Biochar for the green-fingered amateur

Sensemaking / Biochar for the green-fingered amateur

An innovative soil replacement brings the carbon-negative, yield-boosting solution to consumers.

By Amy Kao / 23 Aug 2012

An innovative soil replacement brings the carbon-negative, yield-boosting solution to consumers.

Biochar, a charcoal made from biomass that is carbon negative and can double food production, may finally be easily usable for most home gardeners – providing a compelling alternative to peat.

Biochar is made by partially burning wood or other biomass; when mixed with soil it ‘locks in’ the carbon absorbed by the plant during its growth, effectively sequestering CO2.

Now re:char, a social enterprise based in Kenya and California, has created Black Revolution, a yield-boosting replacement for soil composed of biochar, coconut coir (husk) and compost. This mix could encourage the widespread adoption of biochar, says re:char’s founder, Jason Aramburu, because it can be used as a simple soil replacement.

There are already a number of biochar-based soil improvers on the market. But Aramburu claims that a full soil replacement product such as re:char can be more effective. “Consumers are used to just buying premixed and compost products that you spread on and are ready to go. Biochar isn’t like that. You have to get it into the rhizosphere, the place where the roots are. Unless you’re really an experienced gardener it’s going to be tough to use it right, so it’s not going to have the same effect.” The soil replacement, he says, “acts like a magnet for nutrients and water, keeping them right where plants need them”.

Chris Goodall, author of ‘Ten Technologies to Save the Planet’, believes biochar has real potential. “My own experiments have proved that you can use biochar to [produce] much better root growth in non-peat enriched soil”, he says.

The business is backed by investors via peer-to-peer funding site Kickstarter, and the first sales were made to them in April 2012. The company is asking users to record the height and yield of plants grown in the mix, to help provide data for further development. The current production facility is based in San Francisco, and the supplies of the coconut husk, compost and biochar come from producers in the local Bay Area and Mexico. “As new areas of demand develop, we’ll set up manufacturing hubs close by”, says Aramburu. “It’s possible that if we get a lot of demand, say, in New York, we end up developing a product that uses waste that’s more available there.” – Amy Kao

Photo: Engineering for Change / FoST biochar soil / Rob Goodier 

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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