The Development of Biochar Technology

The Origin of Biochar Research

In the late 20th century, scientists studying ancient agricultural civilizations in places like Brazil discovered the presence of a type of dark, organic-rich fertile soil in the highlands of the Amazon. The locals referred to this soil as “Terra Preta.” Initially, scientists believed this soil belonged to the category of dark clay soils. However, further research revealed that this soil had a deep, rich, stable organic matter layer, with pH values, cation exchange capacities (CEC), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg) content distinct from aged soils. This fertile soil piqued significant interest in the international soil science community.

soil added with biochar
Terra Preta

The formation of Terra Preta is related to the long-standing slash-and-burn practices of the local indigenous inhabitants. Every time they cultivate a new land, they will dig pits, bury and smolder the felled trees on site, and apply the burned charcoal to the soil. Over the years, a thick layer of carbonized soil has formed in the land, which is the fundamental reason why the land here can maintain high productivity. The main characteristic of this type of soil is its rich organic matter, which combines with soil minerals to form stable aggregates and is preserved in the soil for a long time, fundamentally improving the fertility level of strong acidic and barren old soil. This represents the earliest application of biochar in soil improvement and fertility enhancement.

Since then, scientists gradually began to use biochar technology to improve soil, increase soil organic matter, mitigate climate change, and enhance agricultural productivity. The core content of biochar technology is to convert organic matter from terrestrial ecosystems into biochar and then return it to the soil. After 2008, numerous studies successively confirmed that biochar can significantly improve soil fertility levels, and the organic matter generated by biomass carbonization in soil has a renewal cycle lasting from several hundred to thousands of years. Therefore, the use of biochar to increase soil organic carbon stocks as an agricultural approach to mitigate climate change has attracted widespread attention in the scientific community, continuously refreshing the potential for global biochar carbon sequestration and sink enhancement.

The Development of Biochar Production Process

Traditional labor-intensive pit charring methods cannot meet the demands of modern agriculture. In order to apply biochar on a large scale, we need a rapid and industrialized biomass carbonization technology.

Through the efforts of researchers, the production process of biochar has evolved from the initial pit and kiln charring to the modern continuous industrial kiln charring. At present, based on the principle of pyrolysis gasification, GEMCO Energy has absorbed and integrated advanced international biochar preparation processes to develop a high-yield, efficient, and highly automated biomass pyrolysis reactor. With this equipment as the core, biomass carbonization facilities can not only produce high-quality biochar, but also produce by-products such as tar, wood vinegar, and syngas. Among them, synthetic gas is a high calorific value environmentally friendly fuel, matched with energy equipment such as gas boilers and steam turbines, the facility can supply electricity and heat to the surrounding area.

biochar production facility
GEMCO Biochar Facility Solution

As the technology and equipment for producing biochar continue to mature, the types of raw materials available for biochar production are also increasing. Starting from initial forestry waste, the scope has expanded to include agricultural crop residues such as straw, then to rice husks and coconut shells generated during agricultural processing, further extending to sludge produced during urban sewage treatment processes, and finally encompassing household garbage and kitchen waste. All of these materials can be utilized for biochar production through pyrolysis technology.

The development of biochar technology not only addresses the disposal of biomass waste but also utilizes the produced biochar for agricultural soil application. This can improve soil quality, increase soil carbon sequestration, and contribute to mitigating climate warming. Currently, biochar technology has evolved into an interdisciplinary field of biomass science and engineering, situated between environmental engineering, environmental management, soil management, and climate change mitigation.

Global Action on Biochar Technology Development

In 2015, scientists and activists published an article in Nature calling for the global agricultural sector to adopt mechanisms for soil improvement through the introduction of biochar. This initiative aims to encourage the development of waste to biochar technology to enhance soil carbon sequestration and increase agricultural productivity. In recent years, scientists have also included the application of biochar to soil as a feasible technique in mitigating climate change.

In 2015, the United Nations Global Environment Facility (GEF) launched the Biochar and Global Soil Sustainable Management (Demonstration) Project. This initiative funded farmer-participated practices of biochar soil improvement and fertility enhancement in six countries across Asia, Africa, and South America. Additionally, the Asian Development Bank established seed projects to support farmers in mountainous regions of underdeveloped countries in Asia, such as Nepal, in agricultural waste carbonization and biochar soil improvement projects. These efforts aim to maintain and enhance soil fertility and improve agricultural productivity.

These projects have also spurred enthusiasm for the development of biochar technology and agricultural applications in some African countries. International organizations like Pro-Natura from France have identified biochar soil improvement and fertilization as primary solutions for poverty alleviation. They have established biochar experimental demonstration and training sites, as well as founded the Pan-African Biomass Char Research Center and the Biochar Association to promote the technology and applications of biochar across Africa.

The acceptance of biochar for soil improvement and fertility enhancement in underdeveloped regions, aiding in soil conservation and increasing agricultural productivity, has gained widespread recognition and is increasingly attracting the attention of international funding organizations. As small-scale initiatives to alleviate poverty, support farmers, and enrich agriculture, some financial institutions are becoming more inclined to support such environmentally friendly, nature-oriented, and agriculturally beneficial projects. The application of biochar in global soil sustainable management has propelled the development of biochar technology and industry.

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