If Occam were an environmentalist…

We’ve all heard Occam’s old adage that the simplest explanation is probably best. Well, extrapolate that logic to problem solving, and you get something like the simplest solution is probably best. In January 2012, we graduate students at Bard CEP explored an easy and promising new treatment for a variety of environmental woes. In a hyphenated word: Bio-char.

Short for “biological charcoal,” bio-char can be added to soil to improve crop productivity, reduce expensive, eutrophication-causing fertilizer run-off, mitigate the effects of flooding or drought, and serve as a climate stabilization wedge by sequestering carbon that would otherwise find its way up to the atmosphere. Together, these benefits make bio-char an incredibly simple way to help mitigate several of humanity’s looming environmental concerns. Yet as of now it is relatively unknown and almost completely unregulated.

Bio-char is a carbon-rich material made by burning plant matter in a low oxygen environment, a process called pyrolysis. “Pyrolysis” may sound high-tech, but in reality everyone could do this at home with two, preferably clean, 1-gallon paint cans and an empty economy-size can of tomatoes. I won’t explain exactly how all that’s done here, but look up Hugh McLaughlin (Alterna Biocarbon’s bio-char guru) and the 1-G Toucan TLUD (Top-lit Updraft) pyrolysis unit if you’re interested.

The product is a dark, crumbly substance that looks like the end of a campfire. Crush it up, charge it with nutrients using compost or fertilizer, and mix it into the dirt. You will have officially improved the quality of your soil and sequestered carbon for thousands of years to come. We know this because ancient Amazonians did something similar to maintain their agriculture with what’s called terra preta, and the carbon they put in the ground is still there.

Now, when I say bio-char is good for agriculture, I mean it in two ways. The absorbent properties of bio-char can help farms save money on fertilizer and irrigation, while simultaneously producing bigger yields of larger crops. My colleagues and I recently paid a visit to the Small Farms Institute in Massachusetts where they’re doing some practical experimentation – they were pretty excited about some organic tomatoes they’d grown. Because of bio-char’s active molecular structure, it grabs onto nutrients and moisture and, like a battery, saves them for plants for when they really need it. This means that less water and fertilizer escape as run-off, saving farmers money and water from pollution (non-point source pollution, which the Clean Water Act has trouble controlling anyway).

So bio-char would be good for drought stricken, nutrient deficient regions like the southwest United States today because it keeps moisture in the ground. And, the same molecular structure that can absorb water and nutrients is very porous, which can make flood-prone areas drain faster, while simultaneously providing homes for nitrogen fixing microbes that help make soil fertile. These same principles could be applied to make people’s yards and gardens more water efficient, saving money on home watering costs.

Bio-char could also be of great value as carbon emissions offsets should the United States create a national carbon market and the bio-char community create a protocol for crediting offsets. In the same way it could be a powerful source of carbon offsets for states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the first voluntary market-based regulatory greenhouse gas emissions reduction program in the US. In the meantime, any businesses looking to reduce their carbon footprint and improve their public image could use bio-char for sequestration projects. Not to mention the fact that making bio-char from renewable organic waste streams like down tree limbs and yard trimmings means less space taken up in landfills, and fewer greenhouse gases getting to the atmosphere via decomposition.

Bio-char presents an opportunity to do something simple, cheap, and effective. It could be Occam’s environmental panacea. Of course, anything taken to an extreme can yield unintended consequences, but bio-char is fairly straightforward, and if used in moderation could be very worthwhile. Let’s get it together humans.

JM Kincaid

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