Building Better Biochar Breakthroughs: A Roadmap for Biochar Research

By Embrey Bronstad, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

What is the first thing you think when you hear “Black Gold”? Is it the theme song for the Beverly Hillbillies? A baritone “Texas Tea”? Well, some people think “BIOCHAR!”

Hand holding a handful of dark, soil-like substance
A climate and farming boon: Biochar! Photo: Flickr user mavnjess under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Now, if you are reading this article, you probably know what biochar is. You have probably heard about its benefits when integrated with compost or used in dairy lagoons. A clear opportunity exists for the implementation of biochar technology to mitigate climate change through its ability to sequester carbon. Indeed, a recent estimate suggests that implementation of biochar at scale in Washington State could offset between 8 and 19% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (Amonette 2021a). Application of biochar to agricultural soils may also help producers adapt to climate change by improving soil water-holding capacity in settings where water resources during the growing season are expected to become scarcer. Also, by enhancing formation of soil organic matter, these amendments would increase soil health and resilience, thereby helping to ensure continued high levels of agricultural production as the climate changes. In addition to these climatological and agricultural benefits, biochar has great potential to address wildfire risk, improve forest health, restore ecosystem services, and revitalize rural economies (Amonette et al., 2021b).

Despite a burgeoning library of research into biochar over the last two decades, there remain significant knowledge gaps, partly due to the diversity of biochar production methods and the growing portfolio of potential feedstocks, as well as growing interest from diverse sectors: agriculture, water treatment, composting, etc. The biochar industry needs a comprehensive and structured approach to research that systematically addresses technical challenges and economic impacts while providing a framework for future investigations. Coordinated efforts will also contribute to the generation of a more comprehensive body of knowledge.

Dr. Jim Amonette, a researcher at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources and at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, has a plan. Amonette and colleagues organized a virtual workshop in 2020, gathering forty biochar producers, practitioners, scientists, and engineers to chart a roadmap for future development of biochar technology in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Two products stimulated by this workshop lay out priorities for moving the biochar industry forward: a viewpoints article, titled Integrated biochar research: A roadmap, and a more detailed workshop report: Biomass to Biochar: Maximizing the Carbon Value. In both publications, Dr. Amonette and his co-authors outline a strategic research and development program in three specific areas: near-term technology development, business support, and collaborative policy development. Their approach describes the interactions among these foundational components, which are underpinned by a robust and long-term, coordinated research and development program that includes demonstration at the scale of implementation.

Two people kneeling around an experimental plot in a field covered with crop residue.
Field research across a coordinated network of sites will be needed to move the biochar industry forward. Here, Stephanie Chiu and Sarah Light remove soil cores to test the response of soil water to biochar additions at a field trial site in Pendleton, Oregon. Photo: Claire Phillips.

This comprehensive research effort would be coordinated across about 20 field sites that would generate a raft of knowledge applicable to agronomic cropping systems, forest and rangeland systems, and compost and manure management, horticulture, turf, urban, and built environment systems. Investments in such a long-term integrated research program would:

Field research across a coordinated network of sites will be needed to move the biochar industry forward. Here, Stephanie Chiu and Sarah Light remove soil cores to test the response of soil water to biochar additions at a field trial site in Pendleton, Oregon. (Photo: Claire Phillips)

  • Begin to resolve important technical issues associated with large-scale biochar technology development, including defining the best approaches for generating and using biochar relative to net economic returns, economic impacts on rural communities, and climate change mitigation.
  • Allow continued improvement in models of different plant responses to biochar amendments, thanks to the proposed long-term multi-site field research. Analyses using these improved models would significantly lower the economic risks associated with implementation of biochar technology and increase the potential returns.
  • Facilitate payments to land managers for ecosystem services by providing data that increase the understanding of how to use biochar to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase soil carbon sequestration.
  • Engender substantial improvement in the ability to quantify the positive climate impact potential of the many possible implementations of biochar technology. In turn, that information will inform public policy, facilitate monetization of climate benefits, and help direct the appropriate level of resources to development of the industry.
Cover of the report
The newly released report, Biomass to Biochar: Maximizing the Carbon Value, provides a vision for future development of biochar technology in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

The recently released workshop report (1) delves into further detail on these topics, (2) offers explorations of three complementary approaches to biochar production from woody forestry residues at different scales, and (3) discusses biochar production and use associated with composting operations and agricultural systems. Cross-cutting topics relevant to all these sectors are explored in chapters on biomass supply and handling, biochar production, and air pollutant emissions and permitting for biochar production systems.

The newly released report, Biomass to Biochar: Maximizing the Carbon Value, provides a vision for future development of biochar technology in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

While biochar production and use are ancient technologies, our current climate challenge necessitates a comprehensive, modern evaluation of biochar’s benefits and carbon sequestration potential. Dr. Amonette and his colleagues have developed a proactive approach and vision for how to make this evaluation relevant not only for technology providers but for society as a whole, from producers to policy makers. Amonette and colleagues provide a thoughtful and timely approach for realizing the potential of “black gold” as an important tool for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

This work that led to the roadmap was supported by the U.S. Forest Service Wood Innovations grant DG-11062765-702; the State of Washington, Department of Ecology, Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership interagency agreement IAA-C2000065; and the US Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, McIntire Stennis project WNP00009.

References:

Amonette, J.E. 2021a. Technical Potential for CO2 Drawdown using Biochar in Washington State. Report for The Waste to Fuels Technology partnership 2019-2021 biennium: Advancing organics management in Washington State. Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources, Washington State University, Pullman, WA.

Amonette, J.E., J.G. Archuleta, M.R. Fuchs, K.M. Hills, G.G. Yorgey, G. Flora, J. Hunt, H.-S. Han, B.T. Jobson, T.R. Miles, D.S. Page-Dumroese, S. Thompson, K.M. Trippe, K. Wilson, R. Baltar, K. Carloni, C. Christoforou, D.P. Collins, J. Dooley, D. Drinkard, M. Garcia-Pérez, G. Glass, K. Hoffman-Krull, M. Kauffman, D.A. Laird, W. Lei, J. Miedema, J. O’Donnell, A. Kiser, B. Pecha, C. Rodriguez-Franco, G.E. Scheve, C. Sprenger, B. Springsteen, and E. Wheeler. 2021b. Biomass to Biochar: Maximizing the Carbon Value. Report by Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University, Pullman WA.

Amonette, J.E., Blanco-Canqui, H., Hassebrook, C., Laird, D.A., Lal, R., Lehmann, J., and Page-Dumroese, D. 2021c. Integrated biochar research: A roadmap. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation Jan 2021, 76 (1) 24A-29A; DOI: 10.2489/jswc.2021.1115A