An EU INTERREG IVb project,, Rob van Haren,

This project concerns biochar, which is a product of some biomass-to-energy processing systems, and has as its aim in raising awareness and building confidence in biochar as a way of capturing carbon in a stabilised form and increasing soil quality and ‘health’, with attendant benefits to agriculture. The EU INTERREG IVb North Sea Region Steering Group has decided to support the Biochar: climate saving soils project initiative. Thirteen partners from seven different countries around the North Sea are working together within this project. The project officially started on 1-10-2009 and continues until 30-9-2013.

Climate change in the North Sea Region is predicted to have a pronounced effect on annual rainfall patterns. Prolonged periods of severe droughts or heavy rains will impact the sustainability of farming and will also have significant effects on the stability of soils.

Soils, rich in organic matter and biological diversity and activity, function both as a water buffer during periods of drought and as drainage during periods of heavy rains. Increased rooting depth due to biological activity increases soil stability and hence reduces erosion. Organic matter is rapidly degraded by micro-organisms. Thermal treatment, like pyrolysis or torrefaction, converts rapidly degradable biomass into non-degradable inert biochar. Urban, industrial and agricultural biomass residues can be used as raw material for thermal conversion, though only high-quality biochar will be suitable for application onto agricultural land.  Application of biochar into soils is also a Carbon Capture and Soil Storage (CCSS) strategy because it actually locks away the carbon in soils, avoids decomposition to methane in some circumstances, whilst there is also evidence for suppression of soil nitrous oxide emissions.  Biochar remains stable in soils and would appear to make soils resilient to the effects of climate change, especially the effects of weather extremes.

Biochar can lower the carbon content of the atmosphere because biochar contains a high proportion of stabilised carbon from plant material, in addition to off-set greenhouse gas emissions (through use of the energy by-products) and the beneficial indirect impacts of biochar incorporated into the soil.

The EU-25 produces annually 215 Mtonne biomass residues and organic wastes. When this is converted into biochar and applied to soils, about 215 Mtonne CO2 annually could be sequestered.

Biochar creates a triple win scenario by simultaneously producing bioenergy, permanently sequestering carbon, and increasing crop yields by improving soil and water quality. Each tonne of biochar stored in soils, sequesters about two to three tonnes of CO2-eq from the atmosphere.( 1 tonne pure C = 3.67 tonne CO2eq).

The properties of biochar allow four of the EU’s key policies and strategies to be addressed at once: the climate change policy – reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere; the renewable energy policy – the biofuel or bioenergy production; the landfill directive – conversion of biomass waste into biochar and prevention of landfill methane emissions; and, the soil strategy – prevention of soil degradation.

Biochar research is a rapidly emerging field.  Research and practice-related questions remain about: safe levels of biochar applications to the soil; evaluation of carbon savings throughout biochar’s life-cycle; possible ecotoxicological effects when (polluted) feedstock’s are used;  the mechanism(s) by which biochar has its impacts in the soil, its agronomic effects and its interaction with the soil microbial community;  appropriate methods for applying biochar to soils;  and appropriate and proportionate regulatory frameworks for controlling the use of biochar.

The project Biochar: climate saving soils has three clear targets (workpackages):

  1. Establish a transnational biochar knowledge dissemination strategy for authorities, producers and end-users of biochar and public opinion for raising awareness and building confidence in biochar applications.
  2. Align and share knowledge and methodological standards on biochar feedstocks, logistics, production, biochar characterisation and environmental impact assessment.
  3. Align and share knowledge and methodological standards on Biochar applications for soil quality and fertility improvement, for soil remediation and stabilisation and for carbon capture and soil storage.

Thirteen research institutes and universities around the North Sea are cooperating in aligning their knowledge and expertise on the above three objectives and objectives and are conducting joint evaluations of the methodological standardization of biochar, biochar production and its applications. They will share their knowledge and agreed standards with governments, NGO’s and end-users of biochar through national and transnational biochar competence centres. These centres function as focal points for knowledge dissemination by facilitating e.g. workshops, conferences and field excursions. Relevant reports, documents and standard protocols will be published on a freely- accessible website. Scientific knowledge will be shared in conferences and peer reviewed scientific publications. Journalists will be encouraged to write papers on biochar for dedicated target groups (e.g. land-fill owners, farmers) or the general public. A dedicated program for exchange of master students practicing biochar research from the participating Universities will be developed.

Biochar can be produced from different biomass feedstocks and can be processed in many ways resulting in material that has numerous different qualities. Methods will be developed for assessing biochar qualities with respect to processing conditions and biomass feedstocks. Optimal thermal conversion processes and processing conditions will be selected for attaining specific biochar qualities. Prototypes and blue prints will be available for small and large scale biochar production. Life cycle analysis and environmental impact assessment is an integral part of the project. Different business models for biochar production and valuation will also be evaluated.

Biochar applications in soil can improve soil quality and soil fertility as is demonstrated in the anthropogenic Terra Preta soils in the Amazon. These soils are made by pre-Columbian Indians thousands of years ago and today still have their soil fertile qualities. The effects of biochar will be demonstrated on crop growth, soil water holding capacity, soil structure, soil fertility, soil microbiology and on green house gas emissions. The possibility of cleaning up soils will be evaluated with the aid of micro-organisms and biochar by immobilizing chemical substances within the microbial cells or by converting them to harmless metabolites. Biomass waste disposal is, according to the EU landfill directive, being phased out. Production of biochar as an alternative way of managing organic waste disposal will be evaluated. Biochar is an alternative for Carbon dioxide Capture and Geological Storage (CCGS). The half-time of biochar in soils must be assessed and proper measurement and monitroing protocols and certification schemes must be established In order to support the sustainable deployment of biochar.
The partners are:

  • Netherlands: Province Groningen (lead partner)
  • Netherlands: Productschap Akkerbouw/Kiemkracht
  • Netherlands: Nutrient management Institute
  • Netherlands: WUR-Alterra
  • Belgium: ILVO
  • Belgium: University Gent
  • Germany: HAWK-Applied Univerisity, Gottingen
  • Germany: 3N-Werlte
  • Denmark: Risoe University
  • Sweden: University Uppsala
  • Norway: Bioforsk
  • United Kingdom : Scottish Crop Research Institute
  • United Kingdom: University Edinburgh, (UKBRC, United Kingdom Biochar Research centre)