Untreated soil (left)
Soil treated with biochar (right)
Though carbon sequestration, the act of taking carbon out of the atmosphere, is hardly a new concept when it comes to the fight against climate change, researchers all over the globe are eager to think up new wacky ways to do it. Biochar, a newly developed charcoal-like soil additive based on an ancient technology, has researchers and environmentalists thrilled about its potential to reduce our carbon footprint. In a 2010 study that was published in Nature titled Sustainable Biochar to Mitigate Global Climate Change, it was calculated that if industrial scale biochar production was practiced globally it could offset carbon dioxide emissions by 12%.

The biochar soil enhancement technique comes from the remarkably fertile soils of ancient Amazonia. The man-made dark earth soils, otherwise known as terra preta soils, have been found to contain charcoal, fish bones, ceramics and other bits of debris. The extraordinary thing about terra preta soils is that though naturally they are particularly barren and fruitless in nature, they have remained fertile for thousands of years.

Biochar is made from any organic waste product. Normally organic waste would be consumed by an animal or decomposed, eventually making its way back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide or methane. Instead, thermal degradation breaks down the waste in a pyrolysis process, heating in the absence of oxygen. Combustible gas is then produced which provides more than enough energy to sustain the reaction for the rest of the production process leaving behind a charcoal-like residue. Since the carbon is stabilized in this process it can be stored in the ground for thousands of years without escape.

Reduction of greenhouse gasses isn’t the only benefit to this technology. Since biochar has a weak electric charge it attracts plant nutrients in the form of positive ions in the soil. Preliminary research suggests that the use of biochar can boost plant yields as well as reduce ground water contamination from fertilizers.

Looks like biochar may be the next new thing in progressive agriculture as well one more weapon in the arsenal for scientists in the battle against climate change. Thanks for the tip ancient Amazonians!