and the Northwestern corner of Russia, it’s extremely cold. [In] China it’s extremely hot.
And then you go a little bit farther around and you find that it’s hot in Southern Alaska. Now we’re starting to see this alternating heat and cold as that big wave motion is happening from the pole to the equator.
That’s climate weirding. It’s making it extremely difficult for farmers to do normal crops, to predict when’s the cold going to be too extreme or when they’re going to get a drought.
They’re actually getting these enormous swings of high temperatures and then cold temperatures, and then high temperatures and then cold temperatures. We hit records all across Europe last week: 108 degrees Fahrenheit in Paris. The next day, the Tour de France stage had to be cancelled because of ice, snow and slush on the roadway.
That’s what I’m talking about. It’s these extremes that are very challenging. When I start to look for solutions, I have to say it’s about trees. It’s about forests. It’s about more photosynthesis.”
Again, even if you don’t believe in climate change, the solutions Bates offers are good for the planet no matter what. There is absolutely no downside to using them.
It’s going to lower pollution levels (and who doesn’t want cleaner air, water and soil?), improve the quality and nutrient density of crops, reduce chemical runoff and thus reduce toxic algae growth in our oceans. These strategies are also economically beneficial, so there’s a significant profit motive as well.
Novel Uses for Charcoal
Aside from adding biochar to farm fields, there are myriad other uses. As noted by Bates, you can add it to steel, concrete, asphalt, buildings, bridges, roads and tunnels.
“Let’s start putting carbon into everything. Let’s start using more wood. Let’s start having more of a wooden kind of a vernacular to our way of living.
Actually, it’s very beautiful and it has benefits, like it makes the cement stronger. It makes the asphalt less likely to form potholes. There are all these benefits that you get when you start to experiment with these materials,” he says.
“We’ve had this problem in the scientific community, which was looking for ways to go beyond just emissions reductions and actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere. They found limits to this biochar strategy …
How many trees would you have to have, or how much waste material from one source or another would you have to have in order to make enough biochar to make a difference, and then where would you put that biochar? They figured maybe 2 billion tons a year could be put into agriculture and into making fertilizers. That’s not enough.
We need to get about 50 billion tons out of the atmosphere every year because we’re putting 40 billion tons up there. We need to take out what we’re putting up there and another quarter or so in order to start bringing down the concentrations in the atmosphere, in order to restore the climate back to normal.
We need to have an active drawdown system. How do you do that? My co-author, Kathleen Draper, and I began to look at, ‘Where can we store biochar besides agriculture?’ We started to look at biochar plastics. I could actually make a polymer using biochar that is comparable to the kind of polymers that you would use to make roofing tiles, surfboards, boats or any number of things.
It’s hard. It’s durable. It’s going to be there but it’s also taking carbon out of the atmosphere. I looked at cement. If you take normal cement and replace part of the sand that’s in the cement, if you can replace up to maybe 8%, you’re not reducing the strength of the concrete. The first 2% actually increases the strength.
There’s no reason for a cement maker not to be replacing sand with biochar. The cost is comparable and the price of sand is going up and the price of biochar is coming down. So, let’s make cement with a biochar content …
You’re increasing the strength. You’re increasing the crack resistance, the anti-spalling, which is heat resistance. You’re increasing the tensile strength and the compressive strength. All of that just by changing out sand for biochar.”
Biochar Provides EMF Shielding
Another reason for using biochar in building materials is the fact that the carbon acts as an electromagnetic field (EMF) shield, thus insulating you from EMFs from the environment. It also intercepts Wi-Fi and blocks infrared. In essence, it’s an effective solution for creating a Faraday cage, radically reducing the amounts of radiofrequencies that are entering your home environment from the outside.
“I go around looking at electromagnetic sources with my meter. I get spikes near the electrical boxes. I think it would be so easy if the plastics that make those circuit boxes or those wall-framing sockets were just made of this kind of material instead of just plain plastic. They could be blocking that electric spectrum from entering the room, just that simply,” Bates says.
Now, we wouldn’t necessarily want to burn down our forests to create biochar, and the good news is we don’t need to. Bates cites an Australian study that looked at novel sources for biochar. Two sources, chicken litter and paper mill waste, could provide biochar into the indefinite future for Australia, the paper found.
Other sources include municipal sewage or biosolids, industrial pallets, textile scraps, sawdust and scrap wood from furniture factories. At present, only 20% or so of the waste stream is being utilized. According to Bates, it’s large enough that we don’t need to cut down trees to make biochar.
“You can be making biochar on a local scale, community scale, from small reactors, close to source; identifying waste streams ahead of time and then tapping those to make your biochar with.
If it’s a little bit contaminated … you wouldn’t want that in your garden. But you could use it for a cement. You could put it into the roadways. If you add it to asphalt, it reduces a number of potholes. It makes the highway more flexible. The cars get better mileage both on gasoline and on the tires.
You actually have this beneficial effect from adding it to asphalt. All of those things are possible. You could use those waste streams that are contaminated and put it into those products that don’t have to be as pure as your food.”
China Leads the Way in Biochar Innovation
After finishing his book (which is why this is not in there), Bates went to China, where he discovered biochar has become a new industrial revolution. China, Bates says, is far ahead of everyone else in this area, installing biochar reactors in areas where suitable waste streams are located.
They get rid of the waste and create biochar that is 15% more effective than conventional fertilizers yet costs less. Bates explains:
“In China, they went from small scale field trials to building the first prototype large reactors — rotary kilns that are processing thousands of tons a day — to … deploying six of them in strategic places around the country. And then the next year, going to 24. And then this year, going to 200. Next year, they’re going to put it out on the new Silk Road to India, Africa and so on.
These are like plug-and-play. You just drop the reactor on the site where you’ve got a lot of biomass coming in from waste. You put it back into those fields and [they become] drought-resistant and flood-resistant. You get better yields and the price is less than fertilizer …
They’re building ecovillages. They want to build 100 ecovillages in five years. These are villages that will be net draw down. They’ll be taking more carbon out the atmosphere. They’ll be self-sufficient in food and clean water and education and so forth within the village.
For the farmers who are moving to those villages, it’s a better life. It’s a better system than they had before. They provide the labor that’s needed to work in those large biochar-producing units that they’re putting in.”
Sweden Has Embraced Biochar-Infused Pavement Materials
Sweden is also taking advantage of biochar technology, placing biochar underneath pavement and using biochar-infused streets and sidewalks. A small-scale test showed it massively improved tree growth and helped clean water supplies.
According to Bates, Stockholm had originally planned to meet its biochar needs using municipal wastes. They soon realized they needed more, so Finland is now producing biochar for them as well. Sweden reinvented a 200-year-old pavement recipe using gravel and wood oil instead of tar, and biochar (up to 20%) instead of sand. The water-cleansing effect is particularly noteworthy.
“Just the fact that the water itself is being cleaned from the streets and it goes back to the oceans clean — this is very important, especially when you think about microplastics and all of that kind of contaminants that you put into the environment all the time. That’s being cleaned too. None of that is reaching the ocean,” Bates says.
Activating the Biochar
An important point not to be overlooked is that when you’re using biochar for agricultural purposes, you first need to charge or activate it before you put it into the soil. (It does not need to be activated when used in building materials.) As explained by Bates, the “Four M’s” to remember are:1
- Moisten — Moisture must be added to the biochar. Fresh from the kiln, biochar is bone dry and hydrophobic (water-repelling). To make it retain water and support microbes, it needs to be made hydrophilic (water-absorbing) again, and this is done by adding sufficient amounts of water, without making it waterlogged. Typically, water is added to the kiln to cool it and stop the fire.
- Micronize — Next, the biochar must be broken down into a smaller size through crushing, grinding and screening. Smaller particle sizes increase the surface area and allows the biochar to retain more water and allows for greater ion penetration.
- Mineralize — Lastly, you need to mineralize it, meaning you need to add to it the minerals your garden needs, such as rock powder or sea minerals. That will provide the microbes’ the nourishment they need to thrive. It will also add to the plant stores in your garden, allowing your plants to thrive.
- Microbial inoculation — Next, you want to add microbes, fungi, bacteria and nonparasitic nematodes. These are aerobic bacteria that can be added through a compost tea. Alternatively, you can add the biochar to your compost pile.
When a plant is deficient in a trace mineral, say magnesium, the exudates that comes out from its roots will trigger a signal through the fungal network that this plant needs more magnesium.
If you have activated biochar in the soil at the root zone, there’s automatic storage of minerals there. When there’s too much of a given mineral, it’s stored in the biochar’s reef-like structure, and when something is needed, it’s taken from that storage and transferred to the plant by nematodes. It is this dynamic structure of the biochar that allows for enormous plant growth.
Adding activated biochar can quadruple plant growth in the first year, Bates says. But you have to charge it properly. If the biochar is not activated, it will store nutrients but not release them to the plant, which can have the opposite effect that you’re looking for.
For entrepreneurs, biochar now offers opportunities on par with those available at the beginning of the industrial revolution. “That kind of scale of change is underway,” Bates says. “It’s an enormous opportunity for microenterprise, for new businesses, for whole new industries to start.”
One place to find opportunities is to visit the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) website.2 “On any given day, you’re going to find new material there and webinars and opportunities to learn about some of these new industries,” Bates says. If any of this has struck a chord in you, you’ll also want to pick up a copy of his book, “Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth.”
The U.S. Biochar Initiative also holds an annual conference in North America,3 and the International Biochar Initiative has an international conference.4 There are also a number of other biochar conferences and symposiums where you can learn a lot in a very short amount of time.
Another valuable resource is the Innovations In Biochar website — a joint creation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service. It includes downloadable references such as how to build a kiln, how to use biochar in barns and compost piles, and much more.