What is Biochar?

Biochar is a solid, carbon-rich material produced via the high-temperature, low-oxygen processing of wood scraps, manures, poultry litter, and other low-value biomass feedstocks. While closely rated to charcoal and activated carbon, the term ‘biochar’ is reserved for material intentionally produced for use as a soil amendment for agriculture or environmental remediation. It has demonstrated value for increasing soil carbon content; modulating soil hydraulic properties, pH, and cation exchange capacity; reducing nutrient losses through runoff and nitrous oxide emissions; and sorbing a wide variety of environmental contaminants. Biochar chemical and physical properties vary widely depending upon its source material and processing, however, and thus there are large R&D efforts within academia and industry to engineer better-performing and more sustainable chars.

Bioenergy in the West

The dry western US has a number of options for producing biomass feedstocks for bioenergy production, including the collection of residues from irrigated crop production and forestry operations. More developmental feedstock options include non-irrigated cultivation of switchgrass and other native prairie species, incorporation of oilseeds and biomass sorghum into crop rotations, and biomass production from vegetation management on public and private lands. In particular, the forests of the Rockies and Sierras have endured widespread mortality due to drought, insect infestation, and wildfire since the turn of the century, and there is large demand for fuels reduction and restoration treatments. Bioenergy can play an important role at the nexus of wildfire and water management, offseting land management costs and displacing fossil fuels.

US Biochar Initiative (USBI)

The US Biochar Initiative (USBI) is a not-for-profit 501c3 organization focused on “Building the Future from the Ground Up” and promoting the sustainable production and use of biochar through research, policy, technology and doing it! USBI is co-sponsoring the Biochar & Bioenergy 2019 meeting, their 7th national-scale conference. USBI grew out of the Rocky Mountain Biochar Initiative after the 2009 North American Biochar Conference 2009 hosted at the University of Colorado in Boulder. More recent USBI-sponsored conferences were held in 2010 (Ames, Iowa), 2012 (Sonoma, California), 2013 (Amherst, Massachusetts), 2016 (Corvallis, Oregon), and 2018 (Wilmington, Delaware).

Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies (BANR)

The Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies (BANR) is as USDA/NIFA-funded research consortium exploring the use of beetle-killed trees and other forest biomass as a bioenergy feedstock, and providing rigorous scientific underpinnings to support a sustainable regional renewable energy industry. BANR is led by Colorado State University, in partnership with the University of Wyoming, University of Idaho, University of Montana, Montana State University, Oregon State University, and the US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. Local industry partners Cool Planet Energy Systems and Confluence Energy provide expertise on biomass thermochemical conversion and biochar production. BANR research activities include remote sensing of biomass availability, harvest logistics and preprocessing, sustainability assessment, education, extension, health & safety.

Colorado State University (CSU)

Colorado State University is Colorado's land-grant university and a top tier research institution, with annual research expenditures of $300 million. CSU ranks first in the country among public institutions for per-faculty federal research funding. Additionally, CSU earned the first ever Platinum STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System) rating for its sustainability efforts. A large number of CSU scientists and engineers work on biochar & bioenergy research, in particular through:

International Biochar Initiative (IBI)

The International Biochar Initiative provides a platform for fostering stakeholder collaboration, good industry practices, and environmental and ethical standards to support biochar systems that are safe and economically viable. IBI was formed in 2006 by representatives from academic institutions, commercial ventures, investment bankers, non-governmental organizations, federal agency representatives, and the policy arena from around the world acknowledged a common interest in promoting the research, development, demonstration, and early commercial deployment (RDD&D) of this promising technology. IBI has hosted international biochar conferences in 2007 (New South Wales, Australia), 2008 (Newcastle, United Kingdom), and 2010 (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).