Illinois Sustainable Technology Center - University of Illinois

Biochar and Carbon Sequestration

2010 Biochar Symposium

On September 1st, 2010, ISTC hosted the 2010 Biochar Symposium that featured presentations on biochar production, properties, and use in agricultural environments. Click on the link above to view the slides and presentations from the symposium.


Over the summer of 2010 outside of Champaign, IL, ISTC scientists used biochar as a soil amendment on a test plot of corn. The project was sponsored by the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the Sustainable Agriculture Grant Program.

Global climate change and uncertain fossil oil reserves are two major energy, economic, and environmental challenges of our time. Fossil fuels as non-renewable energy resources will eventually be exhausted in the foreseeable future due to finite reserves and rapidly increasing energy demands of modern societies. Also, there is growing scientific consensus that the current climate change is attributed to the large emissions of greenhouse gases associated with the extensive use of fossil fuels.

Scientists at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) are exploring an innovative way to off-set fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions: using pyrolysis at low temperatures to convert waste biomass into valuable products. Pyrolysis is a thermochemical conversion process where waste biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen to produce a series of energy products such as bio-oil, syngas, and biochar. Bio-oil and syngas can be captured and used as energy carriers. Also, bio-oil can be used at petroleum refineries as a feedstock that is greenhouse-gas-neutral and renewable.

Biochar

Biochar can be used as a fuel or as a soil amendment. When used as a soil amendment, biochar can boost soil fertility, prevent soil erosion, and improve soil quality by raising soil pH, trapping moisture, attracting more beneficial fungi and microbes, improving cation exchange capacity, and helping the soil hold nutrient. Moreover, biochar is a more stable nutrient source than compost and manure. Therefore, biochar as a soil amendment can increase crop yields, reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, and minimize the adverse environmental effects of agrochemicals on the environment.

Another potentially enormous environmental benefit associated with biochar used in soil is that it can sequester atmospheric carbon. In the natural carbon cycle, plants take up CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow, and subsequently CO2 is emitted when the plant matter decomposes rapidly after the plants die. Thus, the overall natural cycle is carbon neutral. In contrast, pyrolysis can lock up this atmospheric carbon as biochar for long periods (e.g., centurial or even millennial time scales). Therefore, the biochar approach is an attractive solution to alleviating global warming concerns. James Lovelock, famous for his Gaia hypothesis, is now advocating biochar as "One last chance to save mankind".

ISTC's biochar studies include: production of biochar from a variety of waste biomass, characteristics of biochar, biochar for sustainable agriculture, and potential environmental implication associated with biochar use. For more information on ISTC's biochar research, or if you are interested in exploring biochar production at your facility or establishing collaboration on biochar research, please contact Dr. Wei Zheng.

For more information on Illinois biochar research, please see: www.biochar.illinois.edu.

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