Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants

Jake Miller
Newsletter Issue: 
March 2016

Natalia Rogovska spreading biochar

Natalia Rogovska, Assistant Scientist at Iowa State University, spreads biochar on a field plot.

Beneath every successful plant is healthy soil. Biochar can be a key ingredient for productive and healthy soil.

Biochar, a charred biomass, is a lightweight and highly porous byproduct of a process known as pyrolysis. During pyrolysis, the energy pathway being studied by CenUSA Bioenergy, the rapidly heated biomass releases a mixture of gasses that is captured and condensed into bio-oil, an energy dense transportation fuel.

“Biochar and similar products can potentially work wonders for soil health. But you have to ask yourself what problem you’re trying to solve,” said David Laird, Iowa State University professor of agronomy and CenUSA Bioenergy CO-PI.  “If soil isn’t the problem there is a chance no amount of char will help.” Laird is evaluating biochar as a soil enhancement.”

For farmers and gardeners interested in soil health, biochar may be something to explore. There are plenty of biochar applications. It can be used to increase the water and nutrient holding capabilities of sandy or eroded soils. On the other end of the spectrum, densely packed soil can be loosened up with biochar; improving soil structure and allowing root systems to fully extend and moisture.

One company from California, Cool Planet, has put its original plans of producing biogas from plant feedstalks on hold to delve into the biochar market. Dropping gas production for biochar, something with a new almost non-existent market, may sound like a risk. However, Wes Bolson and Daren Daugaard of Cool Planet explained that the drastic drop in oil prices, to around $27 per barrel, makes it tough for biogas to compete; while other products could still be much more profitable.

“You still have two products but the bio-carbon product could potentially be worth a lot more,” said Bolson.

Biochar could be especially useful in high value fruit and vegetable crops. According to the USDA Economic Research Service producing one acre of strawberries costs $46,000. In places like California where water is an issue, a dried up field of berries would be a devastating loss. Biochar may increase water efficiency of plants. This means that biochar treated soil plants may hold water for a few extra days in between rainfalls, something producers of high value crops might be happy to try out.

At Cool Planet they pyrolyze woody or herbaceous biomass material, and the charcoal-like substance that is left is what many consider to be biochar. Cool Planet puts this material through another process, creating an engineered bio-carbon, something they call “Cool Terra.”

Cool Planet’s extra processing step can help eliminate contaminants and offer a level of consistency that similar products may not have. This extra step could help Cool planet gain a foothold in a developing market, explained Daugaard.

A recent report by the International Biochar Institute showed that there is growing interest in using biochar but production is still low. As such, it will likely only be used in high-end specialty markets. “Overtime as the bioenergy industry grows there will be more biochar available and the market will continue to grow,” said Laird.