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Charcoal


Charcoal

Benefits

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Charcoal


Charcoal

Benefits

Learn what biochar can offer your soil

Graphic by Brooke Budner 

Graphic by Brooke Budner 

Soil is an intricate system of living organisms that make minerals available to plant roots. The following is a summary of research on charcoal, also known as biochar, and its influence on these microbial communities, nutrients, water, and the food these soils grow. As research illustrates, the benefits of biochar vary depending on different soil conditions and seasonal changes such as temperature and rainfall. We're still learning all that charcoal can do.

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Living Soil


Life of the Soil

Living Soil


Life of the Soil

The ground beneath our feet can have more living organisms than there are people on this planet. These organisms act like the flora in our digestive systems that process food and make it available to our bodies, making nutrients available to plant roots. What these organisms need to live is carbon. 

An analysis done by Dr. Humin Zhou et al. in 2017 found that biochar increased Microbial Biomass Carbon an average of 26% from 413 academic research papers. 

Over 2015 and 2016 the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences partnered with a collective of 6 farms in San Juan County to research the effects of biochar in agricultural soils.  

The study examined the influence of plain charcoal with no nutrients added and biochar that had been mixed with poultry litter fertilizer, what is called "charged biochar." The same study design was replicated on each farm. 

The team found a 40% increase in  total Microbial Biomass Carbon in comparison to the control. The study also saw an increase in enzyme activity, the active agents microbes use to make minerals available to plants, by 24% for biochar, and 28% for charged biochar. 

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Nutrients


Nutrients

Nutrients


Nutrients

Plant productivity is in part a byproduct of the living organisms in soil processing the nutrients plants require. One of the most essential nutrients is nitrogen. Nitrogen is the key component in chlorophyll, which is responsible for how plants absorb light and nutrients from the atmosphere. 

While there are many types of nitrogen, scientists are increasingly examining Potentially Mineralized Nitrogen, because it indicates the nitrogen that has been broken down by microorganisms to be most available for roots. The San Juan County study in 2016 found a 65% increase in Potentially Mineralized Nitrogen from the biochar only plots in comparison to the control plots, and a 63% increase from the charged biochar compared to the fertilizer only plots. Results for 2015 are also shown below.

Just as nitrogen plays a role in allowing the plant to absorb sunlight, phosphorus is responsible for how energy is transferred throughout the plant. Think of phosphorus as the plant's subway system. Phosphorus is also responsible for cell division, allowing plants to adapt to different environmental conditions. Like nitrogen, not all forms of phosphorus can be utilized by roots. The most accessible form of phosphorus is Soil Soluble Inorganic Phosphorus. Usually we think of "organic" as a good thing, but here "inorganic" is better, meaning that plants can absorb it.

In the 2015 San Juan Study, when the farms grew dry beans, the team saw a significant rise in Soil Soluble P, or plant available phosphorus, from the biochar plots compared to the control plots (35% increase), but little change comparing the poultry litter to the charged charcoal plots.

In 2016, when the framers grew winter squash, the team found opposite results, with almost no change in the biochar plots, but a 160% increase in the charged charcoal plots in comparison to the fertilized plots. This illustrates how charcoal interacts with different crops and seasonal climatic patterns in unique ways. 

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Charcoal is a stable form of carbon, storing in our soils for generations


Nutrient Retention

Charcoal is a stable form of carbon, storing in our soils for generations


Nutrient Retention

Nutrient leaching is a problem not only for the soil but also our water systems. We want to keep nitrogen where it belongs - in the topsoil - and out of our streams, lakes, aquifers, rivers, and oceans where it grows excessive algae, disrupting aquatic ecosystems.

In 2016 for the San Juan study we found  a decrease of 13% and 33% of ammonium nitrogen runoff in the biochar and charged biochar plots respectively. Decreasing nutrient runoff saves growers time and money, and helps keep our water systems clean. 

 

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Water


Water Retention

Water


Water Retention

In the age of climate change water is becoming ever more valuable. Water is not only a limited resource, it also costs increasingly higher amounts to access. The physical characteristics of charcoal absorbs water and disperses it slowly into the soil, reducing evaporation.

The San Juan Islands studies found increased water holding capacity of 5% - 20% in the biochar plots, and 13% - 18% in the charged biochar plots. As you can see, seasonal variation influenced the water holding capacity of the charcoal. 

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Nutrient Density


Nutrient Density

Nutrient Density


Nutrient Density

Building our bodies with nutrients is why we eat, and not all food is created equal. Even organic, local food can still have a wide range of nutritional value depending on the quality of the soil the food is grown in. The islands study in 2015 compared the nutrient content of the beans grown in the study to dry beans purchased at a QFC in Seattle. The study found an increase of micro nutrients in the locally grown beans with charcoal as opposed to the control. And the QFC beans, they came in last.  

Don't we all want food with more in it?

Nutrient Density

Dr. Tom DeLuca analyzing nutrient density of plant tissue.

Dr. Tom DeLuca analyzing nutrient density of plant tissue.

 

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Carbon


Carbon

For every pound of biochar you put in the soil, you keep 2.93 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Carbon


Carbon

For every pound of biochar you put in the soil, you keep 2.93 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Carbon depletion from agricultural soils is one of the pressing issues of our time. The Ohio State Center for Carbon Sequestration estimates that 50-70% of the world's agricultural carbon has been off-gassed through tillage. As the fuel source for soil biology, the loss of soil carbon could have devastating influence on our food production for coming generations.

The San Juan Islands study examined the influence of biochar on the total carbon levels in soils, and found significant increases, with 35-45% increase for the biochar plots, and an additional 35-40% increase with the charged biochar. 

Charcoal is a form of recalcitrant carbon, which means that it is very slow to decompose in soils. While recalcitrant carbon is not in a form for microorganisms to process, the physical structure of charcoal absorbs more plant available carbon, called labile carbon. As recalcitrant carbon, biochar is a form of carbon storage, keeping it out of the atmosphere. For every pound of biochar you put in the soil, you keep 2.93 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Let's put carbon in the soil, not the air.