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Biochar: a Solution to Poultry Manure Problem?

11 February 2010

US - Biochar from chicken farm waste offers a green power solution.

USA Today reports that at Josh Frye's poultry farm in West Virginia, the chicken waste is fed into a large, experimental incinerating machine. Out comes a charcoal-like substance known as 'biochar' – which is not only an excellent fertiliser, but also helps keep carbon in the soil instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas.

Former vice president and environmental advocate Al Gore calls biochar "one of the most exciting new strategies" available to stop climate change. For Mr Frye, it means that, before long, "the chicken poop could be worth more than the chickens themselves."

He said: "I thought it was crazy at first, and my wife still thinks it's nuts." However, he has sold nearly $1,000 worth of biochar to farmers as far away as New Jersey, and plans to sell much more as he refines production. Venture capitalists, soil scientists and even members of Congress have all come to Frye's farm to see whether his example can be repeated.

Biochar is typical of the promise – and potential pratfalls – of some of the new technologies. Scientists are still trying to determine how much of an impact biochar can really make in reducing pollution.

As with many new green initiatives, Mr Frye's began with one main objective: money.

He explained: "I always thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to burn all this manure and use the heat to warm the chicken houses?'" His farm produces up to 800,000 chickens a year, and hatchlings need to be kept at a steady temperature of about 90 degrees, resulting in about $30,000 a year in propane costs.

Research led Mr Frye to an Illinois-based company, Coaltec Energy, which produces gasifiers for agricultural use. To afford the machine's approximately $1 million cost, Mr Frye applied for grants and low-interest loans from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency that aids soil and water protection efforts, plus the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and other state agencies.

The machine looks like something out of a Dr Seuss book, according to USA Today. Ladders and tubes stick out from seemingly everywhere, and Mr Frye has spent the past three years figuring out the best way to use it.

What makes the machine special is its ability to heat the manure in an extremely low-oxygen environment – a process that produces no smoke and no smell. Some of the resulting heat is, in turn, funnelled into one of the chicken houses, where it helps keep his hatchlings warm.

However, it is the by-product of the process – the biochar – that has environmentalists most excited, and has Mr Frye seeing dollar signs.

Biochar can be produced from several sources including wood and switchgrass, and it was first used in agriculture several centuries ago by Amazon Indians, according to USA Today. Only recently have scientists begun to fully appreciate its impact on the environment, says Johannes Lehmann, a soil scientist at Cornell University.

Because biochar contains high levels of carbon, the element contained in all living things, it often serves as a very effective organic fertiliser, he says. That, in turn, produces healthier plants which, through photosynthesis, suck more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Another aspect of biochar may be even more beneficial. Under normal circumstances, the carbon in waste material – a leaf that falls to the forest floor, for example – decays naturally, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

But Dr Lehmann says the carbon in biochar is particularly resistant to that conversion, so it stays 'locked into' the soil much longer than other, unprocessed substances – as long as 1,000 years in some cases.

He explained: "That's the key. Through this process, you're taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere." He says that even a relatively small-scale effort using such methods "could make a significant dent in emissions on a global level."

Further Reading

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