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Biochar: understanding its use and benefits

Chloride Free
Biochar: understanding its use and benefits

First invented by local farmers over 2,000 years ago in the Amazon Basin, biochar is an ancient all-natural fertilizer made from burnt compostable material. Through a process called pyrolysis, the chemical compounds in the organic material are thermally composed into gas, oil, and solid parts.

The bio-oil produced can be turned into a renewable fuel source that rivals’ petroleum. The solid, otherwise known as biochar, has deep pores that retain water and nutrients and encourage beneficial microbial growth. In fact, just 1 gram of it contains more surface area in its pores than an entire football field—lots of room to store the kinds of things plants love.

Scientists have since discovered that this process also removes CO2 from the atmosphere. By turning plant material into stabilized carbon, we can store CO2 in soil for thousands of years, helping to reverse the effects of climate change.

Visually, it looks like charcoal, and it’s produced very similarly as well. However, they’re used very differently. Charcoal is typically used as a fuel or heat source for cooking, whereas biochar is used as a soil amendment. Additionally, charcoal is produced with wood, but biochar can be produced from other biomass.

Despite being so similar, they are not interchangeable, as many biochar products tend to be further “activated.” These are more effective in enriching the soil and will yield better results.

Now, how is it used?

Biochar can work with any soil to improve the health of every plant. It can be mixed directly with the soil before planting or can be placed on the surface to seep down with water. Because of its versatility, it can be used both in your own home with your houseplants or on a large scale agriculturally.

In agriculture, biochar is currently being discovered as the next great soil amendment. Despite being an ancient technology and a years-long effort by the International Biochar Initiative, there is still a lack of awareness and acceptance in its agricultural use.

Additionally, research is still needed to determine the long-term effects of biochar on plants and soil health. The University of California Davis has been a pioneer of biochar research, with ongoing testing and studies being done since 2013. The project was initially started to help determine how different types of biochar affect crop yield and soil viability. Now it serves as an open resource database for farmers to research which types might work best for them.

Since 2020, an increasing number of studies are being conducted on the benefits of using biochar in agriculture, signifying a growing acceptance towards using it. Furthermore, the conclusion of these studies trends towards being a “win-win” both agriculturally and environmentally.

Hopefully, with this increase in awareness and research into the benefits of biochar, we will see a mass transition towards its inclusion in agricultural practices. This will dramatically reduce water consumption which is of huge concern internationally – all while keeping healthy crop yields.

What are the benefits?

As previously mentioned, one of the most significant benefits of biochar use is the reduction of water consumption. This is possible due to the porous nature of biochar, which can hold onto just the right amount of water to keep plants hydrated. Beyond hydration, healthier root growth can also be achieved due to the increased soil microbial activity and diversity. This allows plants to grow healthier, all while using less water.

Environmentally, it also sequesters carbon which can help reduce the effects of climate change. For every ton produced, 3+ tons of CO2 are removed from the atmosphere. Additionally, the materials used to produce biochar are often saved from going to a landfill, which reduces the waste and greenhouse gas emissions that would have been released into the environment.

Furthermore, biochar is produced in an oxygen-free environment, the carbon from this organic material condenses and stabilizes, transforming what would have been CO2 escaping into the atmosphere into a beneficial soil amendment.

Financially, it is extremely beneficial because biowaste is abundant and inexpensive (or free!). Unlike expensive synthetic fertilizers designed in a lab, biochar can be produced from waste. Because of this, it can be widely used by almost any and everyone. One of the biggest limitations in expanding biochar use is education. Although more studies are being done and as a product, it is becoming more popular, most gardeners and farmers have never heard of it.

How to try biochar at home

Fighting climate change requires everyone’s help, so Willow decided to partner with the Chloride Free Foundation to help bring biochar to you. Willow is a retail biochar company that brings this ancient technology to home gardens. It is produced from pine wood that would otherwise go to a landfill, making it a sustainable soil product for your houseplants and home gardens. You can mix it in with any soil or add it to the base of any existing plant and see the results almost immediately.

Do you use biochar on your house plants or garden? Tell us about it in the comments!

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