This week, we had the privilege to learn about biochar: an incredible nature-based solution to climate change as a carbon-negative technology that the UK is seriously underutilising!
by Jessica Fishburn/31st-May-2020
Lottie and Connor of Earthly Biochar have made it their mission to get the UK to realise this potential, as well as the surplus of benefits it offers. From better produce to extending food life, read on to find out more and how you could benefit from biochar too.
“We started Earthly Biochar nearly 2 years ago now. We were both looking for a way to use our entrepreneurial spirit in a way to actively help with climate change.”
“As I [Connor] got to my final year at university, studying product design, I was looking for a project that could make an impact and by chance, stumbled across biochar. I’d never heard of it before so when I looked it up and found that it was a negative emission technology, so it actively sequesters carbon, and not only that it grows better plants with less water and less fertiliser, I thought wow this is incredible why isn’t anyone using this!
“I realised that if people wanted to make biochar at home with their woody garden waste, they would have to build their own kiln. This puts a lot of people off as they don’t have to tools or skills, and you can’t buy one either. For my project, I decided to design an easy to use biochar maker. After we had some good feedback we realised that this could be the business we had been looking for.”
“We embarked on a journey to do just that, enrolling onto an accelerator programme, and quite quickly people started asking us for biochar as well as the makers. Initially, we thought we don’t want to get into that because it involves heavy machinery so its all a bit scary and intimidating. Then, coming across a really worrying article on climate change, we stopped and thought no one is doing this, it’s a massive opportunity, lets put our fears aside and make the commitment.”
“We managed to secure a grow-test with a council where we ran a biochar test on 4000 plants. We found that it sped up growth by a week and the above-ground growth was 30% bigger, just from mixing in 10% biochar into the compost. The nursery manager was really impressed with the results so wanted to buy some, but at the time, there were no UK suppliers of sustainable biochar. This then makes it questionable if you have to ship biochar in from other countries, then the transportation process will be emitting the carbon that you are trying to save by using biochar.”
“Another key thing with biochar in terms of environmental credibility is that you can’t really cut down trees to make it, you have to use what is available to us. The UK generates 5 million tonnes of waste wood every year and a lot of that gets sent to landfill or incinerated. In both situations, the carbon that the tree pulled out of the atmosphere is then released again. If we intercept that waste and make it into biochar we can prevent 50% of that carbon in the wood from being released.”
Image of bio life roots and soil enveloping biochar
“That is our strategy: take the waste wood, make it into biochar, sequester carbon, and make it into a benefit for gardeners and farmers to be able to grow better plants with less water and less fertiliser. There is a lack of UK based studies on this so we are working with Reading University to set up some trials with UK based farmers.”
“Another great thing about biochar is that when it is mixed in with compost, it acts as a filter and a sponge, so all of that methane and odour can be reduced by 40% by using biochar – methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2.”
“This is great for farmers as it means they can use 40% less water and 40% less fertiliser and see an average yield increase of 12%. This leads to better produce to sell to hospitality businesses.”
“As for restaurants: in Japanese cultures, they put charcoal in their vegetable drawers to absorb excess ethylene gas which preserves the life of the food. This is something we haven’t tested yet so we’d love to start some trials in commercial fridges. On top of this, you can mix it in with your food scraps in the kitchen compost bin and it will absorb any odours preventing it from smelling. Furthermore, this prevents the compost from emitting methane at the source and speeds up the composting process.”
“Our ultimate goal is to realise the potential of biochar in the UK. We’re really far behind countries like America, Australia, Germany, in Stockholm they have a biochar machine that takes all the garden waste from the city, generates heating which powers 192 homes and then the residents get biochar in return as a thank you for giving their waste. We want to emulate that across the UK and stop our waste being sent to landfill or burnt. The IPCC and project drawdown both list biochar as an important nature-based solution. In fact, if scaled globally we can sequester 2.2 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050, so we have made it our mission to make this happen.”
The company Earthly Biochar: Made up of Lottie Hawkins and Connor Lascelles who are shown above with Connor’s designed biochar kiln
The last image is a nursery testing bed for testing Earthly Biochar’s own biochar product
How is biochar actually made?
“To make biochar, it’s similar to making charcoal, you have woody biomass and you heat it in a low oxygen environment which causes all the wood gases, smoke, and organic chemicals to be driven from the wood. This is highly flammable so we direct that back in and make the process self-powered. All of your smoke is being combusted so you’re not producing billows of smoke, which is methane. You heat it until all of the gases have gone and what you’re left with is pretty much pure carbon. By heating it and restricting oxygen, it causes pyrolysis which means separation by fire. What that does is prevent the carbon from reacting with oxygen to produce CO2 so instead, that carbon forms a rigid structure that is the biochar.”
“It’s the carbon structure that was once in wood but now solidified and crystalline. They’re very small particles with a large surface area so it’s really porous. When this goes into the soil it acts as a sponge and because it is negatively charged it holds onto nutrients and water as they are positively charged. Microbes get attracted because it’s like a feeding ground for them so they multiply, and its those microbes which produce the beneficial nutrients for your plants. They live around the plant roots so by adding biochar and increasing this microbial population, you’re plants have much more access for water and nutrients and that’s why it’s so good at improving the plant’s growth especially in poor quality soil; particularly sandy or acidic.”
How can you get involved?
The best way to work with Earthly Biochar is to get in touch, start a trial (as a farmer or end-user) and discover the benefits for yourself. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more. Or, you can buy biochar for your own garden on their website: https://www.earthlybiochar.com/products/biochar
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