If you’ve visited a vineyard recently, or taken a trip to Brazil and toured the expansive “Cerrado” (Brazilian Savannah), you’ve possibly already been close to a powerful carbon removal and permanent storage solution: biochar.
Biochar is a charcoal-like material that is created when waste biomass - think of plant materials such as grass, agricultural and forest residues - is heated through a controlled process in the absence of oxygen. The resulting biochar has a condensed molecular structure that is intrinsically resistant to decomposition. When the charcoal is buried or added to soils, most of the carbon can remain in the charcoal or soil for thousands of years.
In the Brazilian savanna, known as the Cerrado, visitors find vast landscapes full of all types of wildlife. It also a place where biochar is being used to capture and store carbon dioxide as well as increase soil water and nutrient retention. In fact, the technique has its origins in the Amazon basin at least 2500 years ago where the soil is notoriously infertile. The native Indians of the region would create charcoal, mix it with organic matter and broken pottery, and incorporate it in small plots of land. Terra Preta, as it is known in this area of Brazil, remains highly fertile until today, even without fertilizers.
The technique is also being adopted by vintners looking to improve their crops. In Northern California, visitors to the world famous Napa Valley who sample the wines of Cakebread Cellars, Spring Mountain Vineyard or Bedrock Wine Co. may be indirectly supporting a valuable carbon removal technique as part of their tour as the wines they drink are grown on biochar supported vineyards. Elsewhere in California, larger-scale experiments are being conducted by Monterey Pacific vineyard management company and Bonterra Vineyards, with trials on both newly planted and existing vineyards.
One company taking a novel approach to the creation of biochar is Pacific Biochar. Founder Josiah Hunt, originally from Hawaii, struck upon the idea to modify biomass power plants for biochar production. Biomass power plants burn wood waste or other waste to produce steam that runs a turbine to make electricity, or provide heat to industries and homes. New technologies — including pollution controls and combustion engineering — have advanced to the point that any emissions from burning biomass in industrial facilities are less than emissions produced when using fossil fuels.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that if deployed on a massive global scale, biochar can help capture and store approximately 1 billion tons of CO2 per year by 2050.
Nature Geoscience: Biochar is carbon negative
Napa Green Benefits of Biochar
National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Biomass Energy Basics