E03 Biochar with Kathleen Draper

This week we are pleased to welcome biochar expert Kathleen Draper, Chairman of the International Biochar Initiative, to provide an overview of biochar, and to outline its potential as a CDR solution, as well as the many co-benefits it offers. Kathleen Draper is the Board Chair of the International Biochar Initiative, as well as U.S. Director for the Ithaka Institute for Carbon Intelligence, a non-profit, open source organization focused on the use of biochar in climate farming, agroforestry as well as other industrial uses of biochar. She is the co-author of ‘Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth’ and ‘TerraPreta: How the World’s Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change and Reduce World Hunger’. She has a Master’s degree in Managing for Sustainability.
Moderated by Toby Bryce and Megha Raghavan.
Burn - Igniting a New Carbon Drawdown Economy to End the Climate Crisis https://www.amazon.com/Burn-Using-Fir… The International Biochar Initiative https://biochar-international.org/

Transcript Summary

00:00 Introduction by Toby Bryce with recap of need for CDR.
03:00 Megha R introduces the speaker, Kathleen Draper, Board Chair of the International Biochar Initiative and the US Director for the Ithaca Institute for Carbon Intelligence
04:20 I’m here to talk about biochar as a carbon dioxide removal (CDR) solution and its many uses, co-benefits, and scale potential. (slide of agenda for this talk)
05:00 - discussion of other forms of carbon: charcoal and activated carbon
Biochar is a form of charcoal that is produced from heating organic matter (but NOT tires, plastic wastes or municipal waste) in a low-oxygen environment, known as pyrolysis. Biochar has been emphasized in the recent IPCC report (IPCC Special Report 2018, 6th Assessment 2021) as a negative emissions technology that is ready to deploy, and we see carbon marketplaces embracing this. Large companies are buying biochar based carbon credits.
08:30 (Biochar Markets diagram - older data) Markets for biochar are emerging: the chart lists agriculture, gardening, remediation, filtration, livestock feed, building materials, packaging materials, 3D printing, fuel cells and carbon offsets. Each category is scored for volume potential, value and readiness. Newer markets, not scored, include stormwater management, anaerobic digestion, animal bedding, compost, and cosmetics.
10:00 the IPCC analysis is limited and there are many emerging uses of biochar that are not adequately accounted. More work is needed. Biochar is still in its early stages of development and there is much work to be done to fully understand its potential and scale up its use. This includes addressing technical and logistical challenges, such as sourcing the materials for biochar production and developing efficient and sustainable production methods.
10:50 The focus on biochar in New York state seems to be a growing area of interest and research. Cornell University, Rochester Institute of Technology, SUNY ESF, and other universities are ramping up research in different aspects of biochar production. New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has provided funding to Cornell University to demonstrate the use of biochar in dairy farming. Cornell Cooperative Extension is also starting to promote biochar, especially on Long Island with the help of Debbie Aller who is fielding biochar-related questions from farmers across the state. Several universities are also hosting biochar events to educate policy makers about the different aspects of research and commercial activities related to biochar. Additionally, a master’s student at the University of Albany has created a survey to gauge farmers’ interest and knowledge about biochar.
20:00 biochar brings a variety of co-benefits along with CDR. But there are barriers to market entry: it is not well known - we need to educate the public. It is not easy to start up a facility - the biomass supply is variable and each facility may face unique challenges. Financing and business models need to be developed and publicized. Public policy must be advanced, that encourages incorporation of biochar into commercial products (low embodied carbon market).
23:00 biochar is mostly used in animal feed in Europe and this is a growth area in the US. There is also a fund in the infrastructure bill for increasing biochar production from forestry residues.
25:00 Question: how does pyrolysis work? Materials are carbonized either by low oxygen or no-oxygen processes. The no-oxygen process maximizes biochar production - increasing yield from 5% to 15% usually. The pyrolysis reaction is exothermic so feeds itself energetically, but requires some initial heat input for startup. It seems likely that biomass feedstock will eventually become the limiting ingredient: demand will outstrip supply. But we are still far from that day.
28:00 Question: it it useful to think of biochar as a nature-based vs. technology-based solution for CDR? It is kind of a hybrid technology using nature-based feed in an industrialized process, and sometimes with industrial endpoints.
30:00 Question: biochar startups seem to be small niche players now; will there be large scale players? The limitation right now is the market. Big players cannot enter until the market becomes better defined. Is the market for the carbon credits or for the actual material? The demand is great for carbon credits, but they do not apply until the carbon is actually put into a sequestered endpoint (as opposed to being an offset for, say, steelmaking). Now, some biochar production is as a service to producers of excess biomass - a major source is sewage sludge (a plant in Linden, NJ converts 440 tons/day into 5 ton/day low carbon char suitable for fly ash replacement in concrete).
33:00 the market for biochar seems to be expanding rapidly. In another year or two, production should have increased significantly. The application of biochar in agriculture seems to be best where water is expensive. It really helps moisture retention. But it is still to expensive to apply to large-acreage crops like corn and soybean. In Peru, farmers have found that adding biochar around cacao trees immobilized cadmium and restored value to their crops. Similarly in China, biochar has restored use of contaminated soils. It has seen use in Colombian coffee operations, but still at small scale - however a small project can spread if it works economically for a farmer.
37:00 biochar is also being applied around abandoned oil wells for capping and for remediation of contamined soils around the wellheads. There are a LOT of abandoned oil wells.
39:00 The production process for biochar is as variable as the feedstocks. There can be syngas and/or pyrolysis oil production. Syngas is most commonly recirculated for heating value. pyrolysis oil can be recovered for fuel or more sophisticated processing. It could even go back down oil wells. It might serve for jet fuel?
For permanence of carbon fixing, biomass is evaluated by H:C ratio. For wood the H:C ratio is high, but it needs to be below 0.7 to have good permanence. The pyrolysis temperature has to be well above 200C, and the higher, the lower that ratio goes and the more long-lasting is the biochar.
42:00 biochar being investigated for replacing gypsum in drywall. It is being investigated as concrete additive. It might be useful to make roof tiles or cement block. In each case, there are structural strength consideration to make. It might be a good additive in asphalt - in Perth AU, 30 tons per kilometer of raod in cold-mix asphalt and up to 300 tons in the subgrade.
45:00 the biochar industry in China is a bit opaque, but they seem to be developing rapidly. Worldwide there is a lot of competition for patents and innovations in the field. Some seem to be overly broad and may suppress growth.