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A person holds charcoal
Biochar, seen on March 31, 2023, at a demonstration in Nederland, is a carbon-rich substance that can improve soil conditions and sequester carbon. Beetle kill wood and fire-damaged trees can be loaded into Biochar Now’s slow-pyrolysis kilns to make biochar using negative pressure and combustion processes of up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The process locks carbon into the material instead of emitting it into the atmosphere through decomposition or landfilling. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Can a Berthoud company chop down a piece of global climate change and bake it into benign charcoal? 

It’s not just a plan. It’s already happening. 

Biochar Now is taking on excess carbon dioxide emissions through a kiln process that petrifies wood fibers before they can rot into the carbon and methane that produce the greenhouse warming effect. 

The end result is a type of black charcoal pellets of purified carbon that can be used as a soil amendment in agriculture or for industrial products. In fact, says founder James Gaspard, Biochar Now had a thriving market for its charcoal well before the market in carbon credits opened up new revenue streams. 

Here are a few of the most intriguing questions and answers about biochar. 

Why do researchers and entrepreneurs want to capture carbon dioxide? 

Humans have added carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere for more than 100 years through the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, and by deforestation of large sections of the planet. That has raised global temperatures by 1.1 to 1.3 degrees Celsius in recent decades, according to the international scientific consensus; recent UN reports call for limiting warming from 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. 

How does burning wood in a kiln contain carbon rather than release it? 

Because the Biochar Now process uses an oxygen-free kiln, the wood scrap and debris effectively smolders rather than burns. A small propane burn starts the long smolder, then shuts off. The biomass — downed trees, yard clippings, sawdust, leaves — undergoes a chemical transformation rather than an open burn, and the carbon is locked into solid form. 

The process of making chemical changes through high heat is also referred to sometimes as “pyrolysis.” 

Who are the customers for biochar? 

Two groups. Many customers want the charcoal itself, for anything from soil additives, to water and stormwater filters, to plugging abandoned oil wells, to feedstock for plastics.

But a fast-growing second group of customers need carbon offsets to green up their industries, and buy credits from companies that certify certain tons of carbon capture or avoidance. 

“I just became everybody’s best friend in the last two years,” Gaspard said. “We’ve transacted over a million tons of carbon credit contracts. But the carbon credits were not why this company exists.”

How much carbon is locked up by the biochar process? 

One ton of biochar sequesters 3 tons of carbon dioxide, according to Chemists Without Borders, a nonprofit group of scientists combating climate change. 

Who is backing the expansion of the technology? 

Boulder County’s Climate Innovation Fund has granted Biochar Now $100,000 to take the concept on the road, among other county grants from the climate office. Gaspard said in an interview the mobility grants greatly expand carbon sequestration possibilities. 

Biochar Now will “be able to operate remotely at the site of disasters that generate massive amounts of waste wood. Our company was recently able to convert the charred trees from the Marshall fire into carbon, but we had to have the wood transported to our production site in Berthoud,” Gaspard said, in a release accompanying the new Boulder County grants. 

“This award will improve our ability to respond to future disasters while also sequestering carbon by keeping all that waste wood out of landfills, where it would generate methane as it decomposes,” he said. 

Methane, though short-lived in the atmosphere, is far more destructive in the time it is active and is a prime contributor to the greenhouse gases that have caused global warming. 

Last year, Boulder County’s climate office helped establish the 4 Corners Carbon Coalition, a partnership of local governments including Flagstaff, Ariz., Salt Lake City, and Santa Fe, N.M. The coalition pools money for climate projects in that four-state region.

How does biochar compare with other carbon capture efforts? 

Carbon capture and sequestration covers a lot of ground. One form is single-source carbon capture, which grabs carbon from a high emitter such as a cement factory, an ethanol plant or a refinery and either reuses it in products or pipes it to underground sequestration. 

A growing area for capture research is direct air carbon capture, as we wrote about earlier in April for the grand opening of a facility in Brighton. Direct capture companies take carbon from the ambient air anywhere on the planet, condense it, and then sell it to a customer who needs carbon or pipes it to underground sequestration. New tax credits might make the proliferation of such sites lucrative for developers; there is not yet consensus on whether it’s economically feasible to build enough sites to make a dent in rising atmospheric carbon levels that cause global warming. 

Biochar represents another field of capture, which is locking carbon in place that would otherwise drift into the atmosphere and contribute to warming. No-till agriculture practices do much the same thing, leaving vegetative material underground where it continues to store the carbon from plant life. 

Reforesting cleared areas is another method of carbon capture, as tree growth is the original natural science for turning carbon dioxide into plant life. 

What do independent observers say about biochar? 

While environmental groups have lots of questions and objections to carbon capture related to fossil fuels use, they are open-minded about biochar. Biochar can lower carbon emissions from natural materials like downed timber and yard waste that have nothing to do with a century of decisions to burn fossil fuels. 

Kilns and their emission control stacks of Biochar Now are seen on March 31, 2023, at a demonstration in Nederland. Beetle kill wood and fire-damaged trees can be loaded into Biochar Now’s slow-pyrolysis kilns, which are used to make biochar at up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit without carbon-emitting open flames. Biochar is a carbon-rich substance that can improve soil conditions and sequester carbon. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Chemists Without Borders says: “Biochar technology offers a promising solution to mitigating climate change by reducing contamination and securely storing carbon in a cleaner and more efficient form than traditional forms of coal. … In practicing sustainable soil management, such as the use of biochar, the energy sectors can reduce emissions and redirect and repurpose agro-waste from landfills.”

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Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver