I have lost count of the number of people that have asked if or how biochar might be able to help when it comes to our current pandemic. Years ago I wrote about how biochar might be able to help prevent the spread of cholera, looking mostly at a post disaster scenario where this bacterial disease can often become commonplace. Containing a virus that has gone global is a totally different tragedy. Nevertheless, there are still ways that biochar may be able to help.
Masks made with biochar: Activated carbon has long been used in personal protective gear (PPE) and there is some indication that certain types of carbon may be effective in inactivated viruses (Matsushita et al 2013). Robert Tonks has pioneered a truly innovative, reusable mask (pictured above) that contains biochar which could be made in mobile manufacturing facilities.
Carbonizing contaminated medical waste: At the moment, vast amounts of PPE are being used and discarded at an ever-increasing rate. Presumably much of this will be incinerated at least in those parts of the world where incineration is available. Carbonization might be a viable option however, at least for the paper-based PPE. The high heat temperatures should eliminate the virus and the resulting biochar could be used for a variety of purposes including potentially masks!
Carbonizing human feces: There is some indication that human feces may contain traces of the virus though more research is needed to understand if the virus can be spread from it. To be on the safe side, putting sludge through a thermochemical conversion system would eliminate that risk – and provide substantial other benefits as well.
Carbonization vs. cremation: funeral homes are overloaded in hot spot zones for the pandemic. Though the concept of carbonizing human remains is still largely theoretical, it is feasible. Keeping part of a loved-one’s carbon from returning to the atmosphere might seem like purgatory to some, but it might be one small way to help rebalance carbon levels!
Perhaps the most interesting take I’ve heard about how biochar can help during this pandemic has to do with stalled international deliveries of things like fertilizer. Farmers in the Northern Hemisphere are just about ready to start planting and going without fertilizer is causing many to panic. However, those that know how to convert biomass to biochar and blend it with locally available nutrients (e.g. manure, urine, compost, etc.) can wean themselves off their dependency on imported fertilizer. This not only increases their resiliency but also reduces costs and emissions related to fertilizer use It can also alleviate leaching of excess nutrients into local water bodies.