West Coast researchers turn to biochar in fight against climate change

BySpencer Christian and Tim Didion KGO logo
Thursday, September 30, 2021
Researchers turn to biochar in fight against climate change
Researchers believe biochar, a versatile substance made from agricultural by-products, could become a powerful weapon against climate change.

UC MERCED (KGO) -- There's a growing movement in California and across the West to use a substance that's readily available from sources that often go to waste to help in the fight against climate change .

Standing over a specially controlled unit known as a pyrolyzer, professor Gerardo Diaz, Ph.D., and his team at UC Merced are turning agricultural by-products into a versatile substance known as biochar.

"You can get it from tree waste, pistachio shells, or almond shells and things like that," explains professor Diaz.

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First, it helps to understand that the material isn't burned to ash, but charred and heated into a porous material containing a high concentration of carbon. And researchers believe it could become a powerful weapon against climate change. They believe it can help with everything from protecting forestland from fire to sequestering carbon and other harmful greenhouse gasses underground.

"In that case, you can actually store this material and you can put it back in the soil," says professor Diaz.

Fellow UC Merced researcher Rebecca Ryals, Ph.D., has been studying the potential effect of mixing biochar with the massive amounts of manure used as fertilizer in the Central Valley, a major source of the greenhouse gas, methane.

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"Methane from manure is a big deal in California, and accounts for a quarter or 25% of all of our methane emissions across the whole state," notes professor Ryals.

She says, early results already show major reductions in methane levels during the composting process, which is aided by properties in the biochar.

"And you can see this huge difference in methane emissions resulting from just a small addition of biochar to these piles," she says.

As promising as biochar may be for the environment in California, a group in Washington State is looking for another kind of benefit. Their goal is not just to improve farming, or capture greenhouse gasses, but to help prevent devastating wildfires.

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"I mean, we can walk out on our driveway right now, and show you the, you know, the burn trees from, I don't know, three or four or five different fires. I mean, it's everywhere," says biochar advocate Tom McCoy.

Tom and his wife Gina live in the scenic Methow Valley. The surrounding area is a popular destination for hikers and skiers, and lately, a victim of the kind of destructive fires that have swept the Pacific Northwest. The couple is now working on a way to thin the fuel from those fire-prone forests with a pilot project recently profiled by our partners at the digital non-profit newsroom "Investigate West." Essentially, turning small or unhealthy trees into biochar.

"So it's absolutely critical that we, you know, we make our communities and our homes safer. By doing this reducing these fuel loads," says Tom McCoy.

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The McCoys began converting local Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, using a pyrolizer provided by UC Merced and the company, AC Fox led by biochar pioneer Hugh McLaughlin. With a grant from Washington State, they're hoping to create a supportable business, and ultimately a processing plant to distribute the biochar to local farmers. The effort was originally organized as a nonprofit called C6 Forest to Farm. And the McCoys say the goals are about more than money.

"I would like people to understand that it's our ecosystems that keep this planet habitable. And if we let our ecosystems collapse, which is what's going on with our forests, we can't stabilize the climate," says Gina McCoy.

Back at UC Merced, researchers have now begun recruiting local growers, to study the use of biochar in Central Valley orchards and farms where it can also help plants pull more carbon from the air, during growth cycles by aiding in photosynthesis.

Ultimately, they're hoping to create a powerful, climate-friendly movement, that will keep growing as well.

Editors Note: This story was produced in partnership with Investigate West as part of the LMA Covering Climate Collaborative, a project dedicated to providing resources for climate coverage to media outlets nationwide. ABC7 News is an active member. Below you'll find links to the original Investigate West story by reporter Mandy Godwin, as well as other resources.

The original Investigate West story can be found here.

Information about C6 Forest to Farm project can be found here.

Information about the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced can be found here.

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