Biochar Supplier Sees Carbon As ‘The New Plastic’

Phil Blom believes his new company is Missouri’s only commercial producer of biochar, a carbon-rich soil amendment, but the idea is ancient — and he doesn’t expect Terra-Char to be alone for long.

“There will be more,” Blom said. “In my opinion, carbon is going to be the new plastic.”

Biochar is a type of charcoal used for enriching soil
Biochar is a type of charcoal used for enriching soil

On the homepage of Terra-Char’s website, Blom points out that indigenous people in the Amazon Basin used biochar thousands of years ago, and referred to their fertile soil as Terra Preta.

The Amazonians used charcoal left behind from cooking fires. Terr Char takes wood and organic matter, burns it in a specialized kiln and keeps out nearly all of the oxygen to prevent combustion, a process called pyrolysis. The biochar products produced by the Boonville-area company are now distributed in 12 states.

Terra Char recently sold 48,000 pounds of biochar to the City of Minneapolis, as part of the city’s joint venture with the Shakopee tribe.

The tribe has agreed to produce a 20 percent biochar compost blend using compost from the city’s biomass waste. The goal, according to the memorandum of understanding, is to improve soil conditions, increase the production of locally grown food, and reduce air and water pollution. The results of the project will be monitored, Blom said, and data will likely emerge later this fall.

Nutrient-rich soil is key to growing healthy plants. “Everyone treats soil like dirt, but it’s a living organism,” Blom said. “If you don’t have healthy soil you don’t have healthy plants. If you don’t have healthy plants, you don’t have healthy people.”

Mixing biochar with compost has shown some promising results, said Tim Reinbott, superintendent of the University of Missouri’s Bradford Research and Extension Center.

The carbon structure of biochar creates added surface area within the soil, providing more space for microbes to live, Reinbott said. Adding compost to the mix provides a good food source for the microbes so they can thrive, he said.

Blom added that biochar, because it is very porous, retains water, nutrients, bacteria and fungi in the soil.

Researchers are trying to figure out the proper mixture of biochar and compost, Reinbott said. Its best uses will likely be in soil for high-value crops like vegetables because, with these crops, farmers can vary the concentration of biochar over different parts of the soil, he said.

Among the most popular consumers of biochar are gardeners, landscapers, and organic farmers. The product generally appeals to consumers who are interested in more natural and sustainable forms of farming.

That target market includes Paul Lias.

Lias is part owner of Ozark Mountain Orchard and a distributor of Terra Char. He started using biochar as a step toward more natural forms of farming. Through YouTube videos, he learned how to create biochar from the remnants left over from peach tree pruning. Lias said he has seen notable improvements in the health of his plants since he started adding biochar to his soil.

The biochar industry has yet to sustain roots in commercial farming, however. A 2013 industry report from the International Biochar Initiative described the biochar industry as a “fledgling state.”

The market, mainly dominated by small-volume biochar products used locally, “has yet to make a substantial entry into large-scale agricultural operations,” the report stated.

At extremely high temperatures, biomass pyrolysis yields a gas and liquid product along with biochar. Reinbott said there is a potential for the liquid to be used for fuel and the gas product to be used in place of natural gas.

Biomass pyrolysis is also a recognized tool for managing biomass waste, which has become more costly to get rid of, and is being considered as another form of carbon sequestration.

The process transforms carbon into a form that can be buried rather than burned, which sends carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

“Our company can use all the components from biomass…Nothing goes to waste and it’s very friendly for the environment,” Blom said.

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