From the ancient Amazonian Indians: A modern weapon against global warming

Jan 13, 2010
Unlike familiar charcoal briquettes, above, biochar is charcoal made from wood, grass and other organic matter, and has the potential to help slow climate change. Credit: iStock

Scientists are reporting that "biochar" -- a material that the Amazonian Indians used to enhance soil fertility centuries ago — has potential in the modern world to help slow global climate change. Mass production of biochar could capture and sock away carbon that otherwise would wind up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Their report appears in ACS' Environmental Science & Technology.

Kelli Roberts and colleagues note that biochar is charcoal produced by heating wood, grass, cornstalks or other organic matter in the absence of oxygen. The heat drives off gases that can be collected and burned to produce energy. It leaves behind charcoal rich in carbon. Amazonian Indians mixed a combination of charcoal and organic matter into the soil to improve soil fertility, a fact that got the scientists interested in studying biochar's modern potential.

The study involved a "life-cycle analysis" of biochar production, a comprehensive cradle-to-grave look at its potential in fighting global climate change and all the possible consequences of using the material. It concludes that several biochar production systems have the potential for being an economically viable way of sequestering carbon — permanently storing it — while producing renewable energy and enhancing soil fertility.

Explore further: Implications for the fate of green fertilizers

More information: "Life cycle assessment of biochar systems: Estimating the energetic, economic, and climate change potential", pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es902266r

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Caliban
2.5 / 5 (2) Jan 13, 2010
Thay was quick- I don't think it has even been a month since I commented that someone needed to roll down this road. A step that addresses several issues simultaneously- 1) utilizes a superabundant waste resource to sequester carbon in a more or less permanent, self-sustaining, non-polluting way, 2) produces more fertile, productive, and hydrophilic soil for agriculture, and 3) co-generates a fuel source! Anyone want to add to the list?
ricarguy
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2010
I agree that this sounds like a win-win scenario. Charcoal remains stable as such for many centuries, unless it is burned. The gases given off in making charcoal still have a good deal of carbon content as well as water vapor and are a pretty dirty mix for clean combustion. Very usable, but certainly less desirable as a fuel compared to natural gas. Curious why they single out Amazonian Indians, as any decent gardener knows about adding some charcoal to soil. I would judge the caption on the photo to largely be nonsense. As far as I know, all charcoal is produced from "bio-" or plant matter, usually sawdust left over from lumber producing operations.
dachpyarvile
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2010
However, the Amazonian indians burned down rainforest trees to make biochar. Hmmm... This article is not encouraging burning of rainforest trees to make this world-saving substance, is it?

Modern charcoal, on the other hand is made with several processes, one of which I am aware is to glue together blocks of compressed sawdust and then carbonize the mass with sulfuric acid, although I am sure that the old burning processes are still used by other manufacturers.

Biochar comes from burning plant-matter--originally, at least. This article reads very much like one that was posted here not long ago and seems to be an old theme with a slightly new twist, short though it is.
MikeyK
1 / 5 (1) Jan 23, 2010
There is a big difference between the indigenous indians burning small areas for their agriculture (as they have been doing for millenia) and the immense tracts of land razed for the growing of monoculture crops such as soya.