The ‘black gold’ that could help fight climate change in the coming centuries | climate news
A high quality version of charcoal is being tested to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere for centuries.
The charred wood, called biochar, was spread on farmland in one of the first large-scale trials of its kind in hopes that the carbon absorbed from the air by trees during their lifetime could be buried in the ground.
Research leader Tom Bott, from the University of Nottingham, told Sky News the technique could help the country catch the disease net zero.
“As a tree grows, it captures carbon from the atmosphere and turns it into wood,” he said.
“If we then add it (biochar) to the land, we may reap some benefits to our crops, and we also sequester carbon, which is important for combating climate change.”
When wood rots or burns, it releases carbon back into the atmosphere.
But by heating it to temperatures of up to 600°C in an oxygen-swept furnace, the carbon undergoes a chemical change that traps it as biochar – often referred to as “black gold”.
Make farming more resilient
“Once it gets into the soil, it won’t break down,” said Dr. Bott.
“It will remain there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It will just continue to exist.”
The Allerton Project research farm is part of the Biochar Demonstrator programme, funded by UK Research and Innovation, which is testing the feasibility of using the material to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Arable land, which makes up 70% of Britain’s land area, is considered a huge resource for storing carbon.
There is also evidence that when the material is mixed into the soil it acts like a sponge, storing precipitation and making it available to crops during periods of drought.
This could help make agriculture more resilient to climate change.
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“We have to show that we are ready to change”
Farmer Olly Carrick spread 10 tonnes of biochar on a test field at the Allerton Project research site in Leicestershire last summer.
He has since sown winter wheat, but it is too early to say if there has been any impact on crop growth.
He said biochar could be a way to offset unavoidable carbon emissions from agriculture.
“It sounded too good to be true,” he said.
“But we’re open-minded.
“If we can store more carbon in the soil without affecting crops, that’s a bonus.”
“We must seize this opportunity to show that we are ready to change, both as an industry and as a company.”
An innovative but secret technique
But biochar contains only a third of the material originally contained in “raw” wood.
A team from Aston University in Birmingham is looking at ways to harness the carbon in the other two-thirds, which is usually wasted and released back into the atmosphere.
Tim Miller, director of the university’s Energy and Bioproducts Research Institute, has an innovative but secret technique for capturing gases and liquids produced during the production of biochar.
These include an oil that could be used in boilers and marine engines, or is a key ingredient in bioplastics.
A vinegar can also be extracted to use as a weed killer and plant stimulant.
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“We try to catch everything that’s in the forest,” he said.
“We want to use it to the maximum so that we can make the most of the carbon and get the most out of the products commercially as well.”
“The whole process has to be commercially sustainable so that it can also be scaled.”
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