Sustainable biochar is a powerfully simple tool to fight global warming. This 2,000 year-old practice converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security, and discourage deforestation. Sustainable biochar is one of the few technologies that is relatively inexpensive, widely applicable, and quickly scalable.
As an IBI Advisory Committee Member, I want you to know why I believe in this organization and why I’m asking you to become a member. I have been working on the use of biochar for remediation of contaminated soils in the last few years. Biochar has become one of the hottest topics in soil science in recent years. With the help of IBI, I am able to keep up with development in the fundamental as well as applied research on biochar. Click here to read the remainder of this letter.
Uganda is Africa’s second largest producer of coffee and has the largest agricultural sector in the East African region. However, soils in parts of the country are nutrient poor which can lead to poor harvests and potential food shortages. This poor soil translates into subsistence farmers having less income and looking towards other means for income generation.
To help create alternative sources of income for the population and spur new industry, the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI), which is the Ugandan Government's lead agency for industrialization and the country's main vehicle for implementing strategies and measures aimed at transforming industry in Uganda, created a bamboo program to train people in the production of consumer goods such as furniture, blinds, woven baskets, and other handicrafts. With the unused material left from these production activities, UIRI is training individuals to produce matchsticks, toothpicks, as well as a biochar feedstock. Bamboo is widely used in rural communities in western Uganda and is easily available throughout the area.
This idea was conceived when Mr. Julius Turyamwijuka, a product manager at the UIRI, met Mr. Robert Flanagan in 2010 at the China Bamboo Research Center (CBRC) where both had gone to conduct research in China. It was at this meeting that the two exchanged ideas on biochar production and the UIRI program was developed. Since June 2009, Turyamwijuka has been working on a bamboo/biochar research project with Flanagan—by developing a stove prototype that can utilize the unused bamboo by-product to produce biochar.
Photo: The stove has a Thermo electric generator in build which converts heat energy to electric energy. Thus an adapter can be connected to the outside environment through the primary holes.
A commercial fisherman, organic farmer and inventor, John Miedema first came across biochar about five years ago when he was researching better ways to clean up effluent from a dairy manure digester. Miedema grew up around dairy farms and he remembers how the manure cesspools would foul the streams. He wanted to do things differently and he figured charcoal would work well as a filter and perhaps also serve as a substrate for beneficial microbes that would help retain nutrients. Researching “charcoal” and “manure,” he found that native Amazonians had discovered this technique thousands of years ahead of him.
Miedema quickly realized that biochar could not only make a dairy operation more sustainable, it could also help with climate change. The reality of climate change had come home to him years earlier when he was working as a commercial fisherman. “We started catching some really strange fish – I could see that the ocean was changing,” he said.
In 2009, Miedema started the Pacific Northwest Biochar group and organized a meeting at Oregon State University followed by a conference at the Pacific Northwest National Lab, which brought many researchers and biochar entrepreneurs together to share information and ideas.
Photo: John Miedema and his 100 pound per hour, biomass-powered biochar retort system installed at Thompson Timber Company in Philomath, Oregon, USA; courtesy of John Miedema
Sri Lanka has a long history of tea production—starting with one small plantation 250 years ago in the country then known as Ceylon. Sri Lanka is now considered a world leader in growing tea. Dilmah Tea incorporated in the 1950s with the intent to move away from larger scale tea processing to focus on tea picked and packed at origin. Even with onsite picking and packaging on smaller scale farms, tea monoculture can leave a large environmental footprint. To offset some of the negative impacts on the land due to tea plantations, Dilmah tea started a side organization called Dilmah Conservation. Dilmah Conservation works with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as its main technical partner. The goal of Dilmah Conservation is “to assist in conserving the environment through interventions that at the same time serve humanitarian needs”.
Bio-Remediation through Biochar Use at Dilmah Tea Gardens
With the deteriorating soil conditions in many Sri Lankan tea plantations due to poor management practices, Dilmah Conservation believes that a Bio Remediation program will be a lifeline for the survival of the industry. This program is introducing techniques for tea plantations to reduce inputs (fertilizer and other chemicals) by at least 50% and increase the land productivity by at least 50%. The project was initiated by the IUCN Sri Lanka in 2008 in partnership with the Tea Research Institute of Sri Lanka (TRI). Subsequently, Dr. J.C. Krishnaratne of Dilmah Conservation has been leading this program to apply biochar at the Palmadulla field at Kahawatte and Nawalapitiya plantations—chosen for their different agronomic and climatic conditions.
Photo: Increased shoot growth after biochar application, courtesy of Dilmah Tea