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What is Biochar? Uses, Benefits, and How to Make Biochar

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Biochar is a fascinating and environmentally friendly soil conditioner that has recently gained significant attention. It holds the potential to improve soil fertility, increase crop yields, and even mitigate climate change. In this article, we will explore the basics of biochar, its production process, and its benefits for both the environment and agriculture.


What Is Biochar?

Biochar is a charcoal-like substance made by heating organic materials (known as biomass) through a process called pyrolysis. The process involves little to no oxygen, converting the biomass into a stable form of carbon that can be used to enhance soil health and promote sustainable agriculture.

Biochar made from used chicken bedding
Biochar made from used chicken bedding

Almost any type of biomass can be made into biochar, such as rice husks, wood chips, cocoa pod husks, and corn cobs. As such, any agricultural producer can convert their biomass waste and produce biochar instead of simply burning or throwing them away.


Origins of Biochar

Biochar has its origins in ancient practices of soil management and agriculture. Throughout history, various civilizations discovered the benefits of incorporating charred organic materials into the soil.


One notable example is the indigenous practice known as "terra preta" or "dark earth" found in the Amazon rainforest. These dark, highly fertile soils contain a significant amount of biochar, which was created through a combination of deliberate charcoal production and the addition of charcoal to agricultural fields.


It is believed that these ancient civilizations, such as the Amazonian Indians, used biochar to enhance soil fertility, improve water retention, and support sustainable agriculture in nutrient-poor tropical soils.


Similar practices of using charred organic matter in agriculture have been found in other parts of the world, including ancient China, where the use of "black earth" was documented. These historical practices demonstrate the early recognition of the positive effects of biochar on soil productivity.


How Biochar is Produced

The production of biochar involves the following steps:

  1. Feedstock Selection. Biomass materials such as wood chips and agricultural residues are chosen as the raw materials for biochar production.

  2. Pyrolysis. The biomass is heated in a controlled environment with limited oxygen. The heating process decomposes and stabilizes the carbon within the biomass, resulting in carbon-rich substance ready to be applied.

  3. Activation (Optional). Biochar can undergo an activation process, which increases its surface area and enhances its ability to hold and exchange nutrients with the soil.

  4. Application. Once produced, biochar can be incorporated into the soil through various methods such as mixing, top-dressing, or composting, depending on the specific needs of the soil and plants.

Uses and Benefits of Biochar

Biochar offers a range of environmental benefits that make it an attractive solution for sustainable land management.


One significant advantage is its capacity to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When biochar is added to the soil, it locks away carbon, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to climate change mitigation


As for agricultural producers, various studies have shown that biochar can help to increase crops and meat production and reduce the cost of production due to the following reasons:

  1. Soil amendment. Applied to the soil, biochar can improve soil structure, water retention, and nutrient availability. It helps to increase the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of the soil, allowing it to hold onto essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, making more nutrients available for crops.

  2. Nutrient management. Biochar can help retain and slowly release nutrients in the soil, reducing the need for frequent fertilizer applications and lowering fertilizer costs.

  3. Soil microbial activity. Biochar’s porous structure provides a habitat for the growth of beneficial microbes that contribute to nutrient cycling, organic matter decomposition, and disease suppression.

  4. Remediation of contaminated soils. The pores in biochar can adsorb heavy metals and organic contaminants, reducing their mobility and availability in the soil.

Meanwhile, when applied to livestock and poultry farms, biochar can be used as follows:

  1. Manure management. Biochar can be used as a bedding material in animal housing or added to manure storage facilities to improve odor control and absorb moisture, reducing the release of ammonia and other volatile compounds.

  2. Pathogen control. The pores in biochar can absorb and immobilize pathogens, reducing their availability for transmission. This can contribute to improved biosecurity and animal health.

  3. Feed additive potential. There is ongoing research on using biochar as a feed additive in livestock and poultry diets. Adding biochar to animal feed can potentially improve nutrient utilization, digestion, and overall gut health. It may also contribute to reducing the negative impact of toxins and mycotoxins in the digestive system.

It's important to note that the effectiveness of biochar application can vary depending on soil type, climate, biochar properties, and management practices.


Proper assessment of soil conditions and appropriate application rates are necessary for maximizing the benefits of biochar. WasteX can help you and your farm if you are interested in further information on properly producing and applying biochar to maximize yield.


Is Biochar the Same as Charcoal?

In terms of their appearance, biochar and charcoal may look alike at a quick glance. However, there are some characteristics that differentiate them.


Charcoal is generally produced from wood, coal, or other organic matter and is primarily used as a fuel source for cooking, heating, or industrial processes. It is typically made at lower temperatures compared to biochar and used for its energy content.


Biochar, on the other hand, is produced at higher temperatures and primarily made from biomass. Being heated at higher temperatures also means that biochar is more porous than charcoal, making it better at retaining water and nutrients.


Moreover, charcoal is a less stable form of carbon due to being produced at lower temperatures and thus breaks down easily in the soil. As such, charcoal's effects on the soil will be very short compared to biochar, which can last hundreds to thousands of years.


Conclusion

In conclusion, biochar is a valuable resource made from organic materials and has distinct properties that set it apart from traditional charcoal.


Biochar offers advantages such as carbon sequestration, improved soil fertility, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and increased yields. By incorporating biochar into agricultural practices and utilizing its potential as a soil amendment, we can enhance soil health, promote sustainable land management, and contribute to a greener future.


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