Soil scientists believe one of the reasons that former prairie soils are so productive is because of the fires that raged through the grasslands over many millennia. "It's a legacy of perhaps 10,000 years of prairie fires. Every time a fire went through, a small fraction of that above-ground biomass was turned into char. Over time this char built up in the soils because it is very stable," says David Laird, a professor of agronomy at Iowa State University.
Char is a general term for charcoal-like materials made by heating biomass such as grass, corn stocks or wood. Laird says it's called charcoal when burned to provide heat for a barbecue, and called biochar when added to the soil.
As a USDA/ARS researcher on the ISU campus in the early 1990s, he became aware of the importance of biochar in soils. Laird and other soil scientists were determining the fate of the pesticide atrazine in soil and discovered that the biochar was absorbing more than its share. "We knew it was playing an important environmental function for some time. What really clicked is when we realized biochar could be a byproduct of bioenergy production," he says.
Fast pyrolysis opens door to using biochar as a soil amendment
ISU scientists are leaders in developing a process called fast pyrolysis, which rapidly heats corn stover or other biomass to high temperatures without oxygen to produce bio-oil, which can be refined into liquid transportation fuels, and a powdery biochar material as a byproduct. Laird says that creates the opportunity to return the biochar to the soil, and to, he believes, "make the harvesting of biomass more sustainable."
Most crop residues are either plowed into the ground or left on the soil surface. As the residue decomposes, nutrients, such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, are released into the soil where they are available to be used by the next crop.
Crop residues, such as corn stover, are also important for building humus, the dark soil organic matter, that helps make Iowa soils some of the best in the world. "If we harvest corn stover year after year without putting anything back, both the humus and the nutrients will be depleted and the productivity of Iowa's soils will decline," Laird says.
Laird's research is driven by the hypothesis that amending soils with the biochar co-product of fast pyrolysis will not only return the nutrients that are removed when corn stover is harvested but will also help build soil quality, because biochar is an important component for building soil organic matter.
Biochar brings many benefits to the environment, by:
• Providing a way to sequester carbon for up to 1,000 years
• Enhancing soil quality
• Improving water quality through its action to reduce the leaching of nutrients.
Add to those benefits the production of biofuel through fast pyrolysis and you have a "carbon negative energy system," he says.
New effort seeks a "carbon negative economy"
Laird is working with Robert Brown, director of Iowa State's Bioeconomy Institute, on what's called the Initiative for a Carbon Negative Economy, a concept that would generate economic value while removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Brown leads a 33-member National Panel for a Carbon Negative Economy (http://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2011/nov/carbonnegativepanel), which includes Laird and several other ISU researchers.
"In essence what we want to do is capture economic value from a figurative prairie fire. When a prairie fire came through, a lot of energy went up in smoke, literally, but left behind plant nutrients and a little bit of biochar that enriched the soil. If we could just capture the energy in the fire and use that for human economic activity, and still return the biochar and the nutrients to the soil, it would be a win-win-win system," says Laird.
ISU is in an ideal position to research biochar. The BioCentury Research Farm west of Ames in Boone County has a pyrolyzer and scientists are working on integrating the production of biomass and bioenergy in ways that will maintain soil quality. "The goal of the research is finding a way to make the harvesting of biomass for bioenergy economically and environmentally sustainable," Laird said.
Iowa State researchers are working on many aspects of biochar
Several field studies are ongoing. The largest one was started in 2007 by USDA-ARS and ISU researchers, with a goal of measuring the effects of harvesting corn stover and adding biochar to soils on crop productivity and soil quality. In its first year there was a small increase in grain yield due to biochar, but it's not been statistically significant since. Laird says one reason for the small effect of biochar on grain yields might be that Iowa soils are already high quality. Poor quality soils seem to benefit more from biochar than productive ones.
Researchers also are measuring several soil properties and they are seeing positive results from putting biochar in high-quality Iowa soils — soils are less dense and have a higher nutrient and water retention capacity, Laird says. Biochar also functions as a liming agent raising the soil pH and reducing the amount of lime that needs to be applied.
Lab work has included studies to determine the effect of biochar on leaching of nutrients, soil quality, soil density, the ability of soils to hold nutrients, soil organic carbon content, and how the biochar interacts with other carbon sources like manure or crop residue.
Can adding biochar to soil help prevent leaching of nutrients?
Laird is working with Dick Gladon, an ISU associate professor in horticulture, and Jake Northup, graduate student in horticulture, on developing a potting soil medium for horticultural purposes. Other scientists are working on formulations for biochar, determining the basic chemistry of biochar and how different processes influence its properties.
"Studying this biochar topic is a young area of study, and at the same time it's old too. People in the Amazon have been using biochar as a soil amendment for thousands of years. But the science is very new. Our understanding of biochar's potential role in both remediating degraded soils, in boosting ag efficiency, nutrient and water use efficiency and in maintaining soil quality while producing bioenergy — these are all relatively new topics that are being investigated by me and my colleagues at ISU and across the nation," sums up Laird.