By Embrey Bronstad
This is part of a series highlighting work by Washington State University (WSU) researchers through the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership between the Department of Ecology and WSU during the 2017-2019 biennium. This partnership advances targeted applied research and extension on emerging technologies for managing residual organic matter.
Biochar has the potential to provide a win-win for climate, soils, and forest health. Previous posts on AgClimate.net have discussed the effects of integrating biochar with composting facilities, engineering biochars for specific applications, and potential for biochar use in Washington to draw down carbon dioxide. The Pacific Northwest is particularly suited for a supporting a thriving biochar industry, both because of the ubiquity of waste woody biomass as a biochar production feedstock and the extensive agricultural acreage that could benefit from biochar application. Many researchers in the region have developed a library of evidence documenting the numerous benefits of biochar use. So why aren’t more people producing and using it?
To increase adoption of any product, more than just the scientific benefits must be taken into consideration. Markets have to be developed, which means knowing the minimum selling price at which biochar can be produced and the maximum purchase price potential buyers are willing to pay. It also helps to know what the optimum application is for maximum return, for example, when are crop yields improved enough to justify the cost of putting biochar on the field?
To this end, researchers from Washington State University sought to evaluate the potential market for biochar in the Pacific Northwest using techno-economic analyses that coupled both biochar production costs and agricultural returns for a number of crops. Though there are numerous ways to produce biochar, modification of existing biomass power plants to recover biochar offers one potential way to expand biochar production (Figure 1). The techno-economic analyses the team conducted found a scenario where the minimum viable selling price for biochar produced in biomass power plants is around $150 per metric ton.
Next, the authors explored whether crop yield increases alone could be enough to justify putting biochar on fields. Even with fairly optimistic assumptions about yield increases of 30% in evaluations focused on high-value horticultural crops (e.g., vegetables), the resulting value was rarely enough to exceed the cost of biochar application. However, biochar use in agriculture becomes much more feasible in the context of climate policies that compensate farmers for sequestering carbon at roughly $40/metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).
While this technoeconomic analysis addresses significant challenges for making biochar economically feasible, other aspects of biochar production, such as innovations in biomass collection and generation technologies, can still be improved on to ameliorate supply-side issues.
Stay tuned for a comprehensive report on biochar, including feedstock quantification, processing technologies, and recommendations to move the biochar industry forward, expected to be finalized in early 2021 here: Biomass to Biochar
For more detail, check out the technical reports that outline scenarios for optimum biochar utilization relative to yield improvements for Pacific Northwest crops; both a brief project report (9 pages, Chapter 10 in Hills et al., 2019) and a longer technical report (Garcia-Perez et al., 2019: 20 pages) are referenced below.
Garcia-Perez, M., Brady, M., Tanzil, A.H. 2019. Biochar Production in Biomass Power Plants: Techno-Economic and Supply Chain Analyses. A technical report completed as part of the Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership.
Hills, K., M. Garcia-Perez, J.E. Amonette, M. Brady, T. Jobson, D. Collins, D. Gang, E. Bronstad, M. Flury, S. Seefeldt, C.O. Stöckle, M. Ayiania, A. Berim, W. Hoashi-Erhardt, N. Khosravi, S. Haghighi Mood, R. Nelson, Y.J. Milan, N. Pickering, N. Stacey, A.H. Tanzil, J. Zhang, B. Saari, and G. Yorgey. 2019. Advancing Organics Management in Washington State: The Waste to Fuels Technology Partnership, 2017-2019 Biennium. Publication 19-07-027. Solid Waste Management Program, Washington Department of Ecology, Olympia, WA.
This article is also posted on the CSANR Perspectives on Sustainability blog.