Biochar in soils cuts greenhouse gas emissions

October 7, 2013, University of Tübingen

University of Tübingen microbiologists show soil microbe communities can be influenced to decrease nitrous oxide emissions.

Introducing into agricultural soils changes the composition and activity of microorganisms in a way that emissions of nitrous oxide – also known as laughing gas (N2O) – are significantly reduced, according to researchers Johannes Harter and Hans-Martin Krause. Their study was supervised by environmental microbiologist Dr. Sebastian Behrens and geomicrobiologist Professor Andreas Kappler of the Center for Applied Geosciences at the University of Tübingen in cooperation with researchers from the University of Hohenheim. The results are important not only for a sustainable, more effective use of nitrogen fertilizers; they also present a new possibility for reducing emissions worldwide.

Biochar is produced by high-temperature thermochemical decomposition of organic material, a process known as pyrolysis. Unlike charcoal, which is primarily used to produce heat, biochar is used as a soil supplement in agriculture. Nitrous oxide is produced by nitrogen-transforming microorganisms in the soil, and these emissions increase with the use of . Biochar's surface properties prevent nutrients from being washed out of poor soils. It also positively influences the abundance, composition, and activity of microorganisms in the soil, which form complex biological communities involving plants and animals. "Soil biochar amendment helps to raise water storage capacity and decrease soil nutrient leaching, which in turn increases soil fertility and can help to reduce because it stores carbon in the soil," says Sebastian Behrens.

Indigenous peoples in tropical zones of South America and Africa were aware of biochar's positive effect on and plant growth thousands of years ago. The current study underlines the importance of biochar research – because biochar not only has the potential to open profitable new markets for agriculture and industry, it also provides data important to the protection of soils and the climate.

The results are also important in the light of the recently-released 5th Assessment Report, in which the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that concentrations of the greenhouse gases CO2, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere have risen by 40%, 150% and 20%, respectively since 1750 because of human activity. The main source of nitrous oxide is agriculture (84%). It is therefore of great economic and environmental importance to find strategies to reduce emission while making nitrogen fertilizer use sustainable – and maintaining crop yields.

Explore further: Biochar reduces nasty nitrous oxide emissions on farms

More information: Harter, J. et al. (2013) Linking N2O emissions from biochar-amended soil to the structure and function of the N-cycling microbial community, ISME Journal. … s/ismej2013160a.html

Related Stories

Biochar reduces nasty nitrous oxide emissions on farms

April 29, 2013

( —In the quest to decrease the world's greenhouse gases, Cornell scientists have discovered that biochar – a charcoal-like substance – reduces the nemesis nitrous oxide from agricultural soil on average by ...

Can biochar help suppress greenhouse gases?

April 20, 2011

Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas and a precursor to compounds that contribute to the destruction of the ozone. Intensively managed, grazed pastures are responsible for an increase in nitrous oxide emissions from grazing ...

Can biochar help suppress greenhouse gases?

March 18, 2011

Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas and a precursor to compounds that contribute to the destruction of the ozone. Intensively managed, grazed pastures are responsible for an increase in nitrous oxide emissions from grazing ...

Is biochar the answer for ag?

August 2, 2010

Scientists demonstrate that biochar, a type charcoal applied to soils in order to capture and store carbon, can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, and inorganic nitrogen runoff from agriculture settings. ...

Findings on biochar, greenhouse gas emissions and ethylene

December 13, 2011

Adding a charred biomass material called biochar to glacial soils can help reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists.

Greenhouse gases from farmland underestimated

April 2, 2013

(—Changes in agricultural practices could reduce soil emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and the atmospheric pollutant nitric oxide, according to a new study by scientists at the University of California, ...

Recommended for you

How the Elwha dam removals changed the river's mouth

January 19, 2018

For decades, resource managers agreed that removing the two dams on the Elwha River would be a big win for the watershed as a whole and, in particular, for its anadromous trout and salmon. The dams sat on the river for more ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.