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Biochar Research in the State of Washington, USA

horizontal retortSince 2007, the Washington Department of Ecology and the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) at Washington State University have produced a series of in-depth reports on biochar production, use, and economics. The interest in biochar grew out of a state solid waste management plan called Beyond Waste that created the Organic Waste to Resources project, charged with examining ways to use nearly 17 million tons of organic waste identified in Washington State. A large portion of this waste is ligno-cellulosic waste from wood and straw, where pyrolysis is an attractive option for recovering energy and producing stable carbon that can benefit soils and climate.

The latest report in the series, by Dr. Manuel Perez-Garcia, is a literature review of historical methods of producing biochar titled: Feasible Pyrolytic Methods for Producing Biochar and Advanced Biofuels in the State of Washington. This 150-page report is well illustrated with historical photos and drawings of pyrolysis technologies going back to the 19th century, before fossil fuels dominated the industrial chemical and energy industries, along with examples of current biochar reactors. The next part of the project will be completing and publishing two more reports; one looking at systems and processes for feedstock preparation, and the other evaluating pyrolysis gas condensation and utilization and other system components (the final in a three part series). The intent of both reports is to inform upcoming “brainstorming sessions” between WSU researchers and the Department of Ecology to design technologies and research models for utilizing organic waste streams to make and use biochar.

Mark Fuchs, soil scientist and manager of the Department of Ecology’s Waste to Resources research projects, is also the manager of the biochar research program. The project is designed to lead to practical applications of biochar technology that can benefit people in the state of Washington. One of the top concerns that Fuchs has is that biochar production be clean and safe. Accordingly, one of the first studies commissioned by the program was a literature review, The Formation of Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons and Dioxins During Pyrolysis, also by Manuel Garcia-Perez. This report was cited in major biochar reports from the Australian environmental agency CSIRO in 2009 and the European Union’s Joint Research Centre in 2010.

Other biochar reports produced by WSU and the Department of Ecology are: The Economic Value of Biochar in Crop Production and Carbon Sequestration, and Use of Biochar from the Pyrolysis of Waste Organic Material as a Soil Amendment.

Mark Fuchs and the other research partners in Washington see considerable promise in biochar as a component in recovering nitrogen and phosphorous from wet waste streams such as food waste, manure, digester effluent and sewage, but more research is needed.  Fuchs said, “Biochar is one of the most significant and game-changing solutions we have for stabilizing carbon in soil and realizing the agricultural benefits of fertilizer use efficiency and moisture retention.” However, he said, research funding is challenging to find, and new partners are needed to help bring resources to the effort. 

These reports and others that analyze waste streams and recovery options throughout the Pacific Northwest are available online at: http://www.pacificbiomass.org/. For questions and comments about biochar research in Washington state, contact Mark Fuchs, Department of Ecology at mfuc461@ecy.wa.gov.

UPDATE - November 2013

New Publication called: Odor in Commercial Scale Compost: Literature Review and Critical Analysis. Washington State Department of Resources at https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/publications/1307066.pdf.

TABLE OF CONTENTS – SECTIONS COVERING BIOCHAR AND BIOCHAR HISTORY:

  • Use of Amendment Approaches to Pile Chemistry and Biology .26
  • Background -26
  • Volatile fatty acids-27
  • Ammonia and nitrogen-based odors -28
  • Hydrogen sulfide and sulfur-based odors-29
  • Aeration and moisture-30
  • Methane-31
  • Nitrous oxide-31
  • Carbon dioxide -31
  • Biochar and compost quality -32
  • Compost nitrogen content-33
  • Compost maturity and humic content-34
  • Biochar property alteration through composting -34
  • Plant growth response to biochar compost -34
  • Conclusion -35
  • Appendix A. Historical and Traditional Uses of Biochar Related to Odor Control-39
  • Ancient and traditional biochar -39
  • 19th century agricultural charcoal-41
  • The sewer debates -43
  • Profiles of current initiatives for using biochar in compost -48
  • Japanese composting with biochar-48
  • Integrated solutions in Vietnam-49
  • Waste utilization in rural India -49
  • The Delinat Institute, Switzerland-49
  • Sonnenerde Company, Germany -50
  • Terra Preta Sanitation Initiative-50
  • European Biochar Research Network - 50
  • International conference on biochars, composts, and digestates -51

UPDATE - August 2012

The Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) at Washington State University through a contract with the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) has written the second and third in a series of four reports that review the literature on pyrolysis and biochar production.  The reports are titled: Methods for Producing Biochar and Advanced Biofuels in Washington State. They review the technologies that need to be put together to build a sustainable biomass economy to convert waste lignocellulosic resources into fuels, chemicals and engineered bio-char using pyrolysis.

Part 1 (http://www.biochar-international.org/biocharwashingtonstate) announced on IBI under “Biochar Research in the State of Washington, USA” is a literature review of the history of kilns and reactors. It can be found at: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/biblio/1107017.html.

The second report is a Literature Review of the Biomass Supply Chain and Preprocessing Technologies, From Field to Pyrolysis Reactor. This report reviews collection, handling and pretreatment methods for biomass sources from waste, agriculture and forests. It can be found at: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/biblio/1207033.html.

The third report is a Literature Review of Technologies for Product Collection and Refining. The report describes technologies and methods for bio-oil products recovery and characterization, bio-char activation, bio-oil refining strategies and regulatory issues related with deployment of pyrolysis technologies. It can be found at: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/biblio/1207034.html.

The reports are available on Ecology’s website at: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/swfa/organics/recovery.html.

A final fourth report on sustainable business models for biochar enterprises is in preparation which will be made available upon completion.

Horizontal Steel Retort (Klark, 1925), Figure 48 from Feasible Pyrolytic Methods for Producing Biochar and Advanced Biofuels in the State of Washington, Part 1.