1,979 words, ~ 6.5 min read
Scale carbon sequestration, promote clean energy production and illuminate the soil enrichment benefits of biochar.
Biochar is a biocarbon made by pyrolysis, i.e.: the heating of biomass in the absence of oxygen. During the slow baking of biomass, gas and oil separate from carbon-rich solids. The output is twofold:
Terra Preta: In ancient Amazonia the waste disposal method of choice was to bury and burn. This process, coupled with a favorable set of environmental conditions produced a charcoal soil amendment rich in carbon called terra preta, or “black earth” in Portuguese. While exactly how terra preta came to be remains somewhat mysterious (🤯), its properties and potential uses sparked significant research on carbon dense charcoals.
Biochar: This research led to biochar, described above.
Biocarbon: Many in the space believe that the word “biochar” should evolve and opt instead for the broader term “biocarbon”. We understand this argument; for the sake of continuity, we will use “biochar” throughout this report.
Normally, when biomass decomposes on the earth’s surface (or when it is burned), carbon and methane escape into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse gas (“GHG”) effect. In contrast, when biomass is broken down by pyrolysis, the resulting biochar sequesters most of its carbon, offering a stable way to store it for centuries.
Additionally, using biochar in applications like water filtration can reduce the need for new material extraction and land use. For example, many competitive water filtration products are coal-based, whereas biochar is made from existing waste.
Here are the climate challenge areas in which biochar can have outsized impact. (to go deeper on these climate tech challenge areas, checkout our content overview)
The Opportunity: Biochar can safely and efficiently sequester carbon in stable soil sinks, alleviating GHG emissions associated with the decomposition of waste from urban and rural sources (e.g. from land clearing or burning of agricultural waste).
The Opportunity: The pyrolysis that produces biochar also produces gas and oil which can be used as a low-carbon to carbon-neutral fuel in systems that provide heat, steam, cooling, drying, desalination, and more. For instance, bio-oil produced by pyrolysis can be used as a replacement for other fuels in engines and wind turbines (see here).
The Opportunity: Biochar and other end-products of pyrolysis can be used in the production of carbon negative thermoplastics (see Made of Air’s work) and lower-chemical fertilizers. It also has use cases in water filtration, e.g. using biochar to ‘bind’ and remove pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and fuel compounds from water (see here).
The Opportunity: Biochar shows promise as a less GHG-intensive construction material. It has successfully been tested as a replacement for cement-based composites, given it provides thermal insulation, has passive cooling properties and is lightweight.
The Opportunity: Biochar can help address global food security issues by improving soil infrastructure and crop productivity. Further, it can sequester carbon from waste products (e.g. trash or sewage sludge) that fill landfills and contaminate otherwise productive land.
Biochar Producers and Suppliers
Waste Management and Equipment
Soil Improvement, Gardening and Agriculture
Remediation and Water 💦 Treatment
Carbon Negative Materials and Sustainable Cities
Biofuel and Energy
Carbon Removal Marketplaces
Biochar Association Groups
As demand for carbon offsets grows, with more major corporations committing to carbon neutrality in the coming decades, the biochar market will grow, too. It’s estimated the global biochar market will reach $3.1 billion USD by 2025.
To support demand for carbon offsets, Biochar production will have to expand. The 2016 Billion-Ton Report by the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that the US alone has the potential to sustainably produce at least 1 billion dry tons of nonfood biomass resources annually by 2040.
Demand for carbon offsets will drive more capital investment and reduce the cost of biochar production, making other use cases more economically viable, e.g. energy, fuel, and larger scale use in soils (for more on this, see the Obstacles section of this report).
China has an important first-mover advantage in biochar production. Currently, China produces ~500,000 tons of biochar fertilizer each year across 60+ production plants. Given their head start and central decision making authority, it’s likely China will continue to outpace the rest of the world in biochar production.
Biochar will be key to building carbon negative cities. Cities are more agile first movers (as opposed to national or even international government entities) and will pilot the implementation and use of biochar to create carbon neutral or negative municipalities. Carbo Culture already offers ‘urban climate mitigation’ as a service.
Buy: Biochar as a carbon offset. Looking to offset your or your businesses' (or your personal) carbon footprint? There’s plenty of marketplaces for that (see “Players - Carbon Removal Marketplaces” section of this report). Importantly, additional demand will incentivize more biochar production capacity.
Train: Take inspiration from Warm Heart, which provides local farmers in developing countries training on biochar production and utilization. This eliminates open field burning, replaces commercial fertilizers, and saves farmers money.
Convert: Convert natural charcoal facilities into biochar facilities. Since charcoal and biochar are produced under similar conditions, there’s an entrepreneurial opportunity for charcoal producers to diversify their markets and benefit from demand for carbon offsets in the process.
Bootstrap a production business: The biochar market is in very early stages of development. With demand for carbon credits and offsets growing rapidly, the market needs more producers. As a producer, you could sell offsets via marketplaces or via direct partnerships, too. Ready to make a difference and some 💰?
Commercialize biochar additive animal feed: Biochar animal feed reduces methane emissions from animals by ~15-20%, and also improves weight gain and feed efficacy as well as overall health for the animals 🐄🐖🐔. This is a popular use case for biochar in Europe; yet, there’s an apparent market gap in the U.S. Who’s going to change that?
Build a business and prevent forest fires? Smokey the 🐻 says “Do it”: Disconcerted by all the terrible wildfires in recent years? There’s an opportunity to create and operationalize mobile technologies that use pyrolysis for active forest management (controlled burning of biomass in forests), carbon sequestration, and biochar production.
Oh and in case you haven't... 🙃
Thanks to Peter Olivier from The Burning Question for helping us wrap our heads around critical obstacles facing the biochar market.
There isn’t yet enough biochar production capacity installed. The supply side of the space can already barely keep up with growing demand for carbon offsets.
Why? The economics for biochar are only just now becoming sufficiently attractive.
Soil-enhancement: Not all biochar is made equal. Biochar is not immediately beneficial to all soil if it is directly mixed in as a soil amendment. Different soils each benefit from different microbial solutions; successful integration of biochar into soils and compost requires time, testing, unique knowledge and experience. In worst case scenarios, integrating the wrong type and / or amount of biochar to soil can harm rather than help.For most farmers, especially large-scale operations, the time and capital investment required to successfully integrate biochar into their soil may well be prohibitive.
Energy Production: Compared to other clean energy alternatives such as wind, solar, and nuclear, we believe that the primary utility of pyrolysis and biochar will be concentrated in capturing and storing carbon, less so in energy production. That said, they are promising alternatives for energy-intensive applications where battery-power isn’t yet an option, such as in planes, cargo ships, and rockets.
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The soil improvement benefits of biochar stem in part from synergies between biochar and mycorrhizal fungal hyphae. For more on mycelium and it’s importance as a climate solution, see Keep Cool Report #0001: Mycelium.
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