What is the fuss with biochar??

By Eco Guy 9:48am 16th March 2009
Given the sudden interest in the media on biochar one would think a way of really saving the world has been discovered...

What is biochar?

Put simply biochar is charcoal; i.e. plant matter heated in the absence of oxygen. Normally when plant matter is burnt with free access to oxygen, all the carbon gets released as CO2 back into the atmosphere; but a funny thing happens when access to oxygen is removed, the carbon stays locked in the new charcoal.

Why all the excitement?

Well it appears that charcoal is very stable, i.e. it does not tend to release it's carbon payload until actually burnt with access to oxygen. So therefore it looks like an ideal candidate for using to store excess carbon. Also charcoal appears to be a natural soil enricher, i.e. soils with charcoal in them can carry more crops for longer. Plus it has none of the negative effects of more traditional chemical fertilisers, like nitrogen based fertilisers, which give off nitrous oxide (300 times more powerful green gas than cardon dioxide).

So it looks like an ideal vehicle to store all the excess carbon we are producing and lock it away for good, or is it?

So what is the problem?

Well if you just look at biochar in itself, there is no problem, the stuff stays the same essentially forever if left alone. The problem comes when you try to make the stuff, i.e. you have to apply 'heat' to trap the carbon. So where does this heat come from? Also whats the environmental costs involved in shipping the plant material to a place that can produce the required biochar?

Plenty of researchers and companies are looking at biochar and trying to find a way to scale up its production, but like all solutions to our carbon problem, we need to think of the whole process to assess if this is indeed a good way to solve the problem.

The other side of the equation

Of course another way to look at the problem is to try to reduce the carbon getting into the environment in the first place, but this is looking to be rather an unhill struggle on several fronts:

  • Getting first world economies to 'tool-up' in time to actually make a difference reducing their carbon emissions seems rather a remote possibility. The current schemes and 'fines' do more to make us feel we are doing something than actually making a real difference.
  • Getting third world countries to move to less carbon emitting 'habits' seems difficult too - carbon emitting is 'cheap' and 'simple'; scrubbling or changing to other techniques is hard, expensive and often depends on buying in tech from a remote business. So you end up loosing in all directions.
Therefore, we are rather stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand we have a supposed miracle solution and on the other we have a lack of real will to reduce carbon emissions....

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