What’s happening in the biochar industry? And how does it affect SoilFixer?
We can trace charcoal use in soil agriculture back a thousand years. However, the modern biochar industry is still new at the grand age of around five years old!
We thought it useful to give a perspective of how we see things progressing here in the UK. Overall, UK adoption of biochar is lagging several years behind China (who are now world leaders), Austria and Germany (the EU leaders), and the USA.
In our meetings, we ponder why this is so. One thing we’re sure on; it’s not BREXIT-related!
Looking forward, here at SoilFixer we’re convinced about three things:
- Biochar works and the industry is getting ever closer to unravelling the complexities of which biochar works in which soil, and with what plant.*
- The technology to make biochar cleanly and sustainably exists.
- There’s still work to be done to establish the scale up needed to achieve the economic production that’ll drive mass adoption.
We know biochar works, but we can’t avoid the evidence that, in some circumstances, it doesn’t work as expected.
*The complexity comes from numerous types of biochar. For example, those made from rice husks, straw, mithcanthus, coconut, palm shells, hard and soft wood, manures, sewage, and so on. These have been added to hundreds of different soil types, environments (clayey / temperate UK, to oxisols / tropical amazon forests) with many different crops and plants.
The results are reported as “biochar”.
Plant growth is very complex with lots of variables. Human endeavour desperately seeks a magic “silver bullet” that solves all our problems and removes the complexities.
Biochar has gone through the fever pitch ‘cure-all’ phase. Back in reality, it can help with many, but not, all gardening and agriculture problems. We remain firmly attached to our belief that the real biochar benefit doesn’t come from the chemistry of the char, but the interactions that the char has with soil microbes.
Further, we maintain the beneficial soil microbe properties only occur with certain types of biochar. Our compost humification agent, granular biochar and SF60 activated super biochar/humus/compost all utilise our successful approach.
We thank all our customers for using biochar and SF60. The UK adoption of biochar-related products by gardeners and farmers is still low.
To make a big difference, we need adoption by millions of users supported by high-volume lower cost tonnage production. As we look to scale up and get ready to meet this challenge, we’ve choices to make on which char technology to use.
Having met with various technology companies, we think there are three basic routes forward. Each route involves making biochar in some form of circular economy system with multiple products generating a return.
We’ve summarised them as:
We’ve looked at the biggest and best charcoal production kilns in the UK, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. The primary output of these kilns is lump charcoal for barbeques. They generate a small percentage of fines which, subject to correct testing, can meet the biochar specifications. Some, but not all the systems, capture and use the heat. Even if we set aside the ethical issues of shipping biochar around the world, there are economic doubts that kilns using virgin hardwood will generate fines (biochar) at a price that will support mass adoption.
Many of our competitors are going down the “straw and other organic waste sources” to make biochar. Some manufacturing sites look on track to achieve lower prices. The September e-news update from the International Biochar Initiative reported on its visit to China’s latest biochar plant. They’ve built 20 with another 45 to go! They’re opening one every three weeks and straw is the input material.
However, we’ve got a technical problem with the many organic materials used to make biochar. They tend to create ‘amorphous powdered biochar’. Our tests and analysis indicate we need a structural biochar (see images below).
There are new technology plants coming on stream in the UK that convert clean waste wood into ‘syngas’ for use in combined heat and power units (chp) to make electricity. Depending on the technology, some of these create an amorphous ash/powder residue, while others create a granular char. We’ve been testing various possible “biochars”.
While we’ve rejected many, we have signed ‘letters of intent’ around future sources. There’s still some testing to be done, but we look forward to announcing more going forward.