Biochar has been used for thousands of years all over the world by gardeners and agricultural producers for boosting soil fertility. More recently, research on its properties and potential benefits for the environment has gained increasing global interest in its ability to remove heavy metal and other pollutants, as well as sequester carbon, thus reducing the level and impact of global climate change.
In essence, biochar is basically charcoal made from biomass—which is plant material and agricultural waste—hence the name ‘biochar’.
It is produced by slowly burning organic matter in a low- or no-oxygen environment, a process called pyrolysis. What differentiates biochar from charcoal is its purpose; whereas charcoal is burnt, thus releasing carbon gases, biochar is produced as an additive to soils, mainly to improve water and nutrient retention and carbon storage.
Biochar has been given a lot of attention lately, thanks to its potential role in mitigating climate change. Biochar production is a carbon-negative process, which means that it reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Biochar is the transformation of plant material and agricultural waste, that would otherwise end up as greenhouse gas emissions by being burned or landfilled, into a highly porous fine powder.
Biochar can retain a great deal of carbon and does not decompose readily, thereby locking it away and preventing its release back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide gas.
In the process of making biochar, the unstable carbon in decaying plant material and agricultural waste, is converted into a stable form of carbon that is then locked away in the biochar. When biochar is applied to the soil, it stores the carbon in a secure place for potentially thousands of years.
In essence, the decaying plant material used to produce biochar would release higher amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than if they were left to decompose naturally. By heating the decaying plant material, the carbon content is converted into a stable structure that will not react with oxygen readily, ultimately reducing the amount of carbon into the atmosphere.
Biochar also contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas
ses by enriching the soil and reducing the need for chemical fertilisers. The improved soil fertility increases plant growth, which will in turn take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, with residual effects sometimes lasting through to the following season.
The many benefits of biochar for both climate and agricultural systems could be the keystone for regenerative agriculture.
It could potentially be a powerful and simple tool to boost food security and arable land diversity in areas with severely depleted soils, insufficient organic resources, and scarce water and chemical fertiliser supplies.
Biochar also improves water quality and quantity by increasing soil retention of nutrients. More nutrients stay in the soil instead of filtering into groundwater leading to pollution.
Biochar can also boost the amount of water in the soil, as well as nutrient content, by increasing soil retention of nutrients. More nutrients remain in the soil instead of filtering into the groundwater leading to more pollution.
While the application of biochar can help to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it is important to remember that deeper societal and lifestyle changes are required. This is because there is no viable carbon dioxide removal technology with the capacity to store carbon as effectively as untouched fossil reserves yet.
Avoiding the burning of fossil fuels is therefore the most important objective to mitigate climate change.
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