Biochar development offers environmental ‘triple-win’

The development of 'biochar', a process of turning biomass into a form of charcoal, is set to help tackle carbon emissions, generate environmentally-friendly energy and enhance soil fertility, says the European Commission.

Through a process of pyrolysis, or high temperature heating in a closed, oxygen-free environment, the resulting charcoal, or ‘biochar’ as it is known, ‘locks in’ the carbon that was contained in the original biomass.

According to the EU project team of EUROCHAR, the carbon is prevented from escaping into the atmosphere, as would happen if the biomass were left to biodegrade naturally.

EUROCHAR’s project coordinator, Dr Franco Miglietta of Italy’s Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, said: “While biochar is not as stable as coal, it does allow carbon that was originally in the atmosphere, and which would otherwise have been released back into it, to be safely sequestered in the soil.”

Dr Miglietta said that biochar provides an option for carbon sequestration which “could last for centuries”.

In addition, pyrolysis produces ‘syngas’, or synthesis gas, a combustible hydrocarbon which can be used as a fuel, while the third advantage of biochar is that it can be stored in, and actually benefits, soil.

The project team says that adding biochar improves the physical structure of the soil, making it lighter, capable of containing more water, and increasing its fertility.

Dr Miglietta said: “This completes the loop. If we have better soil we can produce more biomass. With more biomass we can produce more energy, and that means we can produce more biochar.”

Leigh Stringer

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