Book Review – The Biochar Solution

Can biochar singlehandedly save the world from all of its carbon dioxide, global warming woes? Well, the jury is still out but there may be some potential. This I learned from reading the book, “The Biochar Solution: Climate Farming and Climate Change,” by Albert Bates. First, I should explain what biochar is. Biochar is charcoal, a cellulosic material that has been pyrolyzed (to pyrolyze something you burn it a low oxygen environment, such as a kiln, burning off everything but the carbon). The resulting charcoal is black and largely devoid of any nutritional value, yet it can be burned in a high oxygen environment without producing much smoke. These attributes make it a good option for burning in cooking stoves.

But Bates believes the real value of biochar lies in that it has a unique ability to condition soil. Bates explains that if it is turned in a nutrient pile and then tilled into the ground, it immediately becomes colonized by soil microbes. These microbes attract fungi, which connect to the roots of the plants, carrying nutrients to the place they are most needed. Biochar is also a water solution – it provides a reservoir and conduit for soil moisture, soaking up water from oversaturated areas and moving it to dyer areas (it can also be used to purify water). Bates says that one gram of charcoal has the surface area of one small house, or 1,000 to 2,500 square meters, because of all its micropores. In terms of soil health, after several years, biochar helps soil return to its natural state and eliminates the need for inputs such as nitrogen or phosphorous – another major environmental benefit.

There is also a connection between biochar and biofuels. When converting biomass to biofuels, not all of the biomass is consumed. At this point, the remaining biomass can be burned and turned into biochar and then the biochar can be tilled into the biomass fields to aid in soil sustainability. In this example, biochar becomes both a biofuels and agriculture solution.

There are several views of biochar one being those who truly believe that biochar alone can reduce CO2 emissions faster and more completely than any other solution. Bates writes, “…humans can alter the atmosphere to take us back to pre-industrial carbon levels – without risky, short-lived, and costly geoengineering gambits such as space mirrors, sulfur aerosols, and fish-suffocating plankton blooms. All we have to do is plant trees, build terra preta soils, and organically store carbon in our planet’s terrasphere instead of in its atmosphere.” Terra preta soils are very dark, fertile soil found in the Amazon Basin that were created using a mixture of charcoal, bone and manure.

It sounds so simple doesn’t it? Bates defends his view through a historical look at terra preta soils and biochar through the ages. He then provides research and offers a plan to begin sequestering carbon through carbon farming. Oh, and I should mention that biochar supporters believe one ton of biochar can sequester 3 tons of CO2 for at least 1,000 years or more.

Ultimately Bates believes that at this late hour there is still hope and his solution, “It would likely involve some combination of biochar, carbon farming, tree planting, and redesign of the built environment and energy systems to be carbon-negative. I cannot imagine any alternative that excludes those strategies that would remain viable for very long.”

So there you have it. It’s Earth Day on Friday and many people like to plant trees. This year, when you plant your tree, add a little biochar. Who knows. If enough people plants trees using biochar, it just might save the world.


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0 responses to “Book Review – The Biochar Solution”

  1. That is fascinating stuff. I just might have to pick up that book. When I started reading the post my first thought was “Can we make fuel first and have biochar as they by-product?” One thing I don’t want to get into is selling carbon credits on the acres I farm. I think that’s just shuffling money around, even if I can be the one cashing in I don’t like it. Problem is if it catches on with lots of farmers I probably couldn’t really afford not to do it. That’s off topic a bit, but thanks again for the info!

  2. Brian –

    As a farmer, you really should pick up this book. I asked around and Albert Bates really is the leader in this field. You can also get more information through the International Biochar Initiative.

    Good luck.


  3. Joanna,

    Does the book’s author mention what happened the last time a country tried to use charcoal for the bulk of their energy? That would have been England in the 16th century when they almost denuded the entire island cutting down trees and turning them into charcoal to use in their expanding, but rudimentary iron and glass works.

    The energy needs of the time were pretty basic, and it wasn’t until they started using England’s large quantities of underground coal that their country once more turned into the “green and pleasant land” we know today.

    England wasn’t the only European country of the day where they cut down vast quantities of trees to make charcoal. In northern Spain, they forever changed the landscape making biochar.

    Haven’t read the book, but am curious if Albert Bates mentions the European experience with charcoal 500 years ago.

  4. Peter Bane, the publisher of Permaculture Activist reviews;

    The Biochar Solution

    “The Biochar Solution”

    It is a BLOCK BUSTER
    New Genetic / demographic data, Archeological / Paleoclimate data that leaves your jaw on the floor.
    The missing pieces of Anthropogenic Climate Change fall into perfect order.

    Albert puts you in the canoes, fearing the next woman warrior attack or wondrous visions
    of the cornucopia of plenty derived from this managed tropical Eden. It seems we couldn’t “See the AgroForestry for the Trees”.
    Cutting edge Satellite research;

    Big, medium & small scales , He has followed Biochar’s use around the globe, here there and everywhere.
    Industry scale, like the Mantria Story; Inside out and Outside In.
    Farm scale mobile reactors .
    The small scale pattio & third world Clean Cook Stoves, prescient of Mr. Bates given Sec. Clinton’s announcement with the Global Stove Initiative, just last week; 100 million clean-burning stoves in kitchens around the world.

  5. Hi there, Albert Bates here, popping in to correct the record in a few minor respects and grateful for the comment thread.

    The review says that “remaining biomass can be burned and turned into biochar” speaking of biofuels. Most biofuel production is unsustainable in my opinion, and also socially irresponsible given the world food situation in view of population, climate change and peak oil. I would like to decouple biochar from biofuels, except where we might talk about what I would call “permafuels,” in the sense that they follow the three ethics of permaculture. Biochar should be made mostly from substances that if left alone would burn or decay into greenhouse pollution, and we find there is more than enough of those to supply foreseeable needs for the industry or average farm. As the review points out, locking these carbon atoms into longer soil residence deprives the atmosphere (and ocean) and so gets us back to 350 ppm on decadal time scales.

    As for the claim that pyrolysis yields three times the weight of the biomass in CO2, that arithmetic is not going to work. It should read that one third to one half of the C weight of the substrate is preserved as biochar, while the remaining weight of the biomass escapes as volatile gases, soot or ash. This is actually a third more efficient than oxidation, so for cookstoves or process heat, pyrolysis uses 30 percent less fuel.

    I do not condone or advocate the kinds of practices that deforested England, Spain or, for that matter, the Fertile Crescent, and have been exported now to the Americas and everywhere else. I advocate the other agriculture, the one practiced in many parts of the Americas before Columbus.

    As a permaculturist looking for “stacked functions” I prefer finding additional uses for the process heat, gases and ash, and one of those that has been successfully used by farms has been production of electricity (via Sterling engine) and heat for barns and greenhouses in winter. While small operations that stack functions have already been shown to be financially successful, the same cannot be said of industrial biochar production, so what we are looking at here may be inherently local and human scale, as indeed it was for 8000 years in the Amazon basin.

    And yes, putting some biochar into the bottom of the hole when you plant a tree is a great idea. I do it here at my home and tree survival and growth rates are demonstrably better. Even better is a fungally inoculated biochar like Biocharm or CharBiological, which give the trees a mycorrhizal boost at the same crucial time.

  6. Good morning.
    I have translated in Greek the Book of Lester Brown in Greek.
    I was born in a small island in Greece, Ikaria, the place where Icarus had an emergency landing.
    In that iland, the people was specialised in producing charcol, carvouna. Every year groups of ”charcolmakers” (carvouniarides)were living the islant on April towards places with forests in the mainland Greece. Their occupation was to select the old trees and produce charcol. Then they returned to the Island end of October. Every family had a private camin every summer for the houshold needs for charcoal. The whole system feet very well in a centuries old sutanability program.
    I remember my mother was cooking, heating the room and even ironing with charcoal. The left over, charcoal powder, mixed with the ash and the soil were spread to the backyard garden.
    Best regards and happy new year