studying biochar in soils
|“Biochar is fine-grained charcoal high in organic carbon, largely resistant to decomposition, produced from pyrolysis of plant and waste feedstocks.
As a soil amendment, biochar creates a recalcitrant soil carbon pool that is carbon-negative, serving as a net withdrawal of atmospheric carbon dioxide stored in highly recalcitrant soil carbon stocks.
Enhanced nutrient retention capacity of biochar-amended soil not only reduces total fertilizer requirements, but also climate and environmental impact of croplands."
Scientific Advisory Committee
International Biochar Initiative
"Biochar" is a term created in 2009 especially to clearly, uniquely identify charcoal produced to put in soil. This idea to put charcoal in soil is very new, and startles almost everyone who hears it. We have much to learn about biochar. In fact, we know very little of how biochar affects soil.
Most crucial, understanding how biochar acts in soil involves a paradigm shift to a new view of how soils hold and deliver nutrients. We must change the way we study and learn about soils—beyond chemical views, to biological insights into the soil food web. While it's true adding biochar to soil is our most effective natural method to sequester carbon, a greater benefit of biochar is to provide vastly improved residential habitat for soil micro-organisms—to regenerate soil as a key living tissue in our planet's climate engine. To see soil as a living community shifts us from a narrow, limited 20th Century chemical mindset to a biological paradigm in the 21st Century.
Many questions and uncertainties exist on how biochar affects soil—and how to measure any effects. We know this method transformed poor, low-carbon, acidic clays in tropical rainforests into highly fertile, productive terra preta. But we don't yet know how indigenous Amazon tribes created terra preta. And can this strategy succeed in our temperate climate soils and crops in the Northeast?
Early results are encouraging—even exciting. But cautious trials, careful records and uniform protocols are needed to gather useful data and observations. And—due to the emerging global urgency over climate, energy and food security—these consistent protocols must be applied in an orderly, rapid and complex process.
Thus, any use of biochar in temperate climate soils should be considered experimental.
Adding biochar to soil should be gradual and systematic
Use simple scientific processes in side-by-side comparison trials
Keep careful records of what was done, when, with what
Document before, during and after effects with photos
We encourage anyone with an experiment using biochar in soil trials to register with our research database so we can track results, and analyze local and regional variations. Geology and ecology in our northeast region are a complex tapestry, and in a few years, thousands of acres, hundreds of different biochars on dozens of farmss in a dozen states will be involved in this experiment. Internet technology allows us to track this complexity in real time, and provide snapshots of our progress.
Careful thought and coordination are needed to plan and conduct an experiment using biochar as a soil additive. The extra effort to apply an orderly experiment will be rewarded by a boost in long-term soil carbon storage, and result in improved soil structure and productivity. But our most crucial harvest ofcareful field research is the increase in our knowledge about the interactions of biochar, soil, crops, and water. Field trials must be monitored at least five years to assess long-term effects and overall environmental impacts.
Designing a scientific soil trial may seem daunting. Fortunately, in April 2010, IBI published Guide to Conducting Biochar Trials. This simple, practical, easy-to-read, 30-page Guide by IBI Extension & Outreach Coordinator Julie Major will avoid lots of mistakes and poorly designed field trials. These IBI guidelines will help assure field data is collected by methods that improve reliability, consistency and comparative standards.
By September 2010, six biochar research projects have started in the Northeast: