Professor Tim Flannery has described biochar as “(possibly) the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future... It allows us to address food security, the fuel crisis, and the climate problem and all in an immensely practical manner.”
Biochar is the material produced by heating carbon-rich material at a very high temperature in limited oxygen. The charcoal-like product is then added to soil to improve soil fertility and increase carbon sequestration.
A similar process known as ‘terra preta’ was used by South American tribes on the Amazon River for thousands of years and there has been some low-level research into the use of biochar in developing countries, but it has only been in the past few years that the scientific community has started to get very excited about the process and confirmed there are real benefits for soils.
A biochar project being run by NSW Industry and Investment (formerly the Department of Primary Industries) is amongst the first in the world to be able to quantify the benefits it can have on agricultural crops and in carbon storage.
The federal Minister for Agriculture Tony Burke was at the Wollongbar Agricultural Institute on Monday checking out some of their trials.
“People have been talking about ways of improving productivity and reducing greenhouse gasses but asking how do you measure it?” he said.
He praised the efforts of Dr Lukas Van Zwieten and his team who, for the past four years, have been trialling biochar on a range of crops on the North Coast including avocadoes, sugar cane, rice, macadamias and coffee.
“This work allows us to start doing that... the challenge is that different types of biochar will give different results with different soil types and different crops,” Mr Burke said.
Biochar can be produced from any organic material such as household green waste, paper waste or agricultural waste. The gas that is produced in the process, known as syn gas, can also be used to generate electricity.
The trials being conducted in the Northern Rivers are largely funded through a Caring For Our Country grant to Richmond Landcare.
Tony Walker from Richmond Landcare said one of the biggest problems they faced was actually getting the biochar because there is no commercial production of biochar in Australia at the moment. There is a reactor (also known as a pyrolisis machine) at Gosford, but it is only for small scale trials, so they have had to import it from Indonesia and The Philippines.
“There is definitely an opportunity for a biochar plant to be established in the Northern Rivers. We are hoping that a local council in our area will build a plant – not only to avoid burying green waste, but also to make locally produced biochar for trials and for farmers to utilise,” Mr Walker said.
He said they had been in discussion with Ballina Shire Council and estimated the cost of building a pyrolysis machine would be around $12 million and that it should pay for itself in four to five years.
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