What is biochar?

Biochar is “organic matter that is carbonised by heating in an oxygen-limited environment, and used as a soil amendment.” (Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

In more technical terms, biochar is produced by thermal decomposition of organic material (biomass such as wood, manure or leaves) under limited supply of oxygen (O2), and at relatively low temperatures (<700°C). This process mirrors the production of charcoal, which is perhaps the most ancient industrial technology developed by humankind. Biochar can be distinguished from charcoal—used mainly as a fuel—in that a primary application is use as a soil amendment with the intention to improve soil functions and to reduce emissions from biomass that would otherwise naturally degrade to greenhouse gases. (Source: biochar-international.org/faqs/)

A photo of biochar, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

What can biochar do?

Sustainable biochar is a powerfully simple tool that can 1) fight global warming; 2) produce a soil enhancer that holds carbon and makes soil more fertile; 3) reduce agricultural waste; and 4) produce clean, renewable energy. In some biochar systems all four objectives can be met, while in others a combination of two or more objectives will be obtained. (Source: https://biochar-international.org/faqs/)

How can biochar mitigate climate change?

Large amounts of forestry and agricultural residues and other biomass are currently burned or left to decompose thereby releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and/or methane (CH4)—two main greenhouse gases (GHGs)—into the atmosphere. Under biochar conversion scenarios, easily mineralized carbon compounds in biomass are converted into fused carbon ring structures in biochar and placed in soils where they persist for hundreds or thousands of years. When deployed on a global scale through the conversion of gigatonnes of biomass into biochar, studies have shown that biochar has the potential to mitigate global climate change by drawing down atmospheric GHG concentrations (Woolf et al, 2010). (Source: https://biochar-international.org/faqs/)

How much carbon can biochar potentially remove from the atmosphere?

According to one prominent study (Woolf et al, 2010), sustainable biochar implementation could offset a maximum of 12% of anthropogenic GHG emissions on an annual basis. Over the course of 100 years, this amounts to a total of roughly 130 petagrams (106 metric tons) of CO2-equivalents. The study assessed the maximum sustainable technical potential utilizing globally available biomass from agriculture and forestry. The study assumed no land clearance or conversion from food to biomass-crops (though some dedicated biomass-crop production on degraded, abandoned agricultural soils was included), no utilization of industrially treated waste biomass, and biomass extraction rates that would not result in soil erosion. (Source: https://biochar-international.org/faqs/)

Industrial Hemp production

There has been a recent surge of interest in hemp production globally. Industrial hemp can be legally grown in Ireland under licence from the Department of Health for a range of uses, including fibre, food and feed. The varieties of hemp permitted are listed in the EU’s ‘Common Catalogue of Varieties of Agricultural Plant Species’. Industrial hemp is pretty much the same as cannabis, but without the narcotic effects of the active ingredient — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). (Source: https://www.teagasc.ie/rural-economy/rural-development/diversification/industrial-hemp-production/)

Where can hemp be grown? And does it grow well in Ireland?

Hemp favours a deep humus soil but has been grown successfully on a wide range of soil types. Despite the mystery of hemp, it is like a regular crop. It is very traditional in terms of how you sow it, similar to drilling a brassica like kale. And it grows surprisingly well in an Irish maritime climate. It is called weed because it grows like one — very quickly and easily. Soil preparation for hemp is similar to other spring crops, such as spring barley. Hemp is seeded in the spring on well-prepared soils. Hemp seeds require a firm seedbed and good soil contact to germinate well. (https://www.teagasc.ie/rural-economy/rural-development/diversification/industrial-hemp-production/)

What can hemp be used for?

Hemp is, by far, one of the most versatile plants. Its uses include, but are not limited to:

Hemp fibre: Once extracted and processed, hemp fibres are mainly exported to Europe for use in the manufacture of car parts, textiles and construction materials. Major car manufacturers  are already using hemp biocomposites for car components, such as linings and parcel shelves. Other uses for the fibre include insulation and horticultural matting. The remainder of the plant, consisting of the hurd pith or the core, can be used for horse or poultry bedding, while the Hemcrete is used for house exteriors and lime blocks. (Source: https://www.teagasc.ie/rural-economy/rural-development/diversification/industrial-hemp-production/)

Hemp oil uses: Hemp oil has both industrial uses and applications in the health supplement and personal care markets. It contains many essential fatty acids thought to be of benefit to human nutrition. Hemp oil has similar industrial uses to that of linseed oil in paints and varnishes, and may also be used in printing inks and solvents. (Source: https://www.teagasc.ie/rural-economy/rural-development/diversification/industrial-hemp-production/)

A white and grey logo for The Hemp Cooperative Ireland, established in 2018.

Carboneire is proud to partner with Hemp Cooperative Ireland, a registered Cooperative with the aim of creating an infrastructure for farmers and local businesses to develop the hemp industry in Ireland. The Cooperative supports hemp farmers with access to resources, equipment, and markets through a national body and local hubs. Learn more about Hemp Cooperative Ireland.