The Nitrogen-Biochar Link
by Tom Konrad, Ph.D.
Promoters of Biochar should ally with fishermen and other groups concerned about ocean dead zones caused by nitrogen runoff.
The folks at the Carbon War Room are trying to save the world by tackling the trickiest problems in addressing climate change. One of their current focus points is biochar [pdf]. I’m one of very few investment writers who has taken notice of biochar so far, and they called me to ask what I thought needed to be done to bring in private investment dollars.
Getting investors interested in biochar is going to be tricky. The problems are three-fold:
- The science of biochar is not yet well understood.
- An agriculturalist who uses biochar only gains a fraction of the total benefit; other benefits are positive externalities felt far and wide.
- Creating biochar is fairly low-tech (you can get plans for a charcoal burner on the internet, and make one in your back yard.) This makes it difficult for companies to profit from it by producing and selling superior technology.
My third point about producing biochar being low tech may not turn out to be a problem. I ran a draft of this article by Jonah Levine, an industry insider, currently Vice President of Technical Sales at Biochar Engineering, a technology startup. He says, “The biomass industry is used to driving biomass to ash to garner all of the potential energy benefits. Driving off H and N from the biomass and leaving as much C as possible in a continuous, automated process is not simple. The reaction would like to either take off and reduce everything to ash or not start at all.”
If my first two points can be addressed, creating a market for quality-controlled biochar, and portable biochar producing units like Biochar Engineering’s technology can be produced at a cost low enough that the extra char yield compensates for the extra production cost of the pyrolyzer, then there will be investors interested in biochar, and much more funding will be available.
The Carbon War Room is already supporting research to flesh out the science, and they are working to get biochar included in the World Bank’s biocarbon fund, but I was able to give them one idea: work with others concerned about nitrogen runoff from the overuse of fertilizer to get stricter restrictions or fines imposed for nitrogen runoff.
Nitrogen runoff is a massive environmental problem, if not on the same scale as global warming. Farmers often use more fertilizer than their plants really need because the costs to them of using too little (low yields) outweigh the costs of using excess fertilizer. Incentives that increase the price they get paid for producing corn and other nitrogen intensive crops only aggravate this tendency, since they increase the benefits of high production without changing the costs of excess fertilizer use.
The excess fertilizer is not taken up by the plants, and instead runs off into the river system, causing marine dead zones, and contaminating freshwater sources. This increases the costs of water purification as well as harming people and livestock who drink the untreated water, and is the cause of “blue baby” syndrome.
Biochar and Nitrogen
Biochar, used as a soil amendment, improves water and nutrient uptake by plants. It has its greatest effects in poor soils, helping the plants access the nutrients that are available, and this effect can last for centuries after the soil has been amended with biochar. Biochar-ameneded soil should reduce the risks to farmers of using too little fertilizer, and hence reduce the incentive to over-apply, benefiting both the farmers and everyone else in the watershed.
Studies suggest that fertilizer taxes are the most economically efficient way to reduce Nitrogen runoff. If such taxes were in place, farmers would have a stronger incentive to use biochar in order to make the most of the suddenly more expensive fertilizer. For environmentalists interested in reducing carbon emissions, this would have the added benefit of reducing nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from heavily fertilized soils, for an additional reduction of greenhouse emissions.
Hence, Biochar advocates should team up with groups concerned about the fisheries and health effects of runoff to advocate for higher taxes on nitrogen fertilizer. When farmers complain, perhaps we can buy them off by using the revenue for a biochar subsidy?