Biochar Squelches Emissions From Biofuel Crops

On the surface, biofuels seem like the perfect solution to our oil and gas addiction. Make the same kind of fuel from plants and make cars that can run on it. Simple right? Well, as EarthTechling writer Mat McDermott explains, it’s actually much more complex. The luster has long disappeared from first generation biofuels (like biodiesel, ethanol) as we discover that calling biofuels green requires a lot more than plants.

Now that most have realized food stock-based biofuels aren’t the answer, the search continues for other biomass that could accurately bear the mantle of a petroleum substitute. New research shows that biochar may be key to producing just such an alternative.

biochar

Image via mattdil/Flickr

Soils are among the biggest sources of UK emissions (surprising huh?).  A team of scientists from that country’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) published a study that suggests applying biochar before planting biodfuel crops could cut soil greenhouse-gas emissions by around a third.

In an attempt to meet the EU’s target of a fifth of energy coming from renewable sources by 2020, the UK have been cultivating crops like miscanthus and coppiced willow for the production of non-food biofuels. Now it appears that by adding biochar as a soil treatment, cultivators could further reduce emissions associated with such production, and even increase the soil’s natural carbon storage capacity.

To test their theory, researchers monitored a plantation of miscanthus for two years. The plots treated with biochar emitted 37 percent less greenhouse gases than those that hadn’t, while in the lab the impact was even bigger at 55 percent.

“We’ve shown that adding biochar suppresses CO2 emissions very significantly over several years,” says Sean Case, a PhD student at NERC’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and lead author of the paper. “Previous studies have found this effect in the lab and over short periods, but this is the first time anyone has looked at bioenergy crops in the field, and at the effects of biochar over a long period.”

Using biochar in this way could also help close the biofuel loop, as waste fron biomass burned for energy could be returned to help bolster future crops.

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog

2 Comments

  • Reply April 2, 2013

    Jonathan_Justice

    Do not confuse biochar with ash. While biochar/charcoal probably does have a major role to play in increasing food and fiber production on acidic soils and also in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, it is not a waste product that just turns up whenever one burns biomass. Pyrolysis does produce energy, but it does not burn the char. If one burns the char, one gets more energy and ashes, but one does not get the soil enhancements or the carbon sequestration.

  • Reply April 2, 2013

    Erich Knight

    To appreciate the wider applications of Biochar, the
    use as a feed additive and nutrient management tool, Please review my
    presentation and slides of this opening talk for the USBI Biochar
    conference in Sonoma California. This is the third US Biochar
    conference,
    after ISU 2010 and Colorado 2009;

    “Carbon Conservation for Home, Health, Energy & Climate”

    http://2012.biochar.us.com/299/2012-us-biochar-conference-presentations

    Modern
    Thermal conversion of biomass burns only the hydrocarbons in that
    biomass, conserving the carbon for the soil. At the large farm or
    village scale modern pyrolysis reactors can relieve energy poverty, food
    insecurity and decreased dependency on chemical fertilizers.

    Please
    take a look at this YouTube video by the CEO of CoolPlanet Biofuels,
    guided by Google’s Ethos and funding, along with GE, BP and Conoco, they
    are now building the reactors that convert 1 ton of biomass to 75
    gallons of bio – gasoline and 1/3 ton Biochar for soil carbon
    sequestration.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkYVlZ9v_0o

    To review other developments in cleanburning cook stoves,
    pyrolytic home heating stoves etc. Please review my Sonoma Biochar
    Conference Report;

    http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/biochar-policy/message/3921

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