ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Biochar; the name geeks give charcoal

Updated on March 10, 2011

Carbon capture future?

Sinking carbon as charcoal could help mitigate climate change

True to form, my attempts to focus on my academic work for more than two minutes during the working day have yet again failed, and I’ve found myself engrossed in another topic – Biochar. Well at least it’s not the cricket this time, and I can at least claim with a level of certainty that biochar at least has something to do with sustainability, though whether or not it can be done at home or not is open to interpretation!

First, the background: Biochar is just a nerdy and more scientific sounding way of saying charcoal, the ordinary substance that we’re all aware of from family barbeques. As its new name suggests, it is a charred bioorganic material, typically wood. Biochar is comprised of between 50 and 95% carbon and made by burning or baking organic matter in anaerobic conditions – as I’m sure many of you reading this blog are aware. However one of the aspects of biochar not considered until recently has been its ability to sink carbon.

Biochar is an incredibly stable material, and as opposed to your average bit of organic matter isn’t going to rot either aerobically or anaerobically, and therefore won’t create CO2 or methane as it does so. It therefore follows that if you create a kilo of biochar, then typically 800 grams of carbon will be sunk within it, breaking the carbon cycle and making safe from contributing to the greenhouse effect. This biochar will now keep the carbon locked within it for up to 5000 years! I repeat, 5000 years!

Of course as an average household creates around 6 tonnes of CO2 in a typical year, no one is suggesting that you might be able to burn the 8 tonnes plus of hedge clippings required to offset an entire households’ worth of material! But scaled up to provide a service for even a percentage of the 140 million tonnes of discarded organic waste produced in the UK each year, biochar could put a serious dint in offsetting carbon in the long term.

Of course, we then have to establish what we’re going to do with this charcoal, but again the answer is encouraging! Biochar has the added bonus of being very a very good addition to soils, particularly in the tropics where they improve soil structure and allow a soil to hold onto a greater number of nutrients. Biochar-slash and burn could be employed in rainforests where soil nutrient depletion currently drives farmers deeper and deeper into virgin forest. Indeed charcoal was been added to soils in the Amazon region hundreds of years ago for just this reason.

So can we make a difference at home? Well, probably not, but this shouldn’t stop us from trying in some small way! I’m sure lots of you out there are going to burn organic waste at some point this year so you may as well experiment while you do! Get a biscuit tin (or a number of), fill with bit of dry(ish) wood and stick it in your bonfire. The black stuff left in the tin is your very own biochar (being careful to remember to call it this, as it sounds more impressive than “charcoal”). Once it’s cooled, weight it and estimate that 80% of the weight is carbon. Hey presto, you’ve sunk that amount of carbon! Now dig it into your soil!


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • superwags profile image

      superwags 6 years ago from UK

      I encourage everyone to do it! It'd fun apart from anything else! Well, the kind of thing I find fun!

    • sheerplan profile image

      sheerplan 6 years ago from United States

      I used to work at Kingsford Manufacturing and thought I knew a thing or two about the uses of charcoal, but I had never heard of its use to mitigate climate change. Very informative article. I do know that charcoal used to be made by slow burning wood waste in a covered pit. So if you have a shovel and a big back yard....

    • profile image

      new_biochar_land 6 years ago

      You want to know all the secrets about biochar ?

      This book will help !

      Here practice and theory merge under a single cover of "The Biochar Revolution" and reveals hidden secrets of science called Biochar

    • Patsybell profile image

      Patsy Bell Hobson 6 years ago from zone 6a, SEMO

      Brilliant, amusing and puts perspective on a serious concern.

    • superwags profile image

      superwags 7 years ago from UK

      Thanks for your insight Erich. As will be obvious to you I'm a rather ley observer of biochar,but am fanscinated to see wht happens with the technology in the future.

      It seems to me to be sustainable way of sinking carbon and improving the structure and availability of nutrients in soil, particicularly if the process can be used to generate energy.

      No doubt I'll learn a good deal more from the links you've posted.



    • profile image

      erichj 7 years ago

      Recent NATURE STUDY;

      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 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