19 February 2010

Should we be adding charcoal to our soil?

I've been reading lately about the incredibly fascinating Terra Preta ("Black Earth") in the Amazonian rainforest. Most tropical rainforest soils are pale, nurtient poor, prone to leaching, and virtually impossible to sustainably farm. The Terra Preta, on the other hand, are dark, nutrient rich, resist leaching, and produce high yields year after year. Here is a picture of the two soil types from wikipedia:
The coolest thing? These fertile, stable soils are man made -- created by massive pre-columbian native American societies before they were wiped out by European diseases. HOW they created them is an interesting question: There are a lot of differences between them and the regular soils -- many more and different microorganisms, numerous pottery shards, and lots of charcoal. And it looks like the charcoal (or biochar, as people in soil science seem to like to call it, for some reason) is what is making the difference. In tropical soils, regular organic matter (compost, etc) decomposes and vanishes extremely rapidly. Charcoal, however, is carbon in an extremely stable form, which can presist in the soil for thousands of years -- and apparently alter the structure, chemistry, and biota in the soil enough to produce very stable, long-lasting fertility.

I should emphasize that no one has yet conclusively shown that biochar (charcoal) is THE factor in creating these soils, but a number of studies (nicely reviewed here by Warnock et al) support the hypothesis that adding charcoal to the soil does dramatically increase populations of beneficial soil microorganisms.

So, I'm thinking of trying adding charcoal to some of my beds this spring, and seeing if I can tell a difference. There are lots of sites with information on making your own charcoal, but it seems regular charcoal (chunks, not briquettes, which have added chemicals to glue them together) should work just fine. So we'll see! I'm not expecting my soil to instantly morph into super-fertile terra preta, but it should be fun to play with.


Aerelonian said...

I find that soil very interesting. I have a bunch of site bookmarked for future reference. With the proper combination of soil and mycelium innoculation I think people could really do wonders for soil fertility.

Greensparrow said...

It certainly is intriguing... there is still SO much we don't know about soil.

Erich J. Knight said...

All political persuasions agree, building soil carbon is GOOD. To Hard bitten Farmers, wary of carbon regulations that only increase their costs, Building soil carbon is a savory bone, to do well while doing good.

Land management & Biochar provides the tools powerful enough to cover Farming's carbon foot print while lowering cost simultaneously.

Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent.

Wise Land management; Organic farming / no-till and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,

Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon living biomass & Glomalins Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure;

The old saw;

"Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes;
"Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !".
Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar.
Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
Microbes like to sit down when they eat.
By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life.

This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it.

Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web. The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet. Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure we need to build out.

Another significant aspect of low cost Biomass cook stoves that produce char is removal of BC aerosols and no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing "Three Stone" stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria.

The Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF).recently funded The Biochar Fund $300K for these systems citing these priorities;
1) Hunger amongst the world's poorest people, the subsistence farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa,
(2) Deforestation resulting from a reliance on slash-and-burn farming,
(3) Energy poverty and a lack of access to clean, renewable energy, and
(4) Climate change.

The Biochar Fund:
Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon
The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ,that, and the size of the Biochar corn root balls.

Biochar systems for Biofuels and soil carbon sequestration are so basically conservative in nature it is a shame that republicans have not seized it as a central environmental policy plank as the conservatives in Australia have; "Carbon sequestration without Taxes"


The Ozzie's for 5 years now in field studies
The future of biochar - Project Rainbow Bee Eater

The Japanese have been at it dacades:
Japan Biochar Association ;

UK Biochar Research Centre

USDA in their 2 nd year; "Novak, Jeff" , & "david laird" ,
There are dozens soil researchers on the subject now at USDA-ARS,and many studies at The ASA-CSSA-SSSA joint meeting;

Mary C. said...

Oh I can't wait to hear more about this!!!

Erich J. Knight said...

Sustainable bio char to mitigate global climate change

Not talked about in this otherwise comprehensive study are the climate and whole ecological implications of new , higher value, applications of chars.

the in situ remediation of a vast variety of toxic agents in soils and sediments.
Biochar Sorption of Contaminants;

Dr. Lima’s work; Specialized Characterization Methods for Biochar
And at USDA;
The Ultimate Trash To Treasure: *ARS Research Turns Poultry Waste into Toxin-grabbing Char

The uses as a feed ration for livestock to reduce GHG emissions and increase disease resistance.

Recent work by C. Steiner, at U of GA, showing a 52% reduction of NH3 loss when char is used as a composting accelerator. This will have profound value added consequences for the commercial composting industry by reduction of their GHG emissions and the sale of compost as a nitrogen fertilizer.

Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left.
Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

Thanks for your efforts.

Erich J. Knight
Chairman; Markets and Business Committee
2010 US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University

Erich J. Knight said...

NASA’s Space Archaeology; $364K Terra Preta Program

Biomass should never be just burnt, instead it should be fractionated to it’s high value uses.

State Dept. Release;
100 million clean-burning stoves in kitchens around the world.

WorldStoves in Haiti ; http://www.charcoalproject.org/2010/05/a-man-a-stove-a-mission/

NSF Awards $1.6 million in grants;
BREAD: Biochar Inoculants for Enabling Smallholder Agriculture

Whole systems solutions based on building soil carbon take a while to filter through one’s mind to see the manifold benefits. The “Eyes Glaze Over” microbial complexity, labile verses recalcitrant carbon, Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) etc, all conspire to slow peoples comprehension .

Once thought through however, the elemental carbon nature of biochar understood, soil’s reduced GHG emissions and the local economic stimulus perceived, then can be added that beyond rectifying the Carbon Cycle, biochar systems serve the same healing function for the Nitrogen & Phosphorous Cycles, Toxicity in Soils & Sediments and cut the carbon foot print of livestock by 1/2 with a 5%Char feed ration.

The production of fossil fuel free ammonia & char (SynGest, http://www.syngest.com/ ) and the 52% conservation of NH3 in composting with chars, are just the newest pathways for the highest value use of the fractionation of biomass.

The Columbian Encounter and the Little Ice Age: Abrupt Land Use Change, Fire, and Greenhouse Forcing - Annals of the Association of American Geographers

When I was researching NPP numbers for plugging into Biochar's climate potential, looking through Dr. Bill Ruddiman's work at UVA on legacy CO2 and the agricultural revolution, It's support of Johannes Lehmann's previous work of a potential 10 GtC sequestration, and the added perspective of palioclimatic effects of soil carbon loss, the Ruddimann Hypothesis, brought together many loose threads for me.

Dr. Dull's recent work brings even more support, related even closer to practices of Terra Preta soils in the Amazon. The BC, charcoal & pollen evidence is hard to ignore

I'm glad this work by Dr. Dull is getting attention. Together with Dr. William Woods and citing Bill Ruddiman's work, the pieces of anthropogenic climate change fall into place.

The implications are really important. Dull, et al, argue that the re-growth of Neotropical forests following the Columbian encounter led to terrestrial biospheric carbon sequestration on the order of 2 to 5 GtC, thereby contributing to the well-documented decrease in atmospheric C recorded in Antarctic ice cores from about 1500 through 1750. While the paper does not extend to the medieval maximum, from charcoal in lake bed studies it documents increased biomass burning and deforestation during agricultural and population expansion in the Neotropics from 2500 to 500 years BP, which would correspond with atmospheric carbon loading and global warming 1100 to 650 years BP.

Dr.Dull gives us hard numbers for what Charles Mann has tried to get across to us in "1491", that we don't give mankind near enough credit for creating our biosphere. Just as Michael Pollan's "Botany of Desire" showed us how plants have manipulated us to spread them around the globe, the message of man's mutuality with nature is more than seeping into the data everywhere.

Erich J. Knight said...

For a complete review of the current science & industry applications of Biochar please see my 2013 Umass Biochar presentation. How thermal conversion technologies can integrate and optimize the recycling of valuable nutrients while providing energy and building soil carbon, I believe it brings together both sides of climate beliefs.
A reconciling of both Gods' and mans' controlling hands.

Agricultural Geo - Engineering; Past, Present & Future
Across scientific disciplines carbons are finding new utility to solve our most vexing problems

Jones Morris said...

as people in soil science seem to like to call it, for some reason) is what is making the difference. In tropical soils, charcoal for skin