Million Year Carbon Dioxide Storage

Northern California, where seasonal wildfires have been known to devastate communities, engulf old growth forests, and destroy habitats, is also home to Pacific Biochar, a company that harnesses the power of burned biomass to lock carbon away and store it for centuries. While wildfires have many negative impacts on ecosystems, in moderation they also play a dual role in keeping a forest healthy by clearing away dead vegetation to stimulate new growth, create new habitats, germinate seeds, and cycle nutrients. The increased temperatures, drought and changing precipitation patterns caused by climate change have increased the frequency and intensity of wildfires and extended the fire season, now posing a greater threat on the biological environment, local communities, and often outweighing the benefits of fire season. 

Photo by Aishling Muller @aishlingmuller

Biochar as a carbon dioxide removal method offers a solution to the excess carbon dioxide stored in our atmosphere, and new research has found that biochar offers permanent  storage of carbon dioxide. Biochar is a charcoal-like material that occurs naturally when vegetation is partially burned during fire events. Biochar has a changed molecular structure that resists decomposition, retaining most of the carbon contained in the original biomass in solid form and keeping it underground for centuries or more. It also offers several benefits to ecosystems such as soil improvement, improved crop yields and can help mitigate nutrient runoff. 

The substance can be created naturally, and also with the help of technology. Tomorrow’s Air innovation partner, Pacific Biochar, creates biochar by partially burning plant materials such as forest thinnings in biomass power facilities modified for biochar production. The resulting biochar has a changed molecular structure that resists decomposition, retaining most of the carbon contained in the original biomass trapped in a solid form for 500 years or more. Biochar as a carbon removal technique is very cost effective, as it requires little technology to scale, and a recent report has found that at large scale deployment it could one day deliver three gigatons of carbon removal annually. 

Biochar photo courtesy Pacific Biochar

To geologists, biochar is nothing new, but the idea that it could potentially remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at gigaton scale is new, and many scientists have debated how stable the CO2 stored in biochar really is. Hammed Sanei, a Professor and Director of the Lithospheric Organic Carbon Laboratory at Aarhaus University in Denmark has studied the carbon cycle for over 20 years, and in his interview with Radhika Moolgavkar on Nori’s Carbon Removal Newsroom podcast he explains about how biochar transforms biomass into “inertinite material” - a well studied compound that geologists know as “the most stable form of carbon polymer that is the end product of the carbon cycle in earth's crust.” Through research into kinetic reactions scientists have found that it stores almost all of its carbon for at least 1 million years. Hamed was surprised to learn of the debate over the permanence of carbon storage for biochar in the CDR community because to geologists, biochar is characteristically the same as inertinite - meaning whatever carbon ends up as biochar, it is locked away for millions of years. His more recent paper is available here

Learn more about the carbon cycle and about our partner Pacific Biochar. Check out Artist for Air Aishling Muller’s reflections on areas where wildfires have burned large swaths of forest. 

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