A revolutionary carbon-free fertilizer set to take hold worldwide as “Biochar”

Reprinted with permission from World At Large, a nature, politics, science, health and travel information site.

Kari Kohvakka/Stockholm Batten and Avfall/Stockholm Biochar Project/Nordregio

Imagine if every time you throw away your lawn and garden waste, you are actively fighting global warming? This is the capability that a new soil amendment technology hopes to unlock across the world.

This potentially revolutionary method of making fertilizer that nearly eliminates greenhouse gas emissions has received a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to be incorporated into landscaping programs in 7 major cities.

The making of “biochar”, as it is called, has been modernized recently in Sweden, and is done by putting grass clippings, hedge clippings, tree branches or any other type of garden waste, in an enclosed space and “pyrolyzing” them in such a way as to avoid the rapid oxidation of CO2.

Made into a charcoal-like substance, it is not only carbon negative, meaning it removes more CO2 than it produces, but also more effective soil nutrition than other soil amendments. traditional soil such as nitrogen-phosphorus fertilizer.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that it was awarding $400,000 grants to seven major cities in Scandinavia and the United States to implement the charity’s 2014 Mayor’s Challenge winning project: The Stockholm Biochar Project. .

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Each city will receive implementation and technical support from Bloomberg to develop city-wide biochar projects and engage residents in the fight against climate change. It is expected to produce 3,750 tonnes of biochar, all from lawn and garden waste from city parks, median strips and other green spaces, which would sequester nearly 10,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 6,250 cars off the road.

Normally, municipal lawn and garden waste is trucked to landfills where it decomposes and releases all the carbon it has absorbed throughout its life into the atmosphere, along with other gases from bacteria that feed on it. However, with a biochar plant, every branch and twig thrown into the sophisticated yet simple kiln has its carbon captured almost forever.

Success from Stockholm

This revolution started in Stockholm, where, after opening its first five biochar plants in 2017, the city began distributing this new fertilizer/soil amendment for free to citizens, if they simply brought in the garden waste they might have.

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“If you buy something from the store, you want to get it right from the start, but if you get something for free, you can kind of play with it and see how it works in your garden,” biochar expert Mattias Gustafsson , consultant and original member of the Stockholm Biochar Project, said Wall.

Kari Kohvakka/Stockholm Batten and Avfall/Stockholm Biochar Project/Nordregio

“Biochar, if you look at it under a microscope, it’s kind of like a sponge, which will absorb and absorb nutrients and water, so if you put it in the ground, it’s like a battery charged with nutrients,” explains Gustafsson. “Let’s say you sow potatoes: you dig a ditch where you have the potatoes and you put biochar in it, then you put the potatoes in, then you cover it with soil.”

Extensive scientific research has shown that compared to traditional soil amendments and fertilizers, biochar, when combined with animal waste such as urine or cow manure, can increase yields by more than 100% . A meta-analysis of meta-analyses examining the benefits of biochar in agriculture found that, especially for acidic soils like those in the tropics, and especially when combined with other fertilizers, biochar can significantly increase crop yield.

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Root length, mass, and number of root tips all increased significantly in crops grown with biochar, which could have a significant impact on carbon-capturing forestry operations. The microbial content in the soil was also significantly increased through the use of biochar.

Research done at the Ithaka Institute in Nepal showed that biochar enriched with cow urine mixed with compost resulted in an average of 123% higher crop yield compared to organic farming practices done with compost enriched with cow urine. , and a 100% higher crop yield compared to the use of nitrogen-potassium-phosphorus fertilizer.

Carbon capture on weekends

The scalability, ease of use, and remarkable reduction in emissions from fertilizer production puts biochar at a watershed moment. While governments regularly pledge to give scientists billions to develop new ways to prevent climate change, biochar only requires an extra step during bi-weekly gardening chores.

“It’s unique because you put the biochar in an oxygen-free zone, and we get a very stable form so it can stay in the ground for hundreds or even thousands of years,” Gustafsson says. “We have more cities in Sweden following the Stockholm Biochar project model and more on the way, but we are trying to get more industries interested in using and producing biochar.”

In 2019, according to Bloomberg Philanthropies, Minneapolis was “blown away” by the simplicity of the biochar solution and has since brought trucks to town from a Missouri biochar plant.

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“It was a lot simpler than I imagined,” said Robin Hutcheson, Minneapolis public works director at the time. “I think I had imagined biochar as something chemical, complicated, difficult to produce and difficult to use. What I learned was that it is actually simple to produce and can be used in a variety of contexts.

Minneapolis is looking at all kinds of ways to use biochar. They gave it to local Native American tribal governments to boost agriculture, which it did, up to 30%. They considered including it in road reconstruction projects to boost rainwater harvesting, another sponge-like benefit of biochar. They want to open their own biochar plant, after being impressed with how Stockholm has turned heat from the production process into energy for the city’s power grid.

Today, one of the most important steps is about to be completed: the transition from a government program to a commercial industry. Currently, in Sweden, one can simply walk into a garden store and buy biochar. More importantly in the age of e-commerce, various sellers on Amazon in a number of countries will ship biochar directly to you, and although the price is high for a soil amendment, the amount needed for seeding is quite weak.

“I think it’s a very important point for cities to reach the public as well,” adds Gustafsson. “Thank you for bringing your sticks and branches to our biochar machine, please put the biochar in your garden.”

Gustafsson thinks there will be a day when, like a weekend shredder rental, people can rent a mobile biochar plant for late-season hedge trimming.

“We came up with the idea of ​​a little biochar-making machine that people can rent out, so definitely one thing that could be possible, someone just has to economize around that.”

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