doosanTime for Another Look at Biochar?

By Jack Petree

Biochar is essentially a charcoal created when wood or other combustible organics are partially burned in an oxygen-starved environment. A decade or so ago many thought biochar might be a big part of the future of waste management for the forest products industry but interest seems to have waned in intervening years.

Today, however, new research points to a potentially bright future for the product, both as a way to manage wood waste and as an additional profit center for mills, landowners, and others sometimes challenged by razor-thin profit margins. It may be time for another look at biochar.

Benefits of Biochar

Both the incineration and the natural decomposition of, forest biomass release huge amounts of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere. In a 2008 study, for example, renowned forest scientist Thomas Bonnicksen estimated that emissions from just four forest fires in California in a single year meant, “50 percent of all cars in California would have to be locked in a garage for one year to make up for the global warming impact of those wildfires.” Biomass remaining after harvests and after milling have similar impacts if not utilized in some way.

Biochar represents a way to store carbon in the ground for potentially centuries even as it potentially enhances water quality, increases soil fertility, and increases productivity on crop lands. As biochar is produced it can also, depending on the method of production, allow for the recovery of valuable byproducts, including energy. Evidence exists that biochar may also actually absorb carbon dioxide during its lifetime, making the product a powerful anti-greenhouse gas tool.

Market for Wood Waste

Four things are necessary to make a relatively unknown product like biochar viable; a need has to be filled, a method for producing enough of the product to assure a stable and adequate supply must be assured, the economics must at least balance or be positive, and a market must exist or at least be seen as possible to create.

Regarding the forest products industry, the need for an economically viable way to handle massive quantities of wood “waste” is evident. The ability to manufacture biochar, either on-site or off has been well demonstrated. A potential market sizable enough to accommodate the very large quantities of biochar the forest products industry could provide and the potential for profit have been inhibiting factors in the recent past.

Recent work with some innovative farmers on Orcas Island, Washington in concert with Si Gao, a PhD student, originally at the University of Washington and presently at W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation, University of Montana, demonstrates the potential value of biochar as a soil amendment in agriculture; agriculture represents a huge potential market if biochar is widely accepted by farmers.

Gao’s work was conducted on 10 small farm plots scattered throughout the San Juan Islands. One of those farms is owned by Kaj Enderlein, the owner of a Wood-Mizer portable sawmill, a community activist, and a timber farmer. Kaj produces biochar on his own farm using mill waste. His biochar was applied to a garden plot donated by Kaj to an organization he and three friends founded to improve food security in a community setting on Orcas Island, the Orcas Community Participatory Agriculture (Orcas CPA) initiative.

According to Gao, regarding the work, “We applied wood biochar at a rate of 20 metric tons per hectare to the sandy, slightly acidic soils of ten small-scale organic farms. Over the course of one growing season, we demonstrated that biochar with or without additional fertilizer increased soil carbon storage by 30 percent, plant available nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) by almost 50 percent and 30 percent, respectively, while reducing N and P leaching across all ten farms. Biochar with fertilizer worked the best among all treatments.”

He adds, “These results demonstrated that biochar could serve as a good transition or soil amendment candidate in not only creating a closed loop system that recaptures the value of local logging biomass that would otherwise be pile burned and generate net loss of nutrients, but also leveraging the existing resources and community readiness to create sustainable forest restoration and agriculture practices.”

Brighter Future

Gao’s studies, as well as similar work done by others, helps show that optimism regarding the future of biochar’s use in agriculture expressed by analysists at Grand View Research, a U.S.-based market research and consulting company headquartered in San Francisco, is justified. Grand View expects the biochar market worldwide to grow at a 13.2% compound annual growth rate over the next few years — growth largely driven by agriculture.

Some believe the forest products industry is at a crossroad as the second decade of the century comes to an end. New equipment, new approaches, and new challenges are seen almost daily. Perhaps it truly is time for a second look at biochar.

Jack Petree is a writer, public policy researcher, and owner of Tradeworld Communications.

TimberWest November/December 2013
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