Reversing climate change: Is charcoal the answer?

Reversing climate change: Is charcoal the answer?
PhD candidate Carolyn Winsborough examines maple seedlings she has grown with and without biochar added to the soil.

It's black, it's gritty, it's essential for barbecues -- and it just might save the world from global warming.

Biochar, a kind of that is rich in carbon, traps CO2 from the atmosphere and can store it in soils for hundreds to thousands of years, says Professor Nathan Basiliko, a soil scientist at U of T Mississauga's Department of Geography. Now, Basiliko and colleagues in the Faculty of Forestry are poised to demonstrate that wood waste from Ontario's forest industry could be used to produce energy and biochar, making the wood a truly carbon-negative .

"I had been following the buzz about biochar for a while when the owner of Haliburton Forest, Peter Schleifenbaum, emailed me out of the blue," says Basiliko. Schleifenbaum is Basiliko's industrial research partner, and was interested in producing energy with wood waste from his new mill. He wondered if, instead of burning all the wood, he should make biochar.

Biochar is produced by pyrolysis, a process where such as wood smoulders at moderate temperatures with very little oxygen. Part of the wood burns, yielding heat and gases that can be captured and used as biofuel. But roughly half the carbon remains behind as charcoal that is very resistant to degradation. In fact, pre-Columbian Indians in the Amazon fertilized their fields with biochar that has persisted for thousands of years.

"Pyrolysis and biochar production has certain advantages over conventional ," Basiliko says. Although yielding more energy, fully combusting wood is at best carbon-neutral-the amount of carbon released during combustion equals the amount of carbon taken up as new trees replace the original wood. Pyrolysis is potentially carbon-negative because a significant percentage of the carbon in the smouldered wood is locked into biochar, which can be incorporated into soil and stored for hundreds of years.

If the expected benefits of producing biochar pan out, the net effect will decrease atmospheric concentrations of CO2. This is where rescuing the world comes into play. Basiliko says that even if we stopped using fossil fuels today, the CO2 that humans have already pumped into the atmosphere will remain for hundreds of years. But burying biochar in the soil, while allowing new tree growth to replace the amount of wood harvested for pyrolysis, would draw down CO2 levels and help reverse climate change.

The benefits don't stop there. Biochar soaks up nutrients such as calcium and magnesium, preventing them from leaching out of soil, and thereby boosts soil fertility. "The best case scenario is that it sustains or increases forest productivity while some portion of the biochar stays stable in soils over hundreds of years," Basiliko says.

Schleifenbaum is planning to invest millions of dollars in a bioenergy facility and has invited Basiliko and his colleagues to carry out their research on his forest. "An enormous amount of work needs to be done before we can utilize biochar on an industrial scale," Basiliko says. For one thing, most of the research on biochar has been done in the tropics and in agricultural systems, so no one can say for sure how it will behave in Canadian forest soils.

One key question is how long biochar can reside in the soils of Haliburton Forest before microbes consume it. Basiliko will also analyze the effect of biochar on soil nutrients, microbial biodiversity and the emission of greenhouse gases from microbes.

The $13,500 seed grant that Basiliko and his colleagues received from the Ontario Centres of Excellence will help launch the biochar project. Other bioenergy research already underway at Haliburton Forest is examining what happens to ecosystem health when additional slash is removed for bioenergy. Slash is the downed wood, leaves and small branches left behind on the ground after logging. Slash provides habitat for animals and plants and is an important source of nutrients for the next generation of trees. The researchers are determining how much slash can be removed for energy production without harming carbon storage and ecosystem function.

The scientists have also secured funds from NSERC, MITACS, Haliburton Forest and Ontario Power Generation, and are partnering with researchers at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and other sources to make sustainable bioenergy in the forestry sector a reality in Ontario.

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Provided by University of Toronto at Mississauga
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Oct 08, 2010
If we stopped using fossil fuels today? The major shift that such an action would require in society will take decades to unfold. First, you get rid of the fossil fuel use at the electric generation stage. Then, enhance it, because if you want all cars on electric, the current electric grid would break.

Oct 08, 2010
There is virtually no global warming happening. Er, climate change, er, climate disruption (is that the pc word now?). Chill.

Oct 08, 2010
This line of thinking always gets to me:
the CO2 that humans have already pumped into the atmosphere will remain for hundreds of years

Is that true? No. It took 15 years for the environment and its natural sinks to remove nearly 50% of anthropogenic CO2. That is one reason why with all we emit the level rises by something around just over 1% every year. It would have been much higher had not the sinks absorbed as much of it as they did.

If we stopped emitting now, it would take less than 100 years to get rid of all of what we added. The link to the information is in one of the other CO2/climate change threads at Physorg.

Oct 08, 2010
If we stopped emitting now

:) That's funny.

Oct 08, 2010
Sustainable biochar to mitigate global climate change

Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left.
Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.


For those looking for an overview of biochar and its benefits, These authors have done a very nice job of distilling a great deal of information about biochar and applying it to the US context:

US Focused Biochar report: Assessment of Biochar's Benefits for the USA files/biochar_report_lowres.pdf

This PNAS report, by a Nobel lariat
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Reducing abrupt climate change risk using
the Montreal Protocol and other regulatory
actions to complement cuts in CO2 emissions

Oct 08, 2010
Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent.

Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,

Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.

Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw;
"Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes;
"Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !".
Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar.
Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
Microbes like to sit down when they eat.
By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life.

Oct 09, 2010
Biochar can not be only made from forest trees, from from other biomass and other unwanted weeds like water hyacinth which is a problem in most parts of Lake in Kenya. The problem identity of Biochar is that few experts (scientists) have not yet thought run trials through farmers participatory research, directly to involve farmers for easy adoption for the success of a future meaningful Biochar for CO2 sequestration. What governments fear is, how this going to help their small farmers (the majority) if not involved at the beginning...if Biochar can work agriculturally, then be sure all the forest would go, by charcoal being made from the old simple and cheap technologies like in Africa where the present technology of making charcoal is only from cutting down trees.Mmmh, if biochar introduced in Africa, our forests are gone.

Oct 09, 2010
Global Clean Stove Initutive:
Another significant aspect of low cost Biomass cook stoves, that produce char, is removal of BC aerosols and no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing "Three Stone" stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria & Aids combined.
The Biochar Fund :
Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon
The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that, and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )

State Dept. Release;
100 million clean-burning stoves in kitchens around the world.

WorldStoves in Haiti ; http://www.charco...mission/

NSF Awards $1.6 million in grants;
BREAD: Biochar Inoculants for Enabling Smallholder Agriculture

Oct 09, 2010
Four serious efforts at producing biochar by cookstoves are the efforts by

Nat Mulcahy's WorldStove;
WorldStoves in Haiti ; http://www.charco...mission/

Paul Anderson's Champion TLUD (and offshoots from that design); http://www.bioene...truction

Rob Flanagan's design efforts mainly in China, The Flana Stove; http://bionecho.o...tion.php
Dr. Reddy in India, GoodStove;

The Biochar Fund has doubled subsistence farmer's incomes;
Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon
The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that , and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )

Oct 14, 2010
"world comes into play. Basiliko says that even if we stopped using fossil fuels today, the CO2 that humans have already pumped into the atmosphere will remain for hundreds of years."

I guess they didn't see the breaking news stories about this being obviously wrong. There is a wave of news stories breaking today that point out a huge mistake in the math regarding how long it would take for human CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere. Aparently it's more like 30-100 years, rather than hundreds or thousands as proposed by the Royal Society. OOOPS!

Oct 14, 2010
I've been seeing the news as well. It should be interesting to sit back and see where this will go. I'll let people in on something else, but only a teaser.

I've been informed that the IPCC is about to get another spanking on yet another accuracy issue relating to their last report. I'll not mention that issue for the moment, but watch for it. When it comes to the fore it will be seen for what it is. :-)

Oct 16, 2010
Reversing climate change: Is charcoal the answer?

Folks should learn not to mess around with things they do not fully understand. And climate 'scientists' do NOT understand Climate.

Oct 17, 2010
Well, for my money, doing something to protect us and move toward energy efficiency with a neutral effect on the environment seems a prudent step. The "neutral" effect is what may be most difficult. That something desparately needs to be done, regardless of the motive, is becoming harder and harder to deny.

Oct 17, 2010
The "neutral" effect is what may be most difficult.

And, there is the rub. Whether people want to acknowledge it or not, each and every single current technology we have at our disposal for alternative energy has some degree of harm to the environment as part of its pricetag.

Windmill farms not only whack many species of bird and bats out of the sky, including endangered species, but they also require a backup generation system that runs on fossil fuels.

Solar technology, including some of the most recent technologies, use some of the most toxic substances known to man--not to mention the superpotent GHGs escaping into the atmosphere as a result of the manufacturing and cleaning processes.

Nuclear has many benefits but also substantial environmental risks.

Geothermal and hydroelectric energy also have their disruptive influences on the environment, too.

We are between a rock and a hard place and not enough people in the public know enough about it.

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