IBI Convenes Biochar Characterization Standard Working Group

The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) has convened two working groups to develop a draft characterization standard for biochar. I’ve been fortunate to participate in the North America/South America/Africa working group among some of the brightest minds in biochar, from both industry and academia:

  • Jim Amonette, United States
  • Jason Aramburu, United States
  • Louis de Lange, South Africa
  • Mariam Ekebafe, Nigeria
  • Jesus Garcia, Columbia
  • Johannes Lehmann, United States
  • Kim Magrini, United States
  • Hugh McLaughlin, Canada
  • Rene Pigeon, Canada
  • Joseph Pignatello, United States
  • Rogerio Traballi, Brazil
  • Sunguo Wang, Canada

The goal of this working group is to determine definitively “what is biochar?” For years, many have wondered how biochar differs from traditional charcoal. The answer is highly technical. In addition, there are myriad ways to produce biochar, all resulting in different properties and effects in soil. With a firm, thoughtful standard in place, biochar producers and end-users will have definitive guidelines on how to produce and/or purchase the highest quality char for a desired effect. We greatly support the work of IBI, the working group, and Leading Carbon (the working group facilitators). We expect to have a draft of the standard for public review by the summer. In the meantime, I will outline below why we think a characterization standard is important, and how individual stakeholders will benefit:

  • Producers: With a definitive standard in place, biochar producers can design and tune pyrolysis systems to achieve a desired outcome. It is challenging and costly for biochar producers to engineer pyrolysis systems, while simultaneously conducting advanced  research on biochar properties in soil. With the standards in place, engineering companies can focus on their bread and butter: designing and deploying systems that produce high-quality biochar.
  • Consumers: Currently, there is no way for consumers to independently verify the quality of a biochar without conducting their own field trials. This barrier has prevented the growth of a consumer biochar industry. The forthcoming standard will read like a ‘nutrition facts’ for commercial biochar, allowing buyers to make informed decisions.
  • Practitioners: Smaller biochar producers and practitioners who seek to make their own biochar for on-farm use may benefit the most from the characterization standard. These smaller practitioners (many of whom are in developing countries) lack the resources and funds to test and evaluate various biochars and production methodologies. For the smaller practitioners, the risks of failure are high. The characterization standard will ensure they can create biochars that are effective and achieve their desired effects without breaking the bank.
  • Investors/VCs: We have connected with numerous investors and VCs who are interested in the growing biochar industry, but see the space as overly fragmented. The characterization standard will improve investor confidence in biochar, help to build a global marketplace and ultimately lead to capital flows to cover R&D and deployment.

We are excited to be part of this process and will provide periodic updates.

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2 Responses to IBI Convenes Biochar Characterization Standard Working Group

  1. Lloyd Helferty January 21, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    Fantastic! Great efforts and wonderful interpretation of the needs. Congratulations for joining the team!
    I am glad to see Rene Pigeon and Sunguo Wang are both on the list, in addition to they guys that have been around for a long time like Johannes Lehmann (an obvious choice), Jim Amonette and Hugh McLaughlin (although I find it curious that Hugh is listed as being from "Canada"…
    Although Hugh works for a Canadian company he is firmly American and lives in Massachusetts).

  2. paleorthid11 February 3, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Truly important work.

    As I have shared with Jim, Johannes, and Hugh, I would like to see acid neutralizing potential or ANP (usu in units of calcium carbonate equiv or CCE) be at least considered as a labeling requirement. Other aspects are more critical, I just want to make sure this doesn't drop off the working group's radar. Even a coarse rating of low-med-high ANP rating would be very useful. It's usu low in biochar, <2% CCE. OTOH, some biochar stock esp if elevated ash could have substantial ANP of >20% and as a consequence could alter forested soil ecology in unintended ways. Out here in the inland Western US and Canada, our soils are less acidic than in the East, thus the same ANP application basis that will have no discernible effect on soil pH in the East, could move our soils from pH 7 to 8. That concern is what keeps my local utility's mill-waste-to-energy ash from getting applied in our forests here, whereas ash application is accepted practice in the Eastern states. -Philip Small, Spokane, Washington State, USA