What is biochar anyway?

Published Jan. 17 2017

Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve is planning a biochar facility off Kennaway Road in Dysart et al. Their various appearances before council to rezone the property means there is plenty of discussion about biochar in the news. But what is it and what can it do for our environment? We asked Nina Shock project manager of Haliburton Forest Biochar to explain some of the concepts.

Can you tell me in as simple terms as possible what biochar is – in particular how it would be made here in Haliburton?

Nina Shock: Biochar is any organic biomass including grasses corn stover livestock manure fruit pomace algae and wood that has been thermally treated in an oxygen-limited environment and typically used as a soil amendment – although other markets for biochar are gradually developing. Haliburton Forest Biochar only makes biochar from wood sawdust.

How long has Haliburton Forest been working on its current plans?  In broad strokes what is the vision of the facility?

Haliburton Forest has been working on its current plans for a biochar production facility for a little over a year. The company is called Haliburton Forest Biochar Ltd. it is a subsidiary of Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve Ltd.
The mission of the facility is to become a global leader in green technology and renewable biomaterials through the establishment of viable sustainable systems and products.

How does biochar help the ecosystem? How does it address climate change?

Biochar helps the planet by capturing organic carbon that is inherently found within biological material such as wood thereby delaying carbon from entering the atmosphere through natural processes. Further biochar can be used in place of fossil fuel derivatives in industrial applications allowing the divestment from these products in various manufacturing processes. Biochar can also be applied as a soil addition scientifically shown to increase soil fertility and thereby the health of plants trees and agricultural crops.

When biochar is used in agricultural applications improvements to crop health and yield address concerns surrounding global food security as well as the use and over-use of chemical fertilizers. The same properties of biochar that give it agronomic benefits also make biochar a viable tool for soil remediation where soils have become degenerated and nutrient-poor – unable to support life. Brown fields tailings ponds abandoned industrial and mining sites and soils with nutrient and pH imbalances can be made green again with biochar. For all these reasons and more biochar is good for the earth and a climate change mitigation tool.

If biochar captures carbon does it not release it back into the atmosphere eventually?

The more recalcitrant biochar is the more valuable it is from a carbon sink perspective. A tree that becomes a paper bag could decompose and release the carbon from its feedstock within a month. A tree that becomes a table or a floor joist will hang onto the carbon inside of it a lot longer.

A tree that becomes biochar could take anywhere from 500 to 50000 years to breakdown naturally releasing the carbon it contains back into the atmosphere. If agricultural and forestry residues and any other organic residues produced through commercial industry could be used as feedstock for biochar as opposed to being made into short-lived products sent to landfills incinerated or disposed of by other means the carbon offsets would be meaningful.

Is the production of biochar a pollution-creating process? Is it an energy-intensive process?

Manufacturing biochar involves heat-treating organic matter in a chamber where combustion is minimized. Besides the biochar produced by this process; steam gases vapours and depending on the manufacturer’s desires bio-oil are also produced. If bio-oil is not desired it is converted to gases and emitted.

These gases include hydrogen carbon monoxide light hydrocarbons carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Everything emitted from the production of biochar and the levels of these emissions are regulated and monitored stringently by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change as is a legal requirement for all industrial manufacturing processes in Canada. In short; no biochar production if executed and regulated correctly is not a pollution-creating process.

Biochar can be produced by a system that functions at a steady state meaning it powers itself. The biomass gases escaping the feedstock being used to make biochar are used to heat and power the process. The process uses more biomass gas for power and heat than it does external power sources such as propane making it energy negative.

Are there downsides to the technology?

By downside I might say there is room for improvement. But I see that as an opportunity to make a great thing even greater; more efficient more scalable more cost effective lighter stronger etc. But torrefaction and gasification processes have seen centuries of evolution this is just a new and exciting phase for this form of thermal technology. One that will soon produce an industrial standard that could revolutionize the way we use and reuse materials throughout the world.

How many other facilities are doing what the Forest intends to do?

If you mean produce biochar there are at least three or four other commercial operations in Canada.
At least a dozen more throughout the U.S. and numerous others in Europe Asia Australia and South America to name a few spots.

If done on a large scale what kind of impact could biochar have nationally or globally?

Quantifying the impacts of using biochar in all of its markets and budding markets around the world is a task for a specialist in life cycle analyses. All I should say is if you think about what it would mean for the world to have the forests and our produce grow a little better and faster to keep fertilizers out of water systems to rely less on fossil fuels and to turn significant quantities of rapid-mineralizing organic residues into a carbon sink you’re thinking of a better happier planet. One that can sustain life a little longer than it would otherwise.