Biochar: The Little Forest Product with Big Potential

Biochar ready for the marketplace. (This photo courtesy of ROI)
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In a groundbreaking, influential 2008 whitepaper, a team of scientists labelled 2007, “the year of climate change dawning.” The decade since could be called “the decade climate change came to dominate forest management.”

Today, nearly every action undertaken by nearly anyone in the forest products industry is inspected under the microscope of potential impact, actual or imagined, on climate change. As a result of the attention, biochar, the black carbon remaining after biomass is burned in a low oxygen environment, holds considerable promise to become one of the forest industry’s most important products of the future, both from a public policy perspective and as a profit center.

What Is Biochar?
Biochar is the residue remaining when biomass—wood logging slash, paper, grasses, manure, compostable biomatter, yard waste, and so on—is burned without enough oxygen available to allow for complete combustion (a process called pyrolysis). Long advocated by some as potentially important for greenhouse gas reduction and carbon negativity, biochar has attracted the attention of both university–and government-sponsored researchers over the past several years.

That research is demonstrating biochar can be the foundation upon which many forest-based greenhouse gas reduction strategies can be brought to fruition. These include water and soil mediation and remediation projects; forest fire reduction efforts; habitat and forest health improvements; agricultural crop enhancements; remediation of pollution in water bodies, old mining sites, and EPA sites; and more mundane tasks including water filtration in sewer plants and water plants.

Unlike most treatment options for forest residue and other short-lived forest products, when biochar is properly produced, using those residues or other feedstocks, such as mill wastes, bark, sawdust and bucking remains, most of the carbon sequestered in the original fiber remains trapped in the product. Applied in the forest, or onto a farm field, the biochar not only continues to bind the carbon it contains, it can actually absorb additional carbon, help preserve soil moisture, and bind a broad range of toxins that might be present in the soil. It can also act as a soil conditioner and provide other benefits, and do all this for centuries to come.

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The retention of the carbon in the newly created product is the reason biochar is widely labeled a “carbon negative” additive to the soil.

Why Is “Carbon Negative” Important to the Forest Products Industry?
Biochar is increasingly seen by environmental activists, scientists and others as an important greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) reduction tool.

A research report published early this year in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy explained:

“The production of biochar simultaneously consumes low-value forest biomass and produces stable charcoal that, when applied to dryland agricultural soils, can increase water holding capacity and crop yield. In this way the production of forest-origin biochar has the potential to promote forest restoration, foster forest-related employment, increase agricultural competitiveness, and sequester carbon.”

Called “Can biochar link forest restoration with commercial agriculture?” the report was written by the Forest Service, and Department of Agriculture scientists with others.

The climate change discussion will shape the forest products industry for decades to come, influencing not only public policy but also product choice by major end users.

America’s forests are under assault by forces of nature, including wildfires, insects, disease, changing weather patterns, and other large- and small-scale events. Based on Forest Service estimates, more than 80 million acres of public land are impacted as well as tens of millions of acres of privately-owned land. Nearly all treatment options for those lands revolve around increasing rates of carbon absorption and reducing GGEs, two areas biochar is increasingly seen as particularly effective in addressing.

Could Biochar Make the Industry the Champion of GGEs?
The greenhouse gas equation directly impacts the marketing of forest products. From the smallest firm to the giants of the industry, market share is, in part, determined by the decisions architects, building contractors, product manufacturers, and everyday citizens make as they specify building products. Concrete, steel, bamboo, and other competitors compete vigorously, attempting to replace lumber and other wood products in the minds of those decision makers.

For better or for worse, fact or myth, greenhouse gas emissions are the cherries atop the ice cream sundaes of much decision making about product in today’s world. Even if “all other things” are not equal, products seen as most environmentally beneficial regarding GGEs will be, at least today and, for the foreseeable future, the products most chosen by decision makers who matter.

Many farmers, small mill owners, and family forest owners already make biochar on a small scale. Kaj Enderlein made the biochar pictured here for use in test gardens studied by University of Washington researchers. The biochar is made from flitches and downfall from Kaj’s Wood-Mizer sawmill.

Last, public perception has a huge impact on nearly every aspect of the forest products industry. Here, the greenhouse emissions discussion is paramount.

A 2018 report by a leading activist group proclaimed “OSU (Oregon State University) Research Confirms that Big Timber is Oregon’s Leading Source of GHG Emissions.” Authors of the study, the Center For Sustainable Economy then lobbied legislators claiming, “All forms of logging generate carbon dioxide emissions because roughly 80 percent of the carbon dioxide stored in trees ends up being lost to the waste stream or burned in the manufacturing and consumption of lumber, paper, or biomass products.”

Other activist groups are echoing the Center to force dramatic new restrictions on the forest products industry.

Biochar has the potential to bring a conclusive close to the GGE debate; widespread conversion of the residuals of logging would make the forest products industry the hands-down champion of GGE reductions. In general, the hardwoods and the softwoods grown and harvested in the forests of the Americas are ideal for conversion into high quality bio-chars; usable on-site, to significantly enhance reforestation efforts or increasingly, salable, especially into the agricultural marketplace, where they’re sought after as soil additives.

A mountain of potential product; whether to emit to the atmosphere as greenhouse gas or utilize for profit and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s up to the industry to decide.

Biochar ready for the marketplace. (This photo courtesy of ROI)Markets are not necessarily fully developed today but are projected to grow substantially. The wise forest products industry professional will track that growth carefully in coming years.