FOREST INK: Ithaka Institute in Switzerland continues with biochar research

My experience to date with biochar was mainly its use as a soil additive but after reading “55 Uses of Biochar” which was published over four years ago I realized how much wider potential it had.

This paper does cover the use of char as a soil amendment but also describes the wide variety of uses that are being discovered every day.

A good introduction to the variety of benefits is well covered in The Biochar Displacement Strategy by Kathleen Draper where she articulates a vision for maximizing biochar use by displacing non-renewable materials. Some examples are uses of biochar in animal nutrition and construction as well as a variety of industrial applications.

Draper concludes with, “While the first generation of biochar researchers included soil scientists, agronomists, plant nutritionists, plant biologists, we now need to expand on that and include new networks of experts from material science, electrochemistry, civil engineering, biological economics, electrical engineering, veterinary sciences, waste management, climate science, public policy to name just a few, in order to achieve the true potential of biochar to restore and regenerate and rebalance.”

As described in the 55 uses of Biochar the building of the Ithaka Institute in Switzerland was the first to be restored using biochar plaster.

Two of biochar’s properties are its extremely low thermal conductivity and its ability to absorb water up to five times its weight.

These properties mean that biochar is just the right material for insulating buildings and regulating humidity. In combination with clay, but also with lime and cement mortar, biochar can be used as an additive for plaster or for bricks and concrete elements at a ratio of up to 80 per cent.

The big plus of using biochar is the multiple uses as well as the ease of recycling it compared to less friendly products like Styrofoam and many fossil fuel based products, for example, it can still be used as a soil additive when it has finished its role in the construction application.

READ MORE: Public input should include more categories than just old growth

In the area of animal nutrition probably one of the best example of replacing a questionable practice of feeding cattle antibiotics as a means of growth enhancement. Some experimenting with feeding biochar can also show improvements without the concern about promoting resistant organisms. At present some 90 per cent of the biochar used in Europe goes into animal farming. Whether used in feeding, litter or in slurry treatment, a farmer will quickly notice less smell along with reduced incidence of diarrhoea, feed intake is improved, allergies disappear, and the animals become calmer.

While most research has taken place in Europe, there are also independent institutes in the U.S., Nepal and Australia where biochar studies are also taking place.

Many of the studies in Europe are being limited by the availability of enough quality biochar. Now may be the right time for economic recovery in Canada and in particular BC to consider having a research center here to take advantage of our abundant carbon sources from our forest industry and start using material that is still being burned on the landing rather than being part of a growing industry including some of the following examples; decontamination of soils and waste water, a barrier preventing pesticides getting into surface water, biogas slurry treatment decreasing CO2 and ammonia emissions, active carbon filter, soil substrate for organic plant beds, composting toilets, the treatment of drinking water, micro-filters and macro-filters, exhaust filters, industrial materials (carbon fibres and plastics), electronics (semiconductors and batteries), metallurgy (metal reduction), cosmetics ( soaps and skin-cream, therapeutic bath additives), paints and colouring, energy production (pellets and substitute for lignite) and medicines (detoxification and carrier for active pharmaceutical ingredients).

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.

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