Ancient soil technique offers hope to store carbon underground

December 18th, 2008 - 1:04 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Dec 18 (IANS) Charred organic materials or biochar helped Amazon Basin inhabitants transform some of the most sterile soils into highly productive ones. Although they disappeared 500 years ago, their soil is still rich in organic nutrients, containing up to 70 times more carbon than surrounding soils. Scientists estimate biochar from agriculture and forestry residues can potentially store billions of tonnes of carbon in the world’s soils.

Now, scientists, environmental groups and policymakers forging the next world climate agreement see biochar not only as an important tool for replenishing soils, but as a powerful tool for combating global warming.

Christoph Steiner, University of Georgia-Athens (UGA) researcher, was a major contributor to the biochar proposal submitted by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) last week at the climate change summit in Poznan, Poland.

Steiner explained that to make biochar almost any kind of organic material - peanut shells, pine chips and even poultry litter - can be burned in air-tight conditions, a process called pyrolysis.

“The potential of biochar lies in its ability to sequester - capture and store - huge amounts of carbon while also displacing fossil fuel energy, effectively doubling its carbon impact,” said Steiner, a soil scientist whose research in the Amazon Basin originally focussed on the use of biochar as a soil amendment.

At UGA’s biorefinery and carbon cycling programme, he now investigates the global potential of biochar to sequester carbon. He also serves as a consultant to the UNCCD, a sister to the climate change convention.

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