UNSW leading on biochar research

Biochar is a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water. (Image credit: International Biochar Initiative)
Thursday, 29 January, 2009

UNSW is accelerating research into biochar, an organic product derived from biological waste that harnesses carbon emissions, boosts crop yields and improves sustainable land use for horticulture and forestry.

The potential for biochar to contribute to a low-carbon energy future is the subject of news reports, following Federal Opposition support for the technology.

Pyrolysis technology converts agricultural bio-waste such as green waste, chicken manure, rice husks, corn cobs and peanut shells into biochar by thermal decomposition in an oxygen-starved environment at low temperatures.

Pyrolysis produces syn-gas that can be used as fuel and the leftover biochar that can be buried in the soil to "lock up" carbon for decades or centuries, while boosting soil productivity.

The university's School of Materials Science and Engineering has an active group in biochar research. Professor Mark Hoffman, Head of School, strongly supports biochar research due to its significant potential national benefits, reflected by the amount of non-governmental research funding it is attracting.

UNSW has a three-year ARC Linkage Grant with Biomass Energy Services Technology Pty Ltd to advance scientific understanding of biochar. Also, UNSW Visiting Professor Stephen Joseph has attracted venture capital funding for UNSW biochar research and he is currently in the US seeking more investment support.

"There is no question that biochar can boost agricultural output by speeding the growth rate of plants," says Professor Paul Munroe, who is co-chief investigator of the ARC Linkage research.

"Our research focus is to characterise different biomass feed stocks and determine their potential to improve soils and boost the growth of different crops and plants."

Biochar isn't recognised in Australia's new emissions trading scheme as it is not part of the Kyoto protocol. However, Professor Joseph and Professor Munroe have written to Federal Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull and Federal Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, seeking meetings to explain the environmental and economic merits of biochar.

In their letter, the UNSW researchers note that the bulk of their research funding derives from US-based venture capital groups. One consequence of this is that any intellectual capital they develop will be exported and lost to Australia. Moreover, Australian researchers are competing with colleagues at overseas institutions who are able to tap government funding at levels which dwarf that which is currently available to us in Australia.

Biochar research is under way in Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. The United States has recently committed US$40m a year to char research and universities in Edinburgh, California and New Zealand are also investing in the area.


Source: The International Biochar Initiative


Media contact: Dan Gaffney, 0411 156 015