Category Archives: Biochar

Biochar can be used to recapture essential nutrients from dairy wastewater and improve soil quality

Ghezzehei, T. A., Sarkhot, D. V., and Berhe, A. A.: Biochar can be used to recapture essential nutrients from dairy wastewater and improve soil quality, Solid Earth Discuss., 6, 1101-1125, doi:10.5194/sed-6-1101-2014, 2014.

Abstract: Recently, the potential for biochar use to recapture excess nutrients from dairy wastewater has been a focus of a growing number of studies. It is suggested that biochar produced from locally available waste biomass can be important in reducing release of excess nutrient elements from agricultural runoff, improving soil productivity, and long-term carbon (C) sequestration. Here we present a review of a new approach that is showing promise for the use of biochar for nutrient capture. Using batch sorption experiments, it has been shown that biochar can adsorb up to 20 to 43% of ammonium and 19–65% of the phosphate in flushed dairy manure in 24 h. These results suggest a potential of biochar for recovering essential nutrients from dairy wastewater and improving soil fertility if the enriched biochar is returned to soil. Based on the sorption capacity of 2.86 and 0.23 mg ammonium and phosphate, respectively, per gram of biochar and 10–50% utilization of available excess biomass, in the state of California (US) alone, 11 440 to 57 200 t of ammonium-N and 920–4600 t of phosphate can be captured from dairy waste each year while at the same time disposing up to 8–40 million tons of waste biomass.

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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Biochar, Publications


Biochar research roundup

More plant growth but less plant defence? First global gene expression data for plants grown in soil amended with biochar

Abstract: Biochar is a carbon (C)-rich solid formed when biomass is used to produce bioenergy. This ‘black carbon’ has been suggested as a solution to climate change, potentially reducing global anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases by 12%, as well as promoting increased crop growth. How biochar application to soil leads to better crop yields remains open to speculation. Using the model plant Arabidopsis and the crop plant lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.), we found increased plant growth in both species following biochar application. Statistically significant increases for Arabidopsis in leaf area (130%), rosette diameter (61%) and root length (100%) were observed with similar findings in lettuce, where biochar application also increased leaf cell expansion. For the first time, global gene expression arrays were used on biochar-treated plants, enabling us to identify the growth-promoting plant hormones, brassinosteroid and auxin, and their signalling molecules, as key to this growth stimulation, with limited impacts on genes controlling photosynthesis. In addition, genes for cell wall loosening were promoted as were those for increased activity in membrane transporters for sugar, nutrients and aquaporins for better water and nutrient uptake and movement of sugars for metabolism in the plant. Positive growth effects were accompanied by down-regulation of a large suite of plant defence genes, including the jasmonic acid biosynthetic pathway, defensins and most categories of secondary metabolites. Such genes are critical for plant protection against insect and pathogen attack, as well as defence against stresses including drought. We propose a conceptual model to explain these effects in this biochar type, hypothesizing a role for additional K+ supply in biochar amended soils, leading to Ca2+ and Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) –mediated signalling underpinning growth and defence signalling responses.

The biochar dilemma

Abstract: Any strategy towards widespread adoption of biochar as a soil amendment is constrained by the scarcity of field-scale data on crop response, soil quality and environmental footprint. Impacts of biochar as a soil amendment over a short period based on laboratory and greenhouse studies are often inconclusive and contradictory. Yet biochar is widely advocated as a promising tool to improve soil quality, enhance C sequestration, and increase agronomic yield. While substantial reviews exist on positive aspects of biochar research, almost no review to date has compiled negative aspects of it. Although biochar science is advancing, available data indicate several areas of uncertainty. This article reviews a range of negative impacts of biochar on soil quality, crop yield, and associated financial risk. This review is important because advances in biochar research demand identification of the risks (if any) of using biochar as a soil amendment before any large-scale field application is recommended. It is the first attempt to acknowledge such issues with biochar application in soil. Thus, the aims of this review are to assess the uncertainties of using biochar as a soil amendment, and to clarify ambiguity regarding interpretation of research results. Along with several unfavourable changes in soil chemical, physical and biological properties, reduction in crop yield has been reported. Relative to controls, the yield for biochar-amended soil (application rate 0.2–20% w/w) has been reduced by 27, 11, 36, 74, and 2% for rice (Oryza sativa L.) (control 3.0 Mg ha–1), wheat (Triticum spp. L.) (control 4.6 Mg ha–1), maize (Zea mays L.) (control 4.7 Mg ha–1), lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.) (control 5.4 Mg ha–1), and tomato (Solanum lycopersicum L.) (control 265 Mg ha–1), respectively. Additionally, compared with unamended soils, gaseous emissions from biochar-amended soils (application rate 0.005–10% w/w) have been enhanced up to 61, 152 and 14% for CO2 (control 9.7 Mg ha–1 year–1), CH4 (control 222 kg ha–1 year–1), and N2O (control 4.3 kg ha–1 year–1), respectively. Although biochar has the potential to mitigate several environmental problems, the data collated herein indicate that a systematic road-map for manufacturing classification of biochars, and cost–benefit analysis, must be developed before implementation of field-scale application.

Environmental and socio-economic impacts of utilizing waste for biochar in rural areas in Indonesia – a systems perspective

Abstract: Biochar is the product of incomplete combustion (pyrolysis) of organic material. In rural areas, it can be used as a soil amendment to increase soil fertility. Fuel-constrained villagers may however prefer to use biochar briquettes as a higher-value fuel for cooking over applying it to soils. A systems-oriented analysis using life cycle assessment (LCA) and cost benefit analysis (CBA) was conducted to analyze these two alternative uses of biochar, applying the study to a rural village system in Indonesia. The results showed soil amendment for enhanced agricultural production to be the preferential choice with a positive benefit to the baseline scenario of -26 ecopoints (LCA) and -173 USD (CBA) annually pr. household. In this case, the positive effects of carbon sequestration to the soil and the economic value of the increased agricultural production outweighed the negative environmental impacts from biochar production and the related production costs. Use of biochar in briquettes for cooking fuel yielded negative net effects in both the LCA and CBA (85 ecopoints and 176 USD), even when positive health effects from reduced indoor air pollution were included. The main reasons for this are that emissions during biochar production are not compensated by carbon sequestration, and that briquette making is labor-intensive. The results emphasize the importance of investigating and documenting the carbon storage effect and the agricultural benefit in biochar production-utilization systems for a sustainable use. Further research focus on efficient production is necessary due to the large environmental impact of biochar production. In addition, biochar should continue to be used in those soils where the agricultural effect is most beneficial.

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Posted by on April 3, 2014 in Biochar, Publications


Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?

Read the full story in Yale Environment360.

The degradation of soils from unsustainable agriculture and other development has released billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But new research shows how effective land restoration could play a major role in sequestering CO2 and slowing climate change.

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Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Agriculture, Biochar


Effects of biochar amendment on root traits and contaminant availability of maize plants in a copper and arsenic impacted soil

Aoife Brennan; Eduardo Moreno Jiménez; Markus Puschenreiter; José Antonio Alburquerque; Christine Switzer (2014). “Effects of biochar amendment on root traits and contaminant availability of maize plants in a copper and arsenic impacted soil.” Plant and Soil, online ahead of print. DOI: 10.1007/s11104-014-2074-0.


Background and aims

Biochar has been proposed as a tool to enhance phytostabilisation of contaminated soils but little data are available to illustrate the direct effect on roots in contaminated soils. This work aimed to investigate specific root traits and to assess the effect of biochar amendment on contaminant availability.


Amendment with two different types of biochar, pine woodchip and olive tree pruning, was assessed in a rhizobox experiment with maize planted in a soil contaminated with significant levels of copper and arsenic.


Amendment was found to significantly improve root traits compared to the control soil, particularly root mass density and root length density. Copper uptake to plants and ammonium sulphate extractable copper was significantly less in the biochar amended soils. Arsenic uptake and extractability varied with type of biochar used but was not considered to be the limiting factor affecting root and shoot development.


Root establishment in contaminated soils can be enhanced by biochar amendment but choice of biochar is key to maximising soil improvement and controlling contaminant availability.


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Posted by on March 20, 2014 in Biochar, Publications


Biochar Research Results (Kerr Center)

Read the full post from the Kerr Center.

2013 summer intern Jonathan Pollnow kept the biochar retort glowing, and the written results of his work with it are now available free from the Kerr Center website.

Pollnow wanted to know which of the materials available from the Kerr Ranch would make good feedstocks for biochar produced in the center’s two-barrel nested retort.  He charred up a range of feedstocks, ranging from pine slash to cornstalks to shredded office paper, and had professional laboratories evaluate the biochar produced from each one.  He also added samples of the biochar to sand, and then had the carbon content of each sample measured to see how much soil carbon increased with additions of biochar from the different feedstocks.  The results of all that analysis are contained in “Biochar Feedstock Research Using a Two-Barrel Nested Retort.”

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Posted by on March 19, 2014 in Biochar, Publications


Biofuels startup aims to revolutionize industry with Louisiana production plants

Read the full story in the Times-Picayune.

Howard Janzen and the rest of the management team at energy startup Cool Planet got their fair share of skeptical looks when they started pitching a plan to make gasoline out of wood chips, corncobs and other organic waste to investors four years ago.

Brows furrowed deeper when they revealed their strategy to not only sell the fuel but also a waste from the production process that had unique properties as an agricultural crop booster.

The Greenwood Village, Colo.-based startup — which began construction on its first production plant in Louisiana last month — has a lot more believers on its side these days.

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Posted by on March 18, 2014 in Biochar


Biochar revolutionary’s manifesto for food and fuel

Read the full story from the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Paul Taylor is a rocket-scientist-turned-revolutionary, who’s mission is to get a biochar industry established across Australia.

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Posted by on March 17, 2014 in Biochar


ISTC Sustainability Teacher Workshop

The ISTC Sustainability Teacher Workshop is designed to introduce sustainable technologies into the classroom. Each year a different topic related to sustainable research will be featured with the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers of similar grade levels to produce an NGSS compatible learning unit related to that technology. CPDUs will be available through the University of Illinois.

This year’s sustainability topic is biochar (a byproduct of pyrolysis). Teachers will participate in an experiment using scientific methodology to determine the effect of biochar on an agricultural crop.

Date:    August 1, 2014
Time:    8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
CPDUs:    8 hours
Cost:    Free! Lunch provided
Where:    1 E. Hazelwood Dr., Champaign, IL 61820
Eligibility:    Illinois high school science teachers
Registration:    Open until full (30) (
Questions?    Contact Kirsten Walker at

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Posted by on March 14, 2014 in Biochar, K-12


Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?

Read the full story at Yale Environment360.

The degradation of soils from unsustainable agriculture and other development has released billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But new research shows how effective land restoration could play a major role in sequestering CO2 and slowing climate change.

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Posted by on March 6, 2014 in Agriculture, Biochar, Climate change


Recent biochar research articles

Shane M. Troy , Peadar G. Lawlor, Cornelius J. O’ Flynn, and Mark G. Healy (2014). “The Impact of Biochar Addition on Nutrient Leaching and Soil Properties from Tillage Soil Amended with Pig Manure.” Water, Air, & Soil Pollution online ahead of print. DOI: 10.1007/s11270-014-1900-6.

Abstract: The application of pig manure to a tillage soil can result in pollution of surface and groundwater bodies. Countries in the European Union are required to comply with the Water Framework Directive, which states that all countries should attain at least “good status” surface and ground water quality by 2015. Amendment of soil with biochar has previously been shown to reduce nutrient leaching and improve soil properties. The objectives of this laboratory study were to investigate if the application of two types of biochar at a rate of 18 t ha−1 (a) reduced leaching of carbon (C), nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) from a low P Index tillage soil amended with pig manure and (b) affected the soil properties before and after pig manure application. Three treatments were examined as follows: (a) non-amended soil (the study control), (b) soil mixed with biochar from the separated solid fraction of anaerobically digested pig manure, and (c) of soil mixed with biochar from Sitka Spruce. Columns, filled with sieved soil (<2 mm) and biochar (<2 mm), were incubated for 30 weeks at 10 °C and 75 % relative humidity and leached with 160 mL distilled water per week. Pig manure, equivalent to 170 kg N ha−1 and 36 kg P ha−1, was applied to half of the columns in each treatment after 10 weeks of incubation. Amendment with pig manure biochar increased the Morgan’s P content of the soil, while leaching of P and C also increased, indicating the unsuitability of pig manure biochar as an amendment to soils which may be used as pig manure spreadlands. However, the addition of wood biochar increased soil water, C and organic matter contents, while reducing nitrate and organic C leaching. The addition of wood-derived biochar to tillage soil which will receive pig manure may be justifiable, as it reduces nutrient leaching from the soil, sequesters C and may allow for higher application rates of pig manure.

Min Huang, Liu Yang,Huadong Qin, Ligeng Jiang, Yingbin Zou (2014) “Fertilizer nitrogen uptake by rice increased by biochar application.”  Biology and Fertility of Soils online ahead of print. DOI: 10.1007/s00374-014-0908-9.

Abstract: This study was conducted to test the hypothesis that biochar application can increase rice yield through improving nitrogen (N) uptake and utilization by rice plants under N application conditions. A pot experiment was done with a hybrid rice cultivar grown on a Fe-leachi-Stagnic Anthrosols with and without biochar application. The N fertilizer used was 15N-labeled urea. Results showed that biochar application resulted in 23–27 % increase in fertilizer N uptake by rice plants and consequently 8–10 % increase in grain yield. The higher fertilizer N uptake under biochar application was associated with a reduced fertilizer N loss. Fertilizer N loss rate was reduced by 9–10 % by applying biochar. We suggest that further studies are needed to assess the short-term and long-term effects of different biochars on N uptake and utilization by rice under field conditions.

S. L. Weyers and K. A. Spokas (2014). “Crop residue decomposition in Minnesota biochar amended plots.” Solid Earth Discussion, 6, 599-617. DOI: 10.5194/sed-6-599-2014.

Abstract: Impacts of biochar application at laboratory scales are routinely studied, but impacts of biochar application on decomposition of crop residues at field scales have not been widely addressed. The priming or hindrance of crop residue decomposition could have a cascading impact on soil processes, particularly those influencing nutrient availability. Our objectives were to evaluate biochar effects on field decomposition of crop residue, using plots that were amended with biochars made from different feedstocks and pyrolysis platforms prior to the start of this study. Litterbags containing wheat straw material were buried below the soil surface in a continuous-corn cropped field in plots that had received one of seven different biochar amendments or a non-charred wood pellet amendment 2.5 yr prior to start of this study. Litterbags were collected over the course of 14 weeks. Microbial biomass was assessed in treatment plots the previous fall. Though first-order decomposition rate constants were positively correlated to microbial biomass, neither parameter was statistically affected by biochar or wood-pellet treatments. The findings indicated only a residual of potentially positive and negative initial impacts of biochars on residue decomposition, which fit in line with established feedstock and pyrolysis influences. Though no significant impacts were observed with field-weathered biochars, effective soil management may yet have to account for repeat applications of biochar.

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Posted by on February 28, 2014 in Agriculture, Biochar, Publications


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