Burn the Earth to Save It! By James Reed
I knew nothing about biochar before reading this article, and now know a little more.
“The Importance of Soil Biology
As explained by Bates, soil microbes create what you might think of as a coral reef in the soil — a highly fertile area of water storage, air storage and nutrient storage that can nourish a wide variety of soil microbes. This soil biology makes for very nutrient-dense plants. That, in turn, allowed large civilizations to flourish in the Amazon. The charcoal also takes carbon from the atmosphere, sequestering it in the earth for long periods of time — thousands of years, typically, provided you don't use destructive agricultural processes such as tilling. So, this carbon sequestration benefits not only soils and plants but also the atmosphere. "Right now, at this point in time, we really need [carbon sequestration] for another reason; we need to have that timeout to give us some time to slow our emissions down, to go carbon-neutral. This is what you might call carbon-negative or a drawdown effect of carbon actually leaving the atmosphere, leaving the ocean and coming back into the land, where it had been, as fossil fuels, before."
How Biochar Is Created
Now, a simple wood fire is not sufficient, as this will merely create ash, which doesn't create the carbon structure needed. What you need to do is burn the biomass without oxygen. This creates a type of charcoal typically referred to as biochar. "Biochar is distinguished from charcoal," Bates explains. "Every fire goes through two stages. The first stage is you warm up the material or maybe strike a match and the phosphor in the end creates the flame. That heats up the match for just a moment, and then you get the burning, the smoke and the flame. As it begins to burn down the match, it leaves behind a charcoal stick. That's the first phase of the fire. That's carbonization. That's actually the burning of the gases … Each [gas has] its own kindling temperature. The last to go would be carbon. Finally, what happens is the carbon oxidizes and joins with oxygen. It turns into CO2 or CO. As that carbon stick on the end of the match turns into ash, that's the second stage of the fire. In the process of making charcoal — I'll distinguish that from biochar in a second — the process is to stop it before it oxidizes.
The way you do that is to deprive the fire of oxygen … So, you're baking at the first stage. You're burning off the gases … And then you're holding that last stage, the hard carbon stage, in a permanent condition and not letting it go to ash and not creating smoke. That's the pyrolysis process. That's the carbonization … If you look at it under a microscope, you see that it's got all of these pores. Some of that is the original plant structure and some of that is the volatile gases. As they explode, they cratered the sides of the original vessels of the plant and left behind the skeletal structure … What you get there is this ability to absorb and adhere things. It's got a cation exchange. It's kind of magnetic in the way that it sticks things to its walls. It's particularly strong in sticking nitrogen [and] sulfur …"
Biochar for Detox and Cattle Feed
The ability to absorb is what makes activated charcoal and biochar so effective for detoxification. Caution needs to be used when taken internally, as it will chelate beneficial minerals as well. I like to take it at least one hour before or two hours after a meal. But it's really inexpensive and something, I think, most people can benefit from, considering it's nearly impossible these days to avoid toxic chemical exposures. You need some type of detoxification agent to help eliminate some of these toxins. Biochar can be an effective tool for that. Biochar is also used to great benefit in livestock. When you add biochar to the animals' diet, it helps eliminate the need for antibiotics. "It's especially significant in cattle," Bates says. "Cows have enteric digestion. They've got their rumen. They're doing fermentation in their stomachs. You've got this process of fermentation, which is a microbial soup. It's bacterially active ferment. If you can add a little bit of biochar to that, it actually improves it the same way it improves the microbial habitant in soil. It becomes that coral-reef effect within the gut of the animal … Their rumen gets really good. The antibiotic need diminishes to zero. They then add weight faster. They have a higher efficiency of feed conversion, so less food puts on more weight or produces more milk than it had before they started supplementing 1% to 2% biochar into their diet. Not only that, when it comes out the back end of the animal, first off, you're getting about 30% less methane production … when you add biochar to the diet at 1%. But now, that manure is now rich in biochar, and so, it's going to compost about one-third or a quarter faster than normal composting operations would take. It scavenges nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. It takes those elements that would become greenhouse gases in the composting process, holds them, uses them and puts them back into what's the final product that's going into the soil.
A cow that's been grazed in an open pasture and is being fed biochar as a supplement is fertilizing that pasture to the point where the roots of the grasses grow deeper and thicker. The grasses come up faster and more nutrient-dense, so that, again, reduces the cattle feed requirement. You can graze more cattle on the same amount with faster rotations because of this. And then you have the effect of the cattle — the pasture recovering [faster] and being able to resist floods and droughts. It just continues to get better year after year because the biochar is slowly being added to the soil from the cow. So, you've got this beneficial loop." In his book, Bates features an Australian farmer, Doug Powell, who fed his cows biochar and added large amounts of dung beetles to his fields. The beetles roll up balls of manure and bring them underground. In the first year, he increased profits by $20,000 simply by bringing more biochar into the ground. This is just one innovative solution offered in "Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth."
Ok, this guy believes in climate change, but being open minded we can see that improving sol quality is will of obvious benefit to farmers. Thus, for reference here is the link to the book: