Biochar in the time of Coronavirus

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.

Sensitizing the sanitation community to sequestration (and biochar!)

I was recently asked by the NYC Department of Sanitation to keynote at their SOAR Strategic Partnership Breakfast which was also highlighting International Women’s Day. It was a great opportunity to enlighten urban sanitation folks about biochar. With a few edits, here is my talk (warning – longer than most of my blog posts but hopefully it will be of interest).

It’s been far too long since I roamed the streets of NYC as one who called it home, but the invitation to return and hear about what is going on in the world of waste, or as I prefer to call it, unloved organics, was more than a little appealing. When I last lived here my career was about as far away from reimaging or repurposing organics as it is possible to get. I did a mid-life career 180 after going back to complete a Masters in Sustainability about a decade ago. It was during that time that I read about a little something called biochar which changed the entire course of my life! At the time I had no idea how few people had ever heard of it, nor did I think that 10 years later, roughly 98% of anyone I’ve ever talked to about biochar would respond with ‘bio-what’. But over the last year or so, things have really started to change rapidly on so many different fronts within the industry, that I am convinced the future for biochar is bright. So if you had never heard of biochar before getting your invitation to this event, know that you are in the vast majority, but please allow me to enlighten you just a bit about this exciting and diverse material and the process by which it is made.

Biochar is a fancy new name for a material born from an ancient indigenous waste management practice – most likely devised by women in my humble opinion – since it centered around cooking. The process seems astonishingly simple in retrospect yet had profoundly positive and long-lasting impacts.  As you might imagine cooking in fire pits produces prodigious amounts of hot coals. It appears that human urine and probably other ‘leftovers’, were dumped on top of the burning coals in an effort to both reduce odors from urine and feces and to thoroughly quench the fires. Whether by accident or design this combination eventually converted crappy soils – that’s not the technical term but I grew up on a farm and that is how you usually hear low fertility soils described – into highly productive soils capable of feeding a population far greater than had been previously imagined. Fast forward a few millenia and those same soils are still up to 4x more fertile than surrounding soils in the Amazon which were untouched by human hands. In fact, those same soils are being dug up and sold to boost soil fertility elsewhere.

Late last century these highly fertile soils were re-discovered and piqued the interest of soil scientists and archeologists.  More recently the biochar industry has garned interest from a much more diverse flock such as waste managers, urban planners, the construction industry and climate change scientists and activists.  The reason for this diverse interest is that the production and use of biochar brings with it a range of benefits. Those of interest to this gathering include:

  • Volume reduction – depending on the temperatures used and the organic material volume can be reduced by 70 – 95%!
  • Speed – compared to other organic management practices, the use of high heat and low oxygen, what we refer to in the industry as thermo-chemical conversion or TCC can be done in minutes or hours versus weeks. Thermochemical conversion includes technologies such as pyrolysis and gasification, but it should not be confused with incineration. Think of it more like baking; you put something in the oven, close the door and crank up the heat. If you are anything like me, sometimes you get something that is not at all appetizing, but it is my favorite color – black! This unappealing taste may be why soil microbes and decomposers don’t like to consume it allowing carbon to persists in soils for millennia.
  • Odor & pathogen control – TCC can also significantly reduce and in many cases eliminate odors and pathogens both directly and indirectly – meaning when added to landfills, compost piles or manure slurries, it can bind or hug toxins to prevent them from leaching and do the same with ammonia which causes the all too-familiar smell of ‘eau de landfill’.
  • Scalability – technologies for converting organics to biochar range from backyard kilns capable of carbonizing tree debris, to community scale, to multi-million dollar production facilities.
  • Renewable energy – some TCC technologies can harvest the heat generated from baking the organic matter. This heat can either be used for drying wetter material or can be used for other heating needs.  Other equipment produces syngas which can be used to generate electricity while still others produce bio-oil which can be refined to be used as a fuel.
  • And finally, there is the carbon impact. Organics sent to landfills or even to compost facilities can emit significant GHGs. While carbonizing organics with high heat and low oxygen does produce some GHGs, when managed properly TCC is considered a negative emission technology (or NET), meaning the overall impact is that more carbon will be prevented from returning to the atmosphere than is emitted. Think of it as carbon interruptus.  This is something the IPCC and others have said is critical to avoiding climate chaos.

We are seeing more requirements to reduce and neutralize emissions at least in NY, if not at a national level. Given that, shifting from a carbon belching process to a carbon banking one, may be well worth considering.  And though the carbon markets in the US don’t yet recognize biochar production and use as a product category, that is one of the areas that is starting to change very quickly. I predict we will start to see increasing revenues focused on carbon removal (e.g. NETs) versus carbon reductions (i.e. from renewable energy generation). Biochar is likely to be a key component of carbon removal markets.

A growing number of closed loop biochar production scenarios are sprouting up across the globe. Here are just a smattering.

  • One of the oldest can be found in Austria where a compost company, Sonnenerde, began accepting paper mill waste and turning it into biochar which was then blended with different compost recipes.  Adding biochar to compost can not only reduce odors and pathogens as I mentioned, but it can boost temperatures, speed up the processing time, hold on to more nutrients, serve as a bulking agent and provide longer lasting carbon to the soil.
  • One of the most talked about models hails from Stockholm where the city converts green waste from residents and city Parks into heat that is fed into a district heating system and biochar.  Their first demo plant was launched as a way to reduce the amount of biochar they imported from other countries which they had been using to improve urban tree survival.  An unanticipated benefit they discovered as they began to use more and more structured soil made up of gravel, compost & biochar is that the amount of rainwater that could be stored during storms increased significantly while the amount of toxins from roads and roofs that had to be dealt with at the waste water treatment plant decreased. These toxins were bound in the biochar. City officials took notice and now this model is being replicated not only across Sweden and Europe, but here in the US as well where I believe Minneapolis is the first large city to be planning a pyrolysis plant.
  • More recently an Australian company, Rainbow Bee Eater, located a carbonizer in an enormous 2 acre greenhouse to provide renewable energy. The fuel for the carbonizer is wood supplied by a local composter who provides it for free in exchange for taking the biochar produced from the machine which is added back to their compost.
  • Closer to home is an enormous gasification plant being built in New Jersey by Aries Clean Energy. They plan to convert 440 tons per day of sewage sludge into 22 tons per day of char. A long-term offtake agreement has been signed with a local cement company that will be using it as a filler instead of fly-ash, a by-product from coal fired electricity generation plants. In the past decade alone roughly half of the coal generating capacity has been shuttered so cement manufacturers are on the look-out for new alternatives.  
  • East of here, out on Long Island, 2 projects are being investigated aimed at carbonizing mountains of wood chips which are leaching heavy metals into the groundwater.  The goal for at least some of the biochar to be produced is to use it in bio-filters across the island to reduce the amount of nutrients, phosphorus mostly, leaching from hundreds of thousands of septic systems into local water bodies causing massive algae blooms and die off of various native aquatic species.
  • And in Western NY where I live Cornell University in collaboration with NYSERDA is looking at siting the first pyrolysis plant on a dairy farm to deal with excess manure. Amongst other end uses for dairy manure biochar, we will be looking to use it to filter the wastewater from dairy production or possibly the effluents from nearby food processing companies such as yogurt or tofu manufacturing. Using biochar in this way harvests the nutrients and allows them to be cycled back into the soil for use by plants. We dubbed this kind of beneficial carbon cascade the ‘filtration to fertilizer’ approach
  • I’ve also been working with the Rochester Institute of Technology for the past several years on converting different types of food waste into biochar. Biochar made from mixed food waste may have a lot of salt or chlorine, so using it in soils may not be the best solution. Instead we’ve been looking at using it in different types of composites. I have a prototype here which is a non-plastic, compostable tray made using 20% coffee waste biochar. One could call it biodegradable but I don’t love the term biodegradable due to the negative connotations of the word ‘degrade’. Instead I prefer bioUPgradable, since biochar-based products will sequester carbon and not produce GHG emissions whether you compost it or toss it in the landfill.

Low or variable quality biochar from mixed food waste or sewage sludge is also being tested in asphalt while higher quality and more consistent biochar is starting to be used in building materials such as flooring, composite lumber, and exterior siding. This will hopefully encourage the construction industry to build vast new above-ground carbon sinks.


There are a growing number of ways biochar can help New York achieve some of the ambitious legislation that has been passed in the past year or so.  The Organics Mandate prohibiting large scale food waste from being sent to landfills is one example.  Providing additional ways to deal with food waste such as TCC, could support broader adoption.  Co-locating pyrolysis with composting operations or anaerobic digesters may make a lot of sense.

I’ve mentioned the boost to compost that adding biochar can make but there are also synergies with anaerobic digestion as well. One issue some AD operators have is managing the excess fiber or digestate.  Digestate can be used as a feedstock for biochar and help reduce volumes.  The resulting digestate biochar can be fed into the digester as a carbon source. Research has shown that this can improve the quantity and quality of methane produced making the economics of operating a biogas plant more attractive. Biochar also seems to provide a kind of buffer which helps smooths out production ups and downs which occur when the substrate mix is changed. Adding biochar can also reduce the amount of hydrogen sulfide produced which can be harsh on equipment, reducing its operating life.

Biochar can help New York achieve the aggressive yet vital goals that were set forth last year in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.  That legislation committed NY to a goal of 85% reduction by 2050 with all sectors being net zero emissions by then as well. To reach net zero, those that cannot completely eliminate all emissions must offset any remaining emissions through projects that permanently remove GHG from the atmosphere. What is new and I think important that NY has done with this legislation is that they will not allow renewable energy to be used as an offset as that is already baked into the reduction goals.  There are not that many ways to permanently remove GHGs from the atmosphere. Trees can do an excellent job pulling CO2 from the atmosphere, but as we’ve seen out West and Down Under, those trees are increasingly at risk of going up in smoke and giving back all the CO2 they absorbed during their lifetime.

According to the IPCC biochar is one of only 6 technologies touted as being able to make a material difference in rebalancing atmospheric carbon levels. Half of the other suggested technologies have yet to be proven economical viable or environmentally benign. In comparison biochar production and use is safe, scalable and shovel ready. It provides multiple benefits above and beyond the ability to help mitigate and adapt to climate change as I’ve already described.  

So with all this good news, why haven’t more people heard of biochar and why haven’t more communities adopted this kind of waste management approach? That is a question I get asked A LOT. In fact, I ask myself this question all the time.

A few years ago, the lack of biochar adoption could have been blamed on the lack of sufficient time-tested equipment or, importantly, local technical support available to make a good quality, consistent biochar. That has begun to change.   

One of the reasons I believe biochar has so far struggled is that the primary market targeted over the past decade has been agriculture. In the early days of any new industry when production is low and prices are high, going after a market that is already very low margin and high risk is probably not the best first step. Until or unless farmers start getting paid to build soil carbon their focus must, of necessity, be on the lowest cost means of production and right now biochar is too expensive for many annual crops when you compare it to cheap chemical fertilizers

Over the past few years though the industry has begun to expand their market focus beyond soil applications. Nowadays we are looking at less seasonal and more repeatable markets such as filtration where it can compete cost effectively against activated carbon, or in plastics and other composites where it can displace carbon black, a high cost fossil fuel product used in everything from back plastic bags to tires. It’s even finding its way into batteries. Those higher value markets will enable production to scale which will enable prices to fall which will hopefully then make it more economically feasible for most farmers to use it.

As with every young industry, we have seen companies enter and fold, we have had our fair share of snake oil salesmen and those hoping to quickly cash in on a perceived gold-rush – mind you many of those are the ones that have already departed, thankfully. Right now we are seeing an unprecedented level of interest from impact investors, carbon brokers, communities choking on waste, foresters desperate to remove excess biomass and of course many who are beginning to panic when it comes to climate change.

We are thrilled at all the new interest but those of us that have been in the industry for years understand and want to make sure that others understand that biochar is not a silver bullet nor is it like the Field of Dreams where you can expect to have unlimited demand once you start making biochar. To make the economics work and to maximize the carbon impact, it is critical to create biochar production scenarios that embrace the circular economy, that utilize all possible co-products including heat, and to build local markets instead of shipping biochar half way around the world – something which is happening far too frequently. Waste managers are uniquely poised to help build this industry but my advice would be to partner with someone that knows biochar well before you dive it. There are as many different kinds of biochar as there are different kinds of biomass; more really since different production parameters generate different qualities in biochar. Each of these types of biochar may be good for different markets and therefore the expected price for it will differ.

With that said, I welcome each and everyone of you to learn more about biochar. We need to scale this industry quickly and efficiently. 

If you are interested in learning more about biochar, the Rochester Institute of Technology will be hosting a free one-day thermo-chemical conversion and biochar workshop on April 20th up in Rochester. All are invited though registration is limited and required.

I also need to give a shameless plug for a book I co-authored last year called BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth.  In this book we explore many of the markets I’ve mentioned today and more. 

Many thanks for listening (well reading in this case!) and Charpe Diem!

5 Stages of Falling in Love with Biochar

Perhaps it is because of the ominous stage of the climate crisis and the understandable desire to rescue civilization from an increasingly dire future. Or perhaps it is because of more mundane motivators such as reducing organics sent to landfills, generating clean, renewable energy or reducing air pollution. Regardless of the reason, the biochar industry is witnessing a significant increase in interest over the past year. More and more individuals, companies, cities and other entities are discovering the oft overlooked carbon rebalancer known as biochar.

Needless to say, all of this newfound interest is welcome news for those of us that have been struggling to birth the industry for years. Perhaps unsurprisingly many of the ‘oldtimers’ are now being approached by untold newcomers with questions about biochar, markets, technologies, policies, barriers, standards, and the list goes on. Almost all want easy answers to which I often think to myself “if it were easy, the industry would be built already’.

A curious pattern seems to be emerging for those newly ‘biocharmed’ as I like to call them. In contrast to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), which could easily be applied to the increasing number of people suffering from eco-anxiety, I’d like to suggest the five soul soothing stages of falling in love with biochar (which could be applied to other safe, scalable and shovel-ready strategies to combat climate chaos). It should be noted that these stages may be cumulative versus linear for some of us. Here is a closer look:

Stage 1: Hopeful

When most people first learn about biochar, and I definitely include myself in this, the reaction is often a mixture of hope, relief and skepticism (perhaps a new portmanteau for this sentiment could be ‘horesk’?). Learning that there is an existing, cost-effective, scalable technology that can materially help rebalance carbon seems almost too good to be true. Many wonder why this isn’t better known and why it isn’t being rolled out en masse if it is so promising. Those of us in the industry often ponder this point as well, but we have a better understanding of the barriers.

Stage 2: Exuberant

Once the initial ‘aha’ stage begins to pass, the ‘yee-ha’ stage takes over. There is usually a lot of learning happening during this stage, but people get very switched on to all things biochar, which often leads them to quickly move on to the next stage.

Stage 3: Evangelism

“Charvangelists” come in all stripes, though the predominant geography seems to be from North America. At this stage the newly biocharmed are telling everyone who will listen, and many who can’t seem to be bothered, about just how great biochar is, often ad nauseum (just ask my family as they have subjected to this for years). Individuals in stage 3 are fearless and forthright. They speak to people they might never imaged speaking to before biochar entered their lives: farmers, foresters, and foes across the political aisle. They reach out to schools, churches, master gardeners and frankly anyone they think might listen and make a difference (I know from whence I speak!). Many people linger in this stage or may bring their charvangelism with them to the next stage.

Stage 4: Overwhelmed

In order for biochar (or any other quiver in the climate change solution set) to make a material impact on climate change, it must scale, and scale quickly. All new industries are challenged by scaling but doing so under the uncompromising time constraints of the global carbon budget makes scaling in the Anthropocene a Herculean task. The current Western culture seems ill equipped to turn multitudes of mere mortals into Carbon conquerors, which is perhaps why this stage can feel daunting in the extreme.

As those in the industry know, production of biochar is no longer the constraint to scaling. There is a lot of biochar production capability and interest just waiting for a market before they invest in infrastructure. Where to utilize the vast amounts of biochar that can and will be produced in the most beneficial and economical manner is the real hurdle. Identifying, creating and scaling those markets is nothing short of overwhelming.

Stage 5: Focused

Getting focused is the key to sustainable progress in many if not most situations. Understanding the biochar industry from soup to nuts is challenging but critical. It is important to understand how biochar is made, the different co-products that can be generated with different technologies and what their value may be in different geographies and industries; the variability of biochar and how to design them for specific end uses; the standards and policies that help or hinder different biochar markets; the climate change impact; and the emerging impact of carbon removal markets.

The sooner those new to biochar are able to focus on a few key biochar aspects and/or markets in their region or in their area of expertise, the sooner we will start to see substantial and sustainable scaling.

Biochar: Crossing the “Finnish” Line

Last week I hosted roughly 120 people for the latest biochar study tour in Finland. We had participants from 18 different countries, from students to CEOs, from the biochar litterati to those very new to the topic, from academia to those braving up to the task of commercialization. We had more than 2 dozen speakers that spoke about carbon markets, biochar building materials (always a hot topic), carbonizing sewage sludge, activating carbon, the potential of wood vinegar, production technologies and much, much more. It was as invigorating as the Finn’s penchant for “avanto” (ice swimming) – something that we didn’t manage to squeeze on to the agenda!

This was the 4th tour that I’ve organized and each one seems to get better and bigger than the previous one. Tours are meant to highlight biochar ‘bright spots’ and encourage people from around the world to replicate models that are economically and environmentally viable. They are also meant to bring together those looking to share, connect and learn with and from others in the biochar world. I have no doubt friendships were formed, alliances arranged, and new business ventures were born…or at least penciled out over a Finnish beer or three.

The format may be more casual than many conferences which is perhaps why I prefer the term ‘study tour’. Though we had some of the top European biochar ‘rock stars’ they mingled easily and eagerly with everyone present. It was a rare but important occasion for academics to consort with commercial biochar professionals which encouraged cross-pollination of theories and thoughts on future research and markets. We had ‘open mic’ on our 2 hour bus ride from Helsinki to Tampere where those that weren’t already listed as speakers during the event could tell their biochar story. This enabled people to connect more quickly with like-minded individuals during the tour.

Our technology host was Carbofex OY, a company which has been running a pilot scale pyrolysis unit in Tampere for quite some time. Sampo Turkiainen, the CEO, could not have provided a better example of how to encourage sustainable production while also keenly aware of the need to build markets if the biochar industry is to scale quickly. We toured not only the Carbofex factory but one of their nearby projects where biochar is being used in a leachate remediation project from a former pulp and papermill landfill.

I was fortunate to have a team of 4 talented, hard-working and fun Finns to help put this tour together most of whom I did not know well before we started this journey. They helped significantly when it came to choosing engaging and enlightened speakers from Finland. It is truly inspiring to see so much biochar activity, both commercial and academic, coming from a country that has a tiny population of 5.5 million. It really makes one consider how this country, and a few other small countries (e.g. Sweden, Austria, Switzerland) are able to gain traction and move things forward better than other countries. Perhaps we all need to consider avanto to help us rise to the challenge of fending off climate chaos?

To casually throw one’s body into freezing waters is to begin to understand the Finnish word sisu—which means courageously pushing yourself beyond your self-imposed mental and physical limits.

Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Dwelling on Drawdown – Part I

Last week marked my first big step in my latest project (and perhaps next book) which I’ve dubbed “dwelling on drawdown”. It involves researching, designing and building my forever home with an eye towards maximizing carbon sequestration and minimizing the use of fossil fuels in my c-sink sanctuary and surrounding yard. The scope will incorporate embodied carbon (for materials used during the build phase) and operating carbon (carbon used once the home is operating). My first big step consisted of attending an incredibly well-run week-long workshop where 43 folks from around the globe gathered to learn and help build a strawbale house. It was interesting, illuminating and a bit itchy!

Although my main focus for years has been on biochar, there are other materials that can also serve as C-sinks. Straw is one example, hemp another. According to one study, the ratio of carbon sequestration to weight of straw (at 10% moisture) is ~1.35:1.00. Using an average weight of 45 lbs/bale (60.76 lbs CO2), the house we built last week stored nearly 10t of Co2 (320 bales of straw were used). Factoring the embodied carbon (a life cycle assessment perspective) would require a lot more info on how the straw was harvested, transported, etc. Although the sequestration impact of wood is higher on a per pound basis (1.83:1.00 according to this study), the time value of carbon absorption ought to be factored in. Crop residues such as straw and hemp are especially appealing as they are annually renewable. The use of such residues also supports local farming communities.

Could biochar provide a larger carbon sink option per square foot for building walls? In all likelihood it could, but the current early stage of biochar building materials (e.g. bricks, mortar) makes building a predominantly biochar-based house a bit premature at this stage. I also appreciate that the full amount of carbon pulled from the atmosphere from wheat (or rice, barley, etc.) and hemp can be stored for long periods. When carbonized, you lose up to half of that carbon so these materials offer great carbon rebalancing opportunities when stored in buildings.

While the straw bale building process is generally quite sustainable, there are potential opportunities for biochar-based building materials to decarbonize some of the ancillary materials and processes used. Here are just a few ideas:

Roofing felt: we used a fair amount of roofing felt on both the interior and exterior walls, predominantly to cover wood and provide a more textured surface for applying plaster. Normally this material, also referred to as underlayment, tar paper (similar though not exactly the same) or membrane roofing, is used underneath asphalt shingles. The market is not trivial, supposedly $11B in 2016, no doubt this is due to its use in both reroofing and new construction. Roofing felt is a petroleum product; the cellulose felt is drenched in bitumen/asphalt to render it waterproof. It is on my hit list for elimination if at all possible as it comes with not only CO2 emissions during production, but VOC emissions after application.

Could we perhaps develop ‘char paper’ using bio-oil to facilitate water repelling properties? (To be honest, I have no idea if bio-oil can produce that type of result, but am happy to throw out the idea for chemists to ponder more profoundly.) Thicker carbon felt is already used for various things including fire resistant welding blankets, thermal insulators and more. Substituting lower cost biochar made from unloved organic material would provide a great opportunity for decarbonizing roofing materials.

Weed whip string – another aspect of straw bale building which could use a decarb make-over is the use of weed whip string which is used to smooth out the exterior of the bales before plaster is applied. With half a dozen string trimmers buzzing at the same time, a heck of a lot of micro-plastic flakes were being flung far and wide, polluting air, water and soil. Biochar is already being tested in 3D printing filament which looks very similar to trimmer string. No doubt there are different performance requirements, but surely binders exist that could produce strings with the relevant characteristics. Flinging out bits of biochar would undoubtably be better for flora and fauna.

New York has recently risen to the challenge of climate change legislation and is striving towards a zero carbon economy by 2050. The focus seems to be on eliminating operational carbon (i.e. fossil fuel used for energy production). However, we cannot ignore the carbon needed for creating buildings, infrastructure and transportation. Turning these into sinks instead of sources of high embodied carbon products is a challenge which brings with it enormous opportunity for creativity and job creation.

How Thermochemical Conversion can help New York address its Climate Goals

This week Cornell University hosted an excellent event focusing on the topic of how thermochemical conversion could help NYS reach the ambitious goals set forth in the recently passed Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act (CLCPA).  In short, the new law commits NY to meeting the carbon reduction goals suggested by the IPCC which are needed to keep warming to <2C. The law largely focuses on mitigation activities (e.g. 40% emission reductions by 2030; 85% reductions and net zero carbon by 2050), but also contains language supporting adaptation and climate resiliency initiatives.

It was pointed out that the law as currently written excludes pyrolysis, which was unfortunately lumped in with incineration under the ‘waste to energy’ label, from participating in the ‘alternative compliance mechanisms’ (ACM) which will be used to achieve net zero carbon in those situations where fossil fuels are not able to be completely eliminated (estimated at 15% of 1990 levels).  It should be noted however, that all electricity generation (presumably including solar, wind, etc.) are excluded from ACMs. Renewably generated power is already baked into the planned reductions, so allowing them to also serve as ACMs would, in effect, be double counting their carbon impact and would not truly get NYS to net zero carbon. It seems likely that renewable energy will be incentivized in other ways apart from the ACM.

Legislative heavy hitters that participated in a policy panel including Senator Jen Metzer, Chair of the NYS Ag Committee and her counterpart Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo pointed out that the focus at this stage should be on the essence of the bill and that changes are almost always made to broad legislation like this. They also noted that it was likely many of those that crafted, lobbied and voted on the bill may not understand the differences between incineration and pyrolysis nor know much about biochar. Fortunately (or not) the law provides a 2-year window for many voices across the state to be heard and for the details on how best to achieve these goals to be hammered out.

Of perhaps more interest, at least to me, in the language concerning acceptable ACMs are these 3 notes (under section 75-0109 4.g) indicating that ACMs must:

  1. Be designed to provide a discernable benefit to the environment rather than to be the source
  2. Be located in the same county, and within 25 linear miles, of the source of the emissions, to the extent practicable;
  3. Enhance the conditions of the ecosystem or geographic area adversely affected

There are several more provisions (all written as “or” statements versus “and” statements so who knows how the selection rating system will end up) but overall I find this promising news for the biochar industry (note that I’m focusing here on the biochar end product and not energy generation via thermochemical conversion). Item ‘i’ could potentially exclude technologies such as direct air capture and carbon sequestration (DACCS), a technology which seems to have no discernable environmental benefits beyond reducing emissions from smokestacks. Biochar on the other hand, provides a wide variety of environmental benefits, many of which also support climate change adaptation and resiliency in addition to long-term carbon storage.

The focus on local ACMs and enhancing ecosystems also play in biochar’s favor. Considering that NYS has ~1,700 large scale generators of organic waste (i.e. >2,000 lbs/week), much of which could be converted into biochar, locating closed-loop biochar production facilities across the state is certainly feasible. It will also help NYS meet the goals of the recently passed organics mandate. Dairy farmers could carbonize manure, using the heat for pasteurization – further reducing the need for fossil fuel energy – and use the biochar first for bedding, then manure management and finally as a soil amendment. Municipalities could convert mountains of green waste, using heat for local needs and biochar for storm water management.  These examples not only demonstrate that biochar solutions can be hyper local, they also enhance ecosystems.

Top 3 reasons for not calling biochar a fertilizer

Unlike biochar fertilizers come with one major upside and many downsides

Using the word fertilizer to describe man-made chemicals that are spread or sprayed on soils is perhaps the most unintended oxymoronic word choice ever, except for maybe plasticulture which I lamented long ago. While chemical fertilizers may help individual farmers realize short term crop yield increases, the long-term impacts to soil, air and water are overwhelmingly negative for those self-same farmers as well as many downstream flora, fauna and human folk.

Consider recent news that fertilizer production is responsible for belching out 100x more methane into the atmosphere than had been previously acknowledged. As CH4 is hugely more worrisome than CO2 from a warming perspective, this is a big deal. Or ponder perhaps the plight of polluted pools of water, starved of oxygen caused by leached fertilizer and manure. Fisher-folk around the world are now facing long-term unemployment because fertilizers have created dead zones, some as big as New Hampshire.

Chemical fertilizers are more akin to steroids which definitely boost short term performance but come with numerous unintended consequences. Perhaps a better name for them might be Ferticides when you consider their overall impact?

It is not uncommon for folks to talk about biochar as a fertilizer. However given all the negatives that come with fertilizers, perhaps we should refrain from equating it with these manmade soil steroids? Here are three reasons why biochar should be considered as something different from and, if I may suggest, better than fertilizer:

  1. Nutrient content: Many types of biochar do not in and of themselves contain nutrients that plants need. This is especially true of biochar made from woody materials. Many early research studies failed to recognize this, so yields were negatively impacted in the short term (which is unfortunately the length of time under study!) while biochar soaked up surrounding nutrients which were often released back to plants more slowly later on. While those early studies continue to be referenced as a reason not to use biochar, the biochar industry has long since learned that biochar should be combined with nutrients before soil application. Fortunately, there are many, many ways to do that with a wide variety of organic materials.
  2. Short-term vs long-term focus: fertilizer must be applied annually or even more frequently as it is subject to losses in the form of leaching, denitrification and volatilization. Biochar, on the other hand, is much longer lasting. Although flooding can move biochar from its original application location, it is still likely to persist wherever it ends up (unless it ends up in a fire!). While it is probably better to add biochar slowly so as not to shock the soil ecology, application of biochar is not needed indefinitely. After a few years of repeated application, soil organic matter content should reach levels that will promote long term fertility without the need for additional biochar.
  3. Singular focus vs multi-beneficial: Fertilizer companies emphasize the need for increased food production yet minimize the systemic negative impacts it has on the planet. This plays into our fears of food shortages, while downplaying the overwhelming negative externalities, a ploy also used by Big Oil, Big Pharma and others. Biochar combined with appropriate nutrients can provide a wide variety of benefits not only to soils, but in displacing fossil fuel derived energy, boosting photosynthesis and rebalancing atmospheric carbon.  

While there are additional reasons to refrain from referring to biochar as a fertilizer, these three provide fairly compelling reasons to find or invent some new vocabulary. Condilizer anyone?

The anti-dote for anti-biotic overload: biochar

Antibiotics, the wonder drug that has mended millions if not billions of us, may just be our undoing if we don’t act quickly to curb its contagion.  A recent article revealed that nearly 2/3 of rivers surveyed were tainted with antibiotics, some with levels 300 times what is considered safe. In the developed world drugs are excreted into toilets that flow into wastewater treatment plants that are ill-equipped to filter out what are known as ‘emerging contaminants of concern’, a term which doesn’t set off nearly the alarm bells that it should. The pathway for animals fed a steady diet of antibiotics to prevent disease and boost feed efficiency is even more direct: in one end and out the other of the animal (70 – 90% of what goes in, may come out!), and then into the soil and perhaps into groundwater. A brief sojourn in a manure lagoon may occur before soil application, but this is unlikely to fully degrade all of the various types of drugs. Lest you think anaerobic digestors are the answer, antibiotic laden manure can significantly reduce methane emissions in digesters yet there is concern that the antibiotics are not fully killed off during digestion.   Paradoxically it appears that antibiotics might boost methane emitted from cow paddies deposited in the field.

In addition to the methane madness caused by antibiotics, these superfluous drugs (by that I mean the 80% of anti-biotics that are fed to livestock for prophylactic reasons) are leading to super bugs and super strange looking fish. To clean up current contamination and prevent prospective pollution will require a multi-pronged strategy and some seriously smart money.  Biochar could be a major player in both alleviating existing issues and avoiding future problems.  Here’s how:

  1. Replace antibiotics in animal feed with biochar…at least with animals that are using them for better weight gain or preventing ailments. Though not yet legal everywhere, this one does the most to keep anti-biotics out of the environment and it also has cascading benefits such as improving soil carbon, reducing enteric emissions, etc.
  2. Carbonize livestock manure especially when animals are fed antibiotics. Many different types of antibiotics can be completely removed when pyrolyzed at 600C or higher. (Tien et al 2019) Ditto for human manure (aka sludge, biosolids). Not only does the heat kill off the contaminants, but manure and sludge volumes are reduced significantly which can help avert excess nutrient leaching into water bodies.
  3. Blend biochar with manure. This can either be done by adding it to bedding material or during composting. Biochar helps to degrade antibiotics and antibiotic resistant genes (ARGs) in manure. (Qian et al 2019) It will also help control odors and emissions while building long term soil carbon.
  4. In remote areas without access to wastewater treatment facilities, use biochar in composting toilets. Note that this biochar should not be used for growing food but could be fine for putting into biochar bricks. 
  5. Use specially designed biochar for removing antibiotics in wastewater treatment. (Chen et al 2019)
  6. Antibiotics abatement in soil: Apply biochar to soils contaminated with antibiotics to reduce leaching and bioavailability. (Liu et al 2018)
  7. In developing world areas that lack adequate drug disposal (e.g. health care clinics), dispose of unused or out of date antibiotics into metal barrels filled with biochar. These should be buried in safe areas not prone to flooding or leaching.

Raising Ambition: tangible climate action with biochar

The UN is hosting a Climate Action Summit in NYC in September with a catchy title of “A Race We Can Win”. One would hope that emphasizing optimism over the ever escalating doom will be a more effective motivator to shift quickly from planning to action!  The summit will highlight and promote the adoption of ambitious climate actions that will help countries to achieve their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).  Using the 6 key areas they are focusing on, allow me to highlight a few examples that demonstrate how biochar can provide solutions within each area. 

Energy Transition: An increasing number of pyrolysis and gasification technologies are displacing heat or electricity formerly produced by fossil fuels. Pyreg, a German pyrolysis manufacturer has more than 2 dozen installations throughout Europe that are converting biomass into heat and biochar. Syncraft, an Austrian company that produces gasifiers for electricity production which can also produce high quality biochar in varying amounts to meet market demand, is expanding rapidly beyond Austria to Germany, Croatia and Japan.  

Climate Finance & Carbon Pricing: Carbon offset markets have traditionally locked out biochar for various reasons. Given that many of these markets are over-subscribed and undervalued, not being included in these marketplaces hasn’t really been a game changer for the biochar industry (though many in the industry might disagree with me).  The urgency for negative emissions technologies, highlighted in the IPCC’s Special Report, is spurring the development of carbon removal markets (perhaps we should call them Carbon Safety Deposit Banks?).  The number of products and/or projects capable of sequestering carbon is much smaller than the number of products that can offset fossil fuel emissions which obviously plays in biochar’s favor.  Removal marketplaces to keep an eye on include: Nori, Puro which just launched in Finland, and the Carbon Leasing Program being developed by European biochar producers that produce certified biochars.

Industry Transition: High emitting industries such as cement may be able to decarbonize using the heat from biochar production instead of using fossil fuels, as well as by adding biochar to cement to improve certain qualities and sequester carbon.  Displacing other high carbon ingredients such as carbon black, activated carbon made from coal, or graphite is another way to reduce emissions across many different industries (more on that in BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth).

Nature-based Solutions: As noted already, biochar production can be viewed as an offset for fossil fuel energy production. It also provides long term carbon storage which can benefit forests, agriculture (through improved soil fertility, water management, etc.), oceans (by reducing nutrient run-off which causes dead zones) and food systems (by immobilizing heavy metals in soils making food safer or by improving soils more food is produced).

Cities & Local Action: Urban infrastructure has paved over vast amounts of land leaving fewer safe places for heavy rain to go.  Using structured soils that combine biochar, compost and gravel can increase water drainage capacity substantially and reduce the impact of toxins that often result from flooding.  Cities such as Stockholm have been replacing heavy clay soils with specially designed structured soils to help reduce stormwater quantity and to filter out toxins. Other cities are beginning to follow their lead.

Resilience & Adaptation: Foresters are converting infected or dying trees into biochar and using the biochar to replant forests that have gone up in flames. Farmers are converting crop and livestock residues into biochar and blending it with other organic wastes which can reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers…which is better for their bottom line, better for their soils and better for rebalancing carbon…while seeing yields increase even during periods of drought.

The bright spots for biochar production and use are out there and multiplying quickly. I’ve endeavored to highlight some of them through this blog, through BURN (webinar on the book coming up on Friday, sign up here), through white papers (e.g. coffee cultivation & biochar) through biochar webinars and by organizing biochar study tours (join me on the next one in Finland Sept 4 – 6). What is needed now are detailed biochar scale up plans showing communities, countries and industries what technologies are already available to carbonize crops and decarbonize economies and how they can be implemented.  Done right, this not only helps meet NDCs but can create vibrant, resilient regional economies.

BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth by Albert Bates & Kathleen Draper

Fire, perhaps more than the other classical elements, can completely change all carbon-based materials. That transformation may sometimes be devastating but at other times it can be hugely beneficial. Most people tend to dwell on its wilder nature when it can voraciously consume forests along with any other flora and fauna in its path. It recently turned Paradise, CA into an inferno, leaving little life in its wake. But when tamed, fire has provided the means for humans to survive and thrive for millennia.

It hardly needs mentioning that we humans owe much to the transformational powers of burning or what is more technically referred to as combustion (an exothermic reaction which generates heat, light and a solid ash by-product). From converting raw meat into edible protein to converting heat into electricity to power countless conveniences; tamed fire has made life for humans significantly more palatable. We’ve learned how to tame fire with ever more sophistication over the centuries, enabling the production of more diverse and beneficial co-products while also taming many of the emissions that filled the skies with smoke and other nasty particulates.

Our burning techniques have progressed from simple campfires to sophisticated ovens; both use fire but the later is far easier to control and to use for creating mouth-watering masterpieces. This comparison highlights the difference between combustion and pyrolysis, a thermochemical process which decomposes organic material in an oxygen limited environment. (Some cooking ovens, in fact, are called pyrolytic ovens, but more commonly they are known as self-cleaning ovens!) There are a growing number of ways to achieve an oxygen limited environment, some sophisticated, some simple which indigenous cultures around the globe figured out centuries ago and created the now famous dark earth soils. While simpler technologies can produce high quality biochar, more sophisticated technologies can create and/or capture gases, liquids, heat or even electricity. When considered holistically our ability to tame fire and burn or bake all manner of underutilized organic materials, could be what keeps life on earth palatable moving forward.

In BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth (due out Feb 26), my co-author Albert Bates and I showcase the growing number of ways that tamed fire can be put to work to decarbonize households, products, industries and the planet. We outline how pyrolysis can help rebalance carbon by banking it instead of blowing it. We explore the burgeoning research showing how biochar’s benefits extend well above and beyond soils. We highlight how the ready-to-boom biochar industry is helping to store stable carbon in both consumable products such as cattle feed and kitty litter as well as durables such as asphalt and concrete. We hope that the perspectives provided in BURN will cause more companies to consider cashing in on caching carbon.

Hope you enjoy the book!