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The Northeast Biochar Symposium (Massachusetts, USA) November 2009

Northeast Biochar Symposium A Success

By Francesca Rheannon

The Northeast Biochar Symposium that took place over the weekend of November 13-14 in western Massachusetts was a resounding success. Co-sponsored by the International Biochar Initiative, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst College of Natural Sciences, the Northeast Carbon-Negative Network, the New England Small Farm Institute, and the Pioneer Valley Biochar Initiative, it brought together some of the leading biochar researchers, developers, and advocates in the world, with over 200 participants.

On Friday, November 13, participants convened on the campus of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to hear presentations by, among others, Cornell University soil scientist Johannes Lehmann, USDA agronomist David Laird, and IBI executive director Debbie Reed. Christoph Steiner, University of Georgia engineering research scientist (and star of a widely viewed YouTube clip from a documentary about biochar), also shared his insights.

Symposium workshops included something for everyone: biochar basics for people just learning about it; practical applications for the small farmer, backyard enthusiast, or community biochar organizer; and impacts on soil biology, feedstock characteristics, and reports on current research projects for scientists (lay or otherwise). 

On Saturday, the symposium moved the action to the New England Small Farm Institute in the neighboring community of Belchertown, where a bevy of biochar demonstration projects from tabletop to small farm scale kept participants fascinated, in spite of the rain that dampened the proceedings.

David A. Laird of the USDA-ARS-National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa laid out the great potential for biochar to mitigate climate change. He told the crowd that if 50% of total crop residues were utilized for biochar production, along with 67% of managed/harvested forest residues, the annual increase in CO2 emissions into the atmosphere could be mitigated by as much as one third. But that, he said, was in the best case scenario. Realistically, the amount of biochar feedstocks actually used to sequester carbon would likely be far less. 

However, biochar has versatile applications beyond CO2 sequestration, making it an important instrument in the broader panoply of tools to impact climate change. Laird spoke about the ability of biochar to decrease nitrous oxide emissions by decreasing the need for nitrogen fertilizers (nitrogen is a powerful greenhouse gas), managing forests for optimum carbon sequestration, and replacing fossil fuels with carbon neutral or negative liquid fuels from biochar.

Finally, he spoke of the need for more research to distinguish “good” from “bad” biochar, identify potential negative ecological impacts, and distinguish what kinds of biochar are best under what conditions.

Johannes Lehmann, IBI Chairman of the Board, spoke about the science and technology of biochar, underpinning its place in the emerging carbon trading market. For example, he said a challenge for carbon trading is to determine how long biochar can sequester carbon in the soils. While many point to the centuries-long durability of carbon in the terra preta soils of the Amazon, it’s important to conduct research that can extrapolate how long modern biochar applications will keep carbon sequestered.

Lehmann also spoke about the barriers to entry into the carbon market for small agricultural systems in the developing world, with the cost of participation too high for small farmers. But he said that this could be dealt with by the aggregation of small farmers into rural cooperatives in order to gain access to carbon credits. That would help rural development, thereby helping to tackle poverty and improve living conditions in rural areas.

Another means of helping to alleviate poor living conditions in developing countries is to supply pyrolysis stoves, Lehmann said. This would decrease wood gathering (and help decrease climate-changing deforestation), because the stoves are more efficient--pyrolysis stoves use 51% less wood than ordinary stoves or traditional methods of cooking and emit 8 times less CO2. f rural communities could get carbon credits for those decreases, the income would benefit those communities.

University of Georgia research scientist Christoph Steiner focused on the benefits of biochar for dealing with the developing global food crisis. Impacts on biodiversity and on climate change are increasing as more and more natural ecosystems are being converted to agriculture. As the globe heats up, desertification is spreading, putting added pressure on existing agricultural lands to produce more intensively for a global population that is expected to double by 2050. Drawing on his work in the Amazon, Steiner showed that biochar, mixed with compost, had the potential to increase yields in some crops by more than 800% on poor soils.

The final speaker at the symposium was Debbie Reed, Executive Director of IBI. She spoke about developments on the policy front, critical for getting the biochar industry off the starting line and into viability. She said policy makers are taking note of biochar’s great potential not only to assist in climate change mitigation, but also to combat desertification and help revitalize the rural economy, both in developed and developing nations.

Within the UN framework process, biochar’s profile is improving, most notably with the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, or UNCCD. The IBI is now in a formal partnership with the UNCCD to look at strategies for pushing back on the spread of deserts. The effort focuses on agricultural mitigation technologies, especially incorporating the needs and demands of developing countries.

IBI and other biochar advocates have a seat at the table in the climate talks at Copenhagen in December.  Several side events, including one hosted by IBI, have been approved by the COP-15 organizers.

Here in the U.S., policy makers are taking note of the increasing interest in biochar. Senator Harry Reid introduced the “Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration (WECHAR) Act of 2009” in September, along with cosponsors Max Baucus and John Tester of Montana, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Tom Udall of New Mexico. The bill would give loan guarantees for biochar technology, support biochar landscape restoration projects on public land, and fund research on biochar technology and economics.

After an inspiring day of speeches and discussions, symposium participants were treated to a “Biochar Demonstration Day” at Belchertown’s New England Small Farm Institute. For a ten dollar entrance fee, bucks, you could make your own tabletop TLUD, with material supplied by Drs. Paul Anderson and Hugh McLaughlin. Or you could see a working copy of an 1840’s barrel retort built by Frank Jeffers. Doug Clayton demonstrated his three-barrel retort and Bruce Maanum showed off his outdoor biochar furnace, which he expects to hook up to his radiant flooring heating system this winter. Finally, Peter Hirst and Bob Wells demonstrated their “Mobile Adam Retort”. They’ve been taking in chippings and other waste from landscapers (who are only too happy to give it away for free) and turning it into a high quality soil amendment mixed with compost to sell to farms and gardeners.

Photos from the two day event will be posted soon.