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  • Kendall Plein

Scaling up Biochar: A Revived Prospect for Carbon Sequestration and Soil Regeneration

Airex Energy and SUEZ Group have announced plans to industrialize biochar production.

Hands holding biochar. Credit: Shutterstock/Sydney Schaaf

SUEZ will use the CarbonFX™ technology created by Airex Energy to produce biochar on an industrial scale, as reported by Bioenergy Insight. The two companies claim that the industrialization of biochar will help achieve the goals of carbon neutrality while providing benefits to agricultural soils.

Biochar is a type of black carbon, a product of burning biomass feedstock (like wood chips, sawdust, or bark). In creating biochar, the carbon in the feedstock becomes a more stable form of carbon. By burying biochar in the soil, carbon is sequestered for longer periods. Biochar also has the potential to improve soil health and plant growth. The economic potential of biochar is tied to its ability to increase crop yields.

Biochar as a soil supplement is thought to have been used by indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin. It was a tool they used to turn unfertile, red clay soil into dark and highly fertile soil. Research shows biochar can increase soil carbon, plant productivity, and soil nutrients, but in other cases, it can negatively impact plant growth.

Biochar is not a specific chemical entity - it varies depending on the feedstock, creation process, cooling, and storage. Different types of biochar have different effects on soil health. Thus, biochar is not a fool-proof solution to depleted soils: it must be applied with considerations on soil type.

Biochar’s carbon sequestration potential also varies on the feedstock used. If plants are grown specifically to become biochar, the process has higher carbon sequestration potential. If waste products are used, the carbon sequestration benefit is lower, according to information from American University. SUEZ and Airex Energy plan to use waste wood from the lumber industry and forest residues left by natural disasters. SUEZ and Airex also plan to sell carbon credits to customers.

SUEZ Group Business Unit Smart & Environmental Solutions Senior Executive Vice President Diane Galbe told Bioenergy Insight that biochar’s ability to fertilize soil “makes it one of the most popular CO2 sequestration solutions on the market.”

Research shows differing carbon sequestration potential based on purpose-grown biomass versus waste biomass. SUEZ Group and Airex Energy plan on using mostly waste biomass, thus potentially limiting the carbon sequestration potential. However, using waste biomass could make the venture more economically viable. Since biochar’s benefits vary based on feedstock, the SUEZ’s biochar may have varying benefits to soil productivity.

The two companies are planning to use the CarbonFX™technology on a global scale, with the intent of producing “hundreds of thousands of biochar” in the coming years. It is unclear how much biochar can be produced and its net carbon sequestration potential.

Biochar is a technology that has varying benefits, depending on a variety of factors. It has the potential to revitalize soils, given the application techniques and the feedstock biomass. Industrial biochar can be sold as a fertilizer, but it may not have consistent effects across different regions and climates. SUEZ and Airex Energy’s plan to industrialize biochar may be a beneficial tool for soil fertilization, with additional carbon sequestration potential. However, the overall benefit from the biochar product is yet to be quantified.


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