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Bioeconomy e-conference examines biochar’s potential

Bioeconomy e-conference

Biochar’s potential to help reduce global climate change inspired 150 people to gather at Iowa State and nearly 600 people throughout the Midwest to join virtually for a bioeconomy e-conference in early December. Biochar is charcoal created by the chemical decomposition of biomass, and scientists say this biofuel byproduct has possibilities for sequestering carbon and improving soil fertility.

Iowa State, ISU Extension and 11 other Midwest universities hosted the virtual conference that took a closer look at this bioeconomic option that can help agriculture clean the planet.

The key is to bury the biochar in soil. Johannes Lehmann, an associate professor of soil fertility management and soil biogeochemistry at Cornell University, said biochar is more efficient than other forms of carbon for improving soil fertility.

“Not all biochar is created equal,” he told the conference participants. It can be created from different feedstocks. He stressed the need to tailor biochar to the soil, similar to the way manure application is tailored to the soil.

Using biochar to improve soil fertility could reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint, said Robert Brown, director of the ISU Bioeconomy Institute. With increased soil fertility, agricultural land use could become more efficient and fewer acres would be needed for agricultural production.

Biochar is the way forward, Lehmann said, based on sound science. A systems perspective is required because there are tradeoffs and opportunities, and research and development are needed alongside implementation.

David Chicoine, president of South Dakota State University, one of the conference co-sponsors, noted there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for advancing the bioeconomy. No state, region or sector can innovate and advance the industry alone. Collaboration is required for “pushing the envelope” on biosciences to improve energy security, environmental stewardship and sustainability, and economic prosperity.

Jack Payne, vice president of ISU Extension and Outreach, noted that the bioeconomy may be the nation’s best chance for achieving these key goals. Biofuels can help enhance national security by reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil. The bioeconomy offers opportunities for increased markets for agricultural crops with the benefits of reducing the need for crop support programs and improving environmental quality. In addition, the bioeconomy allows for advances in rural development, creating economic opportunities where the biofuel resource is located.

Some of the conference presentations are available online.

This article appeared in January 2010 -- From Jack Payne Newsletter