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What is Biochar - How do you use it?

Tony Callaghan 08/06/2016

What is Biochar - How do you use it?

What is biochar?

Biochar is a type of carbon made from any organic plant materials that have been heated in the absence of oxygen in a process called ‘pyrolysis’ or 'charring'. The modern term biochar has been adopted to specify a process that uses a non-polluting, sustainable method and resources, i.e. a material that helps mitigate climate change.

Furthermore, when used with soil it must also have a beneficial impact on it.

These definitions are all contained within international standards - See EBC (European Biochar Certificate) and IBI (International Biochar Initiative certification). The reason the biochar pioneers used the new term 'biochar' was to capture the environmental objective.

*Biochar is an expanding subject area. Blog updated in October 2020, June 2022 and April 2023.

For easy navigation, please use the table of green links to jump down the generic biochar topics, the brown links to jump to specific SoilFixer biochar information or one of the black hyperlinks for a non-soil related biochar article.

Biochar Information
1. What is Biochar?
2. What is the best Biochar?
3. Why use Biochar?
4. Is Biochar good for all soils and plants?
5. Where to use Biochar?
6. How do you use Biochar?
7. Activating and inoculating biochar
8. How much Biochar should I apply to the soil?
9. How does Biochar work?
10. Why do some Biochars fail??
11. What are the different types of Biochar?
12. How is Biochar made? (Commercial manufacturing methods)
13. How is SoilFixer Biochar made?
14. Is Biochar a Carbon Sink? (Carbon offset, climate mitigation product)
15. Confusing terms: Charcoal v Biochar
16. Making Biochar at home (DIY)
17. Sources of biochar information
18. Do worms eat biochar?
19. Is biochar better than compost?
20. Is biochar an organic fertiliser?

SoilFixer Biochar
Why SoilFixer Biochar?
Powder of granules?
Can I add too much biochar?
Custom (bespoke) SoilFixer Biochar
SoilFixer production history

Other uses of Biochar
Biochar for industrial use (link)
Biochar for farming and agriculture (link)
Biochar uses around the home (link)
Biochar for water and gas filtration (link)
Biochar for gardeners - some surprising uses (link)

What is the best biochar?

First, we should be more specific and specify the end use. There are hundreds of types of biochar coming from different raw materials (wood, straw, cereals, miscanthus, sewage and manure digestate, nut shells, etc) using a vast array of technology (fast, slow pyrolysis, high temp. medium, low temp and even some forms of gasification).

We focus on 'other' applications later, but our core blog is about biochar for soil use.

We believe the best biochar for soil improvement is made from hardwoods using intermediate time and temperature pyrolysis. There are four aspects to making quality soil biochar:

  1. It should improve plant and crop growth
  2. It should be made from a sustainable plant resource
  3. It needs to be stable in soil (i.e. last hundreds of years)
  4. The production life-cycle needs to be climate positive - i.e. the process is carbon-neutral or carbon-negative (reduces CO2)  

With any "new and exciting" product, there is the risk of hype and hijacking of the term. 'Biochar' is being used to describe many types of carbon residue from many different types of processes. We will talk later about the important differences in biochars, for now, be aware: not all biochars are the same and it is well-documented that not all biochars enhance plant growth.

You can find high-quality biochar for sale from our online store!

Why use biochar?

When the right type of biochar is added to soil and compost, it can dramatically improve plant growth by improving:

  • Water retention
  • Nutrient supply to roots
  • Nutrient losses due to 'run-off'
  • Support for microbes and AMF (mycorrhizal fungi)
  • Support the formation and stability of colloidal humus
  • Improve soil aggregation (i.e. tilth)

There are further environmental benefits when using biochar made from sustainable raw materials processed in well-engineered equipment designed to be non-polluting and heat efficient:

  • Sustainable use of resources
  • Carbon capture - locking carbon in your soil to offset climate change
  • Reduced NOx and methane soil emissions

Is Biochar good for all soils and plants?

The broad answer is yes, biochar works in sandy, clayey and loam soils and with most plants.

However, there are cases where a bit more technical knowledge is needed before use. Most biochars on the market are alkaline in nature (varying from pH 8.5 through to 10.5). Adding alkaline biochar to ericaceous (acid-loving plants) needs to be undertaken with care. You need to ensure the pH of the container soil remains 'acidic' (usually pH 5-6.5 for acid-loving plants). 

Where to use biochar

Biochar can be added to all soils and most growing media

  • Planters
  • Raised beds
  • Allotments
  • Lawns
  • Trees
  • General gardens
  • Compost (see below)

How do you use Biochar?

The most powerful biochar benefits involve interactions with the plant root zone. It follows the best place for biochar is in the root zone.

Our recommendation is to dig it when planting (e.g. seed drills, tree holes or when cultivating the soil. This is not always possible (nor desirable if following a no-till regime!). Biochar benefits have been shown when used as a top dressing or when lightly hoed into the top few cm of the soil.

Raw biochar needs to absorb nutrients and develop microbial root zone relationships - this can take 3-6 months. This inoculation ‘lag’ period can be solved by 'activation' (see below), or customers can buy SF60 Biochar Super Compost ready to use.

We recommend (along with most of the biochar scientific community) that you 'activate/inoculate' (soak, charge, activate, enrich) your biochar before adding it to the soil.  The simplest method is to add biochar to your composting process. You can also soak the biochar in a liquid fertiliser before adding it to the soil.

Activating and inoculating biochar

We have a great article called 'how to activate and inoculate biochar' that informs you how to activate biochar and why it needs activating in the first place!

How much biochar should I apply to the soil?

Apply 1 kilo per square metre (1 Kg/m2).

This approximates to 5% by volume, however, the % varies based on the depth of soil you dig it into. mix. For more detail on application rate calculations by area, volume and weight and tips on how to make your budget go further, please visit the application ratio blog. We also have a free Excel calculator if you need to work out accurate application ratios. 

You can make biochar go further and maximise the budget by focusing on only adding into seeds drills and planting holes then repeating the application each year.

Biochar will be in your soil for hundreds of years. You can add a bit more each year as funds allow. 

How does biochar work (theory and background)?

Biochar acts like a sponge absorbing nutrients and water. Beneficial soil microbes attach to the biochar and transfer nutrients to the plant roots. In exchange, the roots transfer sugars (made via photosynthesis) to the microbes. 

The detailed explanation...

Over the past 10-15 years, thousands of academic reports have been published on biochar.  We now have various summaries ('meta') analyses of these papers (Hans-Peter Schmidt, Claudia Kammann et al, 2022). These summaries indicate biochar sometimes works incredibly well (+100% increase in yield), often delivers no benefits (0%) and sometimes creates negative impacts (-20%).  With hundreds of different types of biochar from different organic sources (e.g. wood, palm shells, coco, straw, miscanthus, sewage sludge, the list goes on) combined with many different process conditions (low & high-temperature pyrolysis, fast & slow, torrefaction, gasification, etc), excuse the pun, but things have got ‘muddied’. A huge amount of time has (and still) goes into looking at the properties of biochar to determine which production method and source material will give a positive result in all soils.

Where SoilFixer fits in...

SoilFixer got involved in biochar about 9 years ago. Our technical background is in compost and composting methods. (TC invented the Hotbin composer and drove the uptake of hot composting of food and garden waste.). We pride ourselves in understanding how compost and soil work and bringing to market products that make a real difference. We had a research project looking at the possibility of making “the world’s best compost".  We understood fertile soils and the role of soil organic matter (SOM) and in particular 'humus' in soil fertility. It was logical (to us), as humus is key to soil fertility, then adding humus to soil would be beneficial. We started to look at how much humus was in different composts. We 'pulled apart’ different composts and found the humus level varied significantly - from as little as 1% to as much as 20%.  (You can read more about the humus journey here). We reasoned, if we could establish a recipe to make more humus in compost, this would be an exceptional ‘compost’ and soil improver.  We looked at a great many recipes and additives. On our journey, we came across articles related to highly fertile Amazonian Dark Earths with high levels of soil organic matter (humus) and charcoal. The world of biochar as a compost additive opened up. We tried many types of biochar/charcoal/carbon mixed with other things. We also tested a range of composting conditions. The compost activator (humification agent) we now sell is a result of this – it increases the humus (colloidal humus) levels from around 5% (dm basis) in typical composts to 40% (dm). You might like to read our Compost Accelerator article to find out how a compost activator can speed up the rate of decomposition. Furthermore, we now make our own “biochar super compost (SF60)" and Biochar multi-purpose compost (SF40).

It might help to think of biochar as a dry sponge - it absorbs water and plant nutrients. But this oversimplifies some very complex chemical, physical and biological impacts biochar has on the soil and soil microbes. We discuss each below. We believe the physical properties and in particular, the presence of specific pore sizes (channels) in the biochar that support microbes and retain humus are the keys to success.

** Beneficial soil microbes and humus are keys to better plant health and growth **

Only specific starting materials (notably hardwoods) have these pores, and only certain types of processing retain them in the final biochar - see examples in the images below. 

SoilFixer ONLY supplies biochar (charcoal) made from wood using an intermediate temperature (350-750C). We use this same biochar to make SF60 (biochar super compost) and Biochar multi-purpose compost - both blends of biochar, colloidal humus and compost particles.

Why do some Biochars fail?

Chemical effects: biochar has beneficial chemical effects based on the surface chemistry of the carbon atoms and the surface area of the carbon.  These properties are determined by the raw material,  time and temperature used to make the biochar. 

Many different raw materials (e.g. straw, coco, softwoods, hardwoods) are used to make biochars. Many of these 'explode' into tiny fragments when pyrolysed - they convert into amorphous carbon (tiny fragments of flat sheets of atoms (see photo). This amorphous carbon has a huge chemical surface area (i.e. micro pores <2 nm) but has no mesopores (i.e. pores of 2-50 nm size) and no macropores (50-100 nm size). (See photo below). This is crucial when we look at beneficial soil microbes.

Let us cross-reference carbon surface area: millions of tonnes of activated carbon pellets are made each year - the quantity dwarfs biochar. Activated carbon is used because it has a high surface area of carbon - it can hold nutrients (metal ions) just like biochar.  There is no published data that "activated carbon" when added to soil is beneficial. We infer from this that the 'high surface area chemical benefits' of biochar are not paramount to biochar's impact on soil. (Ignoring the fossil fuel aspect of activated carbon, if carbon surface area was needed, surely we would be adding the cheaper and readily available activated carbon to soil!). We can also match a number of papers where biochar has not worked back to 'amorphous' biochar.

Particle size effects: biochars have physical interactions with soil aggregates based on the size of particles. This can impact water flow (irrigation) and soil particle aggregation. Large particles will increase water flow and decrease aggregation. Fine particles will as a generalisation will be the opposite.  On balance fine granules (0-2mm) will be more beneficial in sandy soils, and medium granules (0-13 mm) will be better for heavy clay soils. Granules above 13 mm will have negative effects on soil tilth. The granule size also affects handling - granules are easier to handle and spread. Biochar powders and fine granules tend to be more susceptible to strong winds.  

Biological effects: biochars also have a biological impact on soil microbes in the root zone. The exact mechanism is still under debate. Our theory is as follows: microbes are small (5-100 nm), small enough to live in the mesopores(2-50 nm) and macro (>50 nm) pores formed in some biochars. The solid biochar pore walls act as a defence against being eaten by predators. The surface chemical structure of the biochar adsorbs nutrients. Normally once these sites are full of nutrients, the adsorption ceases.  The microbes take up these trapped nutrients - releasing the sites to take up more.  The microbes form symbiotic relationships with root hairs. They exchange nutrients (NPKs etc) for sugars. This symbiotic relationship is more viable when microbes have a safe home in biochar pores. We conclude this symbiotic biological impact from biochar is more important than the chemical or physical impact of biochar. (see photo below comparing amorphous powder with fine granules).

Biochar powder v pores - soilfixer

For the very best results, we conclude biochar should have the right pores present AND accessible to microbes for microbes to inhabit. The amorphous powder does not have the right pores.  Large granules (e.g. 25 mm) have lots of pores (channels), but only those on the outer surface are accessible to microbes).

SoilFixer believes the most advantageous size of biochars is small granules (less than 2mm) with accessible pores of the right size. We make biochar with a particle size range between 0-13mm. This is a balance between optimal production and optimal soil use. 

What are the different types of biochar? What materials can biochar be made from (the organic inputs)?

Biochar can be made from a vast range of organic (i.e. plant-based) materials. With modern pyrolysis equipment control systems and many possible starting raw materials, there are hundreds of types of biochar.

A quick read through the IBI/EBC certification documents will confirm that a vast range of plant organic matter can be converted to biochar. The list covers wood, coco, plan shells, straw, miscanthus, etc.

We understand the technical basis for the definition of biochar. We know different biochars have "worked". However, we feel (for reasons discussed above), the underlying reasons why biochar works dictate that biochar from wood processed in a specific way are 'guaranteed to work.

How is biochar made? (Commercial manufacturing methods)

There are numerous types of commercial equipment for making biochar. The costs can carry from £20K for a simple retort kiln up to £10m for an advanced energy-from-waste gasification system linked to the electricity grid. Each type uses slightly different variables, for example:

  • Low temperature (300-500C)
  • Intermediate temperature (500-800C)
  • High temperature (800-900C)
  • Continuous or batch
  • Torrefaction / Pyrolysis / Gasification
  • Earth mounds to metal ring kilns, to retorts (metal, brick, square, oblong, Adam, Missouri)

How is SoilFixer Biochar made?

SoilFixer biochar is made in an advanced pyrolysis unit linked with an energy (heat)  recovery unit. It meets the  EBC certification on sustainability.

In Europe, there are only a few dedicated biochar production facilities. Most biochar either comes from 'fines' (small bits) leftover from BBQ charcoal production or is high-char ash residues from energy from waste plants. 

Remember to look out for these things when buying biochar:

Use of sustainable resources: when biochar is made from wood (see why we exclusively use wood) then you need to ensure it is from a managed woodland/forest source. (Some, but not all, imported BBQ/biochar is still made from slash and burn deforestation). 

Is biochar a Carbon Sink?  (Carbon offset, climate mitigation product)

Yes. 1 Kg of biochar carbon offsets (sinks) 2.0-2.5 Kg of carbon dioxide. (The ratio can fall to 2 Kg of  CO2e - it all depends on the process. Our friends over at Ithaka Institute have recently published a new guide to biochar as a carbon sink. The manufacturing process should be climate-neutral (or carbon-negative). It is not sufficient for the supplier to state they make biochar from managed woodland. Pyrolysis converts a lot of the input to heat, carbon dioxide, methane and other non-desirable VOCs. The carbon efficiency (C-sink potential) of the conversion process is essential to know. The EBC certification body has mandated that biochar from ring-kilns is not C-neutral and does not meet the criteria for certification. This means a number of UK artisan woodland BBQ charcoal makers who use ring kilns have charcoal (biochar) fines that would fail to meet the biochar certification criteria. This is a challenging subject. On the one side, 'fines' (potential biochar product) is sometimes left unused in woodlands (ie wasted). Biochar is a beneficial outlet for what is often a "waste". We have yet to meet a 'rich' charcoal maker - most have strong environmental ethics and spend many hours for very little money looking after coppice woodland. Some UK charcoal makers have moved to cleaner more efficient retorts. There is a significant cost barrier against change (a ring kiln costs £1,000 an entry-level retort costs £20,000). We hope more will convert in the near future and we urge all charcoal makers to review the C-sink paper published by Ithaka/EBC on the carbon-neutral production

SoilFixer biochar is made in an "advanced pyrolysis unit" with combined heat and power recovery (chp). The system has passed the EBC certification scheme.

Confusing terms: Charcoal v biochar. Are they the same?

The answer is both YES and NO depending on the context, application and understanding of both terms. It all depends on the semantics, assumptions and cross-checking of facts.

You can read our in-depth biochar versus charcoal article to find out more.

Is it possible to make biochar at home or on the allotment (DIY biochar)?

Yes, you can make biochar at home. There are many YouTube videos. The main driver for making biochar at home or on the allotment is usually the cost of commercial biochar. Before starting to make it at home, a few things to consider: how much time it will take, the cost of equipment, the environmental impact, the quality you can make, how you will grind it to the right particle size, how much dust and dirt and odour you are prepared to put up with. (Biochar dust gets everywhere, it is a nightmare to clean off your skin (think coal miner type), impossible to get out if trodden into carpets, and very tough on work clothes and washing machines.  There are three main DIY methods 

  • Earth mounds, i.e. cover a wood fire with soil
  • Kon-Tiki kiln (flame curtain)
  • Metal (oil drum) type retorts

There are hundreds of articles and YouTube videos covering these options. We recommend the Kon-Tiki flame curtain because it is easy to load and achieves a clean burn. If you have the time and patience to build a retort great – but you will need welding skills and a fair amount of technical skill to get it to work cleanly.

Note: the Environmental Agency and Local Government Pollution and Nuisance control positions on making biochar at home are not absolutely clear. You are not ‘burning/combusting/having a fire’ – you are attempting to pyrolyze material. In our view, if you create lots of smoke often – you are going to get neighbour complaints. If you release ‘dirty’ or ‘smelly’ smoke these are giveaways you are polluting the air with particulates and volatile organics that have a significantly greater impact on greenhouse gasses (climate change) than CO2.

Sources of biochar information

There are many excellent teams working on biochar such as the European and British Biochar organisations and Ithaka Institute. They have many links to scientific papers.

Do worms eat biochar?

Yes, but we really need to look at the detail. Worms will 'eat' take-in and pass through the gullet any small bits of particle. They will therefore consume small granules (powder) of biochar - but not large granules (0.5mm and above).

It is believed (although there is no published evidence) that biochar will act in the worm digestion much like a small granule of grit - i.e. the stirring action in the gut helps grind up the worm food to make it easier to digest.

But biochar is not worm food - it cannot be digested by worms (or other soil microbes). It is non-biodegradable (which is why it acts as a carbon sink). In this stricter sense, it is not 'eaten' by worms.

Is biochar better than compost?

It is many multiple £s  more expensive, so it had better be! But the answer really relies on a detailed understanding of what compost is and why it works and what biochar is and why it works. The latest academic papers are all leading to a broad consensus that both are needed and that biochar often works better when it is mixed with compost.

Is biochar an organic fertiliser?

Yes and No - it depends on the definition of fertiliser. The dictionary defines a fertiliser as any item that improves soil fertility - so tick yes. Organic means derived from plant/carbon-based material - tick yes.

But organic is also used to define being made via a specific registered organic method, approved by an organic registration scheme - e.g. Soil Association. Whether it is 'registered' for Organic use all depends on the supplier. 

Is it a fertiliser? The term is used by industry and all product labelling very specifically. Until very recently, 'Fertiliser' has been a reserved term used only for products with defined minimum levels of Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus (i.e. NKP fertilisers). Europe recently approved a wider definition to include organic fertilisers and biochar. It is not yet clear if the UK will adopt this or go its own way.

Why SoilFixer biochar - buy with confidence?

Is the biochar certified according to EBC or IBI certification?  Yes

Has the biochar been proven to increase plant growth in UK soils  Yes -see our biochar test results. (We acknowledge farm-scale tests are pending - watch this space)

Which grade of biochar (0-2mm, 0-8mm or 0-13mm) granules?

Please note from April 2023 we are withdrawing the 0-2mm granule. Read more here).

We make one grade of biochar and we used to sieve it into various grades (ie particle sizes). The NEW 0-13 mm granules work well in most soil types.  We do not recommend fine (amorphous) biochar powder as they do not have the macro-pores needed by soil microbes.  We also advise care when using large granules (>8mm sieve) because the volume of surface pores available to the soil microbes in very low and large particles negatively impact soil aggregation (i.e. tilth). Although our new trommel sieves are 13mm so the grade is 0-13mm, there is actually very little 8-13mm granule - less than 10%.

Can I add too much biochar?

Yes! Too many large particles will negatively affect aggregation and water holding and retention. Water will drain away too easily with too many large particles. We recommend a maximum 20% biochar (by volume) for heavy clayey soils, 10% for existing loams, and 5% for sandy soils.

Biochar does help with water retention in sandy soils, but it is expensive. There are lower costs ways to create water retention and tilth - such as adding colloidal humus (see SF60).

Custom (bespoke) SoilFixer biochar formulations

The biochar industry is young with many research projects still underway looking at many different biochar formulations. Working with SoilFixer, we can offer a range of biochars:

  • Inoculate (charge) biochar with various items such as nitrates, urine, NKPs, trace minerals, rock dusk, AMF, and specific root fungi (e.g. RootGrow™)
  • Mixtures of biochar with PAS100 compost
  • Supply the biochar fresh and dry, or aged and wet

SoilFixer production history

Returning visitors might spot we have amended our descriptions on how we make biochar. We are in an ongoing search to find the right equipment and input materials that give us sustainability, clean burn and a lower-cost product (that performs brilliantly!). Solving these issues will help drive adoption and hence make a difference.

A brief history of our production

Our R&D Kon-Tiki kiln was great for the first couple of years. It was clean burn and produced good biochar from local coppice woodlands. However, it had no heat recovery and was very labour-intensive. Great to make 10 tonnes a year, but never going to hit 100 tpa never mind +1000 tpa! 

We have tried an in-house design of a 'giant' Kon-Tiki. This worked with expensive 'logs' but not with the lower-cost wood resources we need to move to. Amending and configuring our own design would be as expensive.  

After an extensive search for the right pyrolysis unit in terms of capital cost, quality of output, and ability to handle the input wood, we now have a technology partner with a solution. We are currently working with them and an investor to bring forward a very large-scale plan. Until resolved, we will continue to work via the test/R&D unit.   

Thank you for reading about biochar. This is one of five articles on the uses of biochar - follow the links below:

Biochar for gardeners - some surprising uses (link)
Biochar uses around the home (link)
Biochar for industrial use (link)
Biochar for water and gas filtration (link)
Biochar for farming and agriculture (link)