CORVALLIS, Ore. — Biochar, as multiple speakers said during a four-day conference at Oregon State University Aug. 22-25, has shown potential to improve soil pH, retain moisture, sequester carbon, filter water and clean up polluted mining and industrial sites.
Its application to agriculture is promising, especially in areas afflicted by drought and swaths of dead trees in public forests, said one of the speakers, Raymond Baltar, biochar senior project manager with Sonoma Ecology Center, a non-profit based in Eldridge, Calif.
“This should be a no-brainer, but it’s not,” Baltar said.
Government bureaucracy, lack of focused research funding and “siloed” work by science, policy and environmental organizations all hamper biochar advances, he said.
Biochar is made by heating wood waste or other plant material with little or no oxygen present, a process called pyrolysis. The result is a porous charcoal that locks carbon and moisture into the soil.
California’s water crisis could be eased by biochar technology, Baltar said. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water used by humans, and even a 5 percent to 10 percent reduction — accomplished by biochar’s ability to hold moisture in the soil — represents millions of dollars in savings, Baltar said.
“If they decrease water use, farmers could save a small fortune,” he said.
The state has an estimated 66 million dead trees in its public forest, much of which could be logged, removed and become a ready source of the “feed stock” needed to produce biochar.
“Go after the low-hanging fruit, and there’s a lot of that,” Baltar said. “There’s no shortage of material to support a biochar industry.”
Baltar said existing biomass plants, built in an attempt to provide alternative fuels, should be kept open and converted to produce biochar. Meanwhile, technology funding should be directed to make smaller, mobile burners that can operate closer to where dead trees are located. Some orchards and vineyards have invested in their own low-tech systems for burning pruning waste, and apply the biochar to their trees and vines, Baltar said.
“We should go after the low-hanging fruit” of solution options, he said, “and there’s lots of that.”
California’s problems of dead trees, drought and the “Big Kahuna” – climate change – should be seen as interrelated problems, he said.
“Rapid use of biochar by agriculture could buy us time,” he said.
Other conference speakers described on-going biochar research projects across the country. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is looking into biochar’s ability to remove pollutants from mining sites, and multiple university researchers are testing biochar applications on crops.
In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon State University agronomist Stephen Machado is in the third year of testing biochar’s application on wheat and pea crops. A single application in 2013 continues to produce good results in test plots, he said, with wheat yield increases ranging from 20 to 33 percent and similar improvement in peas.
At the conference, Machado said some farmers view biochar as a costly capital expense. He suggested they should consider the long-term gain provided by improved crop results.
The conference, called “Biochar 2016” and focused on biochar’s connection to ecology, soil, food and energy, was hosted by OSU’s College of Forestry.