James Madison University

Saving Global Food Sources

ISAT Experiments with Biochar as Method of Sustainable Farming

By: Hannah Austin
Posted: December 6, 2012

PHOTO: Julia EnnisIn the Integrated Science and Technology department at James Madison University, one professor and a handful of students are attempting to unlock a 3,000-year-old secret of the Amazonian Indians. For hundreds of years, the knowledge of “biochar,” a soil enhancer made from all-natural ingredients, was lost, but researchers had long wondered why dark-colored Amazonian soils known as “terra preta” were the most fertile in the region. Within the last 25 years, interest in these indigenous people grew, leading to the rediscovery of bio-char. The challenge now lies in the hands of scientists, who are attempting to find workable methods of production and use. As the world’s population continues to grow at an exponential rate, the task becomes pressing, for farms cannot continue to produce enough food for all without seriously depleting soil quality. Eventually, these soils will succumb to ruination – leaving behind a very large, very hungry population. 

Dr. Wayne Teel is one professor who believes that biochar could be part of the solution to avoiding this bleak outlook. He began working with biochar in 2006, and in 2008, introduced the substance to his senior students.

“The simplest definition of biochar is that it is a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal,” explained Teel. “It is made from a variety of bio-mass sources, including grasses, bamboo, and other woody substances, which are cooked in the absence of oxygen up to about 500 degrees Celsius, a method called pyrolysis.”

Any organic wastes, even from bothersome weeds, can be used in the process. The cooking leaves behind only a carbon shell, hardened and black from the intense heat, which is then broken into nickel-sized pieces and distributed amongst the soil. As essential nutrients and minerals pass through the soil over time, they will latch onto the carbon, accumulating nutrients and increasing overall quality. Traditionally in the United States, synthetic fertilizers have been nitrogen-rich, but scientists have begun to find that the method not only depletes soil quality, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a leading cause of the greenhouse effect.  Biochar reduces loss of nutrients in the field, keeping them in local nutrient cycles and reducing the need for fertilizer input, while simultaneously sequestering carbon. 

PHOTO: PlantThe extreme temperatures needed to create biochar prevent Teel from housing production units on campus, and since 2009, his major problem has been creating enough biochar for student experimentation. Currently there is one unit located at Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia and another at Avalon Acres in Broadway, as well as two under construction by JMU ISAT students in Singer’s Glen and Augusta County. By December 2012, there will be four bio-char producing units in Rockingham and surrounding counties, a rare accomplishment for the city, university, and surrounding agricultural endeavors.

While the advancement is an important resource in the Harrisonburg area, it is poorer regions, with severely depleted soil, scarce organic resources, and inadequate water and fertilizer supplies that could benefit most from the food security and crop diversity that biochar provides. With this in mind, two ISAT students, Cara DiFiore and Kofi Boafo, are designing a top-lit updraft stove, capable of making biochar while cooking food. Boafo eventually hopes to establish use of the oven in his homeland of Ghana, a country that could benefit greatly from easy to use methods of sustainable farming.

However, before sharing the practice with others, Teel aims to find the perfect recipe, complete with exact measurements of how much of biochar is necessary to support healthy soil, a process that requires extensive trial and error.

Senior Julia Ennis is currently helping Teel to meet this goal, and says she was first intrigued by biochar in his Sustainability: An Ecological Perspective class during her junior year.

“We were assigned a book report and I chose The BioChar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, by Albert Bates,” said Ennis. “I stayed up all night reading the entire book, and was instantly interested. Dr. Teel has been one of the most influential professors and advisers I have ever had. When he told me about this project, I knew I had to be involved.”

Ennis’s senior thesis project consists of a “pot study,” located in the greenhouse portion of the new Bioscience building. There are sixty pots in total, all growing spinach in various mixes of soil, fertilizer, compost, and biochar. The duo chose spinach because it is grows well in cool weather, but also because it is one vegetable in particular that drains its host soil of nutrients. They believe that the pots with the most bio-char will produce the lushest, healthiest spinach, which they will determine after harvest by measuring the biomass of plant leaves. They also plan to weigh the roots, as heavier roots will indicate stronger plants with better water retention.

“All plants can benefit from the addition of biochar and I am hoping to see a trend between percentages of biochar used and which pots yield the largest crop,” said Ennis. “However, something else that really interests me is that biochar has the ability to sequester carbon, which means it could help to limit the greenhouse effect on Earth – perhaps ultimately helping with global warming and climate change.”

The many benefits of biochar has led to ongoing global research, a scientific race in which the U.S. does not hold first place.

“There are many people studying biochar in the U.S.,” explained Teel. “There is even an International BioChar Initiative based here, but that research was actually started by Japanese and German scholars. Some of the best things are happening in the tropics and Australia, where people are actually using it in large scale farming endeavors.” 

The many benefits of biochar make it an invaluable component to sustainable farming and food security. The history of the Amazonian Indians was nearly lost, but by uncovering their ancient knowledge, we might help save our future.

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