What is Biochar?

a small sample of biochar

Interest in biochar over the last several years has grown substantially in Nebraska. With established markets in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Southeast Asia, each year brings an uptick of producers and end-users. So what is biochar, anyway?

Biochar is created from organic matter and stored in the soil as a means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is similar to charcoal in both its production and composition; however, it’s not used for heating or cooking. Furthermore, biochar is an umbrella term for a variety of products rather than a single item. 

The resource concerns that biochar addresses are twofold. First, the production of biochar requires the utilization of organic waste streams. Eastern redcedar is just one of many waste wood streams that could be utilized for biochar. Ash trees that are being removed as a result of the 2016 emerald ash borer (EAB) discovery are another. Invasive species removals, forestry thinning residues, and wood waste from storm damage are all opportunities for the production of biochar.

Secondly, biochar can provide soil health benefits, improve water quality and quantity, and sequester carbon. Biochar can increase the retention of water, nutrients, and agrochemicals for use by crops and plants. Evidence shows that more nutrients stay in the soil and are thus not leached into groundwater causing pollution. The production of biochar converts the carbon in wood into a stable form of carbon that is resistant to decomposition. Biochar discovered in the Amazon was carbon dated to 2,000 years indicating that it has the potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere indefinitely.

Because biochar can be made on a variety of scales, a homeowner could make biochar for use in their garden, or a municipality could produce biochar for use in urban landscaping projects. The process of creating biochar is through pyrolysis, or burning material at high temperatures in the absence or near absence of oxygen. Excluding oxygen can be as simple as a putting a lid on an outdoor fire pit or as complex as a fully automated combustion chamber.

biocharBiochar can be made in the comfort of your own backyard. 

In Nebraska, biochar is being used in a variety of ways. It is currently used on trials to improve soil health and tree growth in compacted urban soils in Omaha. It has also been used for a green roof at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Recreation and Wellness Center, as well as in a variety of agricultural crop trials as a soil amendment across the state. Together with the Kansas Forest Service and private industry, the Nebraska Forest Service has launched the Great Plains Biochar Initiative. We offer speaking engagements, technical assistance, and financial assistance to those interested in using or making biochar.