Carbon’s Champion

Craig Sams hopes to make biochar a household word.

By Jeff Cox

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Craig Sams hopes to make biochar a household word.

Compost comes ready-packed with soil microorganisms. Does biochar help the development of soil life?

When the plant material is roasted, all the cells and tubes for sap are retained. These provide refuge for beneficial soil microorganisms, protecting them from “grazers” like nematodes and mites that feed on them. The grazers can’t get into the caves and channels, so the fungi in particular survive. Each piece of biochar is like an apartment complex for microorganisms, and like humus, its surfaces stick to plant nutrients so they aren’t washed away by rain or irrigation.

Humans release about 9 billion metric tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year. How can biochar help to reduce that figure?

Putting a realistic price on carbon will help. Australia started a program in 2012 to reward farmers who sequester carbon. Farmers get $23 per ton of carbon sequestered. One ton of biochar sequesters three tons of carbon, so the farmer gets $69 for adding each ton of biochar to the soil. Then the farmer gets another payment per ton of biochar added because of the stimulation of soil biota and the consequent reduction of emissions of nitrous oxide. Were there a free market in carbon that valued it at its real cost, we’d all be using biochar. So much agricultural and forest production is burned or left to rot—converting it to biochar keeps it out of the atmosphere. Biochar could sustainably contribute 1 billion metric tonnes a year reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Your business now is selling biochar?

Our company, Carbon Gold, thinks it’s better to make biochar where the biomass is, to minimize the biomass’s travel distance. We have created a cheap and effective mobile biochar maker we call the SuperChar 100, which is a portable roaster for farm residues and wood waste. Gases driven off the waste during the roasting are recycled and burned within the roaster, so after initial ignition, it pretty much drives itself. We also make a unit that’s 10 times larger, for bigger applications. It will make a 1-tonne batch of biochar a day.

We created GroChar, which is biochar activated with actinomycetes, mycorrhizal fungi, and seaweed. We make coir-based compost with biochar that is an effective replacement for peat. We also make an organic 5-5-5 fertilizer with biochar. This mix is then pelletized. By putting the microorganisms and nutrients right with the biochar, you can use less. And since it’s black, biochar in the soil speeds warming in the spring.

Sum up the advantages of biochar for organic gardeners and farmers.

Biochar is the bridge back to organic farming that reverses the destruction brought about on the earth by conventional farming. We have to recarbonize our soil; biochar can help us speed up this process. If we don’t do it, the vital layer of fertility that supports life on earth will be irretrievably lost.

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