Recently I had the honor of joining some of the gurus of biochar research at Cornell University at their one day Biochar/Bioenergy seminar. I was asked to talk about something new & interesting so I took the liberty to talk about something I’ve been working on called The Biochar Displacement Strategy. Here is a modified version of my talk.
For many if not most in the biochar world, the focus to date has largely been on its use as a soil amendment which can sequester carbon long-term. Since so far the market for sequestration products is still negligible and often only voluntary, and few if any markets have yet to officially recognize biochar as an offset product, there has been much attention paid to biochar’s value proposition in agriculture. However given all the variables, not just on the biochar side, but with crops, soils, weather, etc. this has been a tough proposition to prove in many cases. Some have seen greatly improved yields, while others have seen small or even negative impacts, at least in the short term. While the nuances of which chars can best help which crops in which soils gets worked out, the imbalance of atmospheric to terrestrial carbon continues at our peril.
This focus on below ground applications seems unnecessarily restrictive to me when biochar or char or carbonized biomass or whatever you want to call it has so much more potential to offer in terms of climate change abatement. I tread lightly on how the term biochar is used here as I understand that many of the pioneers in the biochar realm prefer to restrict the definition of its use to adding it below our feet. However for me the defining characteristic of biochar is its ability to sequester carbon for the long term. Using this definition a world of opportunity opens up in terms of how biochar can be used to displace materials that have a large carbon footprint or are non-renewable or are toxic or otherwise harmful to the environment. I refer to this reframed perspective on biochar as the Biochar Displacement Strategy.
After the Paris talks there has been an increasing amount of chatter and hopefully action, on the topic of decarbonization. The Montreal Carbon Pledge, the Portfolio Decarbonization Coalition and others are incentivizing investors to cut carbon out of the supply chain in various industries. If we look at biochar through the lens of decarbonization, there are many displacement opportunities. Activated carbon or charcoal is an obvious one and its use in all manner of filtration, remediation, deodorization, is an area which biochar is already being investigated. AC comes with a heavy carbon footprint, is often, though not always, made from non-renewable materials and its expensive. Biochar can be customized to mimic many of the properties that make AC so useful for so many different applications and generally costs much less. Another potential bonus when using biochar instead of AC to filter out valuable materials such as those found in food processing wastewater or aquaculture waste water, is that the char is actually enriched after the filtration process and can potentially be used in agriculture. This is something that is being jointly worked on by the Rochester Institute of Technology and Cornell, where RIT is filtering tofu waste water using biochar and Cornell is testing the charged char as a growing medium. This is but one example of potential cascading uses for biochar – where biochar can be used more than once before it gets embedded in the soil.
Another high carbon footprint material that biochar could potentially displace is concrete – at least partially. The use of biochar in concrete recipes can have some very positive effects beyond just lowering the embodied carbon including improved insulation and humidity control. It can also reduce the weight of concrete which can be useful in some but not all applications.
Looking through the lens of displacing non-renewable materials biochar could be a feasible alternative to materials such as carbon black, a common ingredient in tires, conveyor belts, hoses, footwear, weather stripping, car bumpers. CB is also used as a color pigment for inks and has found uses in films, adhesives, magnetic tapes, garbage bags, agricultural mulch and so on. The market for CB in tires alone is 12 billion pounds. Imagine the impact if we can design the right kind of biochar to displace this material which is made from sour gas, a highly polluting form of natural gas. Depending on the grade of CB, prices can range from $2,500 to $4,500 per ton, so biochar can definitely compete well on price. If these biochar-based products end up in a landfill at the end of their life as many of the CB products do, the biochar will continue to sequester carbon.
Then there is the lens of displacing toxic or environmentally harmful materials with biochar. In this category I include materials such as the prophylactic use of antibiotics in animal feed to boost feed conversion and maintain herd health. While this practice may improve margins for CAFOs, it has some long term negative impacts on soils used to grow food as well as other implications for human health. This is one of the most asked about areas of biochar usage amongst biochar producers and in Europe seems to be the most common use for biochar at the moment.
The list of products that biochar could sustainably displace continues to grow as we learn more and more about the nuances of different types of biochars and how to create different properties through pre and post processing as well as different production parameters. The good news is that I suspect many of these potential markets may be easier to crack in the short term than selling biochar to farmers. Stay tuned for more news (perhaps even a book!) on the Biochar Displacement Strategy!