Helping the Soil: Biochar Keeps Plants Hydrated when Rain is Less than Plentiful

The Recorder, March 8th, 2016, by Scott Merzbach

HADLEY — Inside a greenhouse at Astarte Farm, garlic seedlings grow in small containers. Each are filled with compost supplemented with biochar, a material designed to maintain the moisture and nutrients of the soil. This improves the quality of the plants that will eventually be sold at the River Valley Co-op in Northampton.

“We’re pretty excited by the results we’ve seen from this,” said Dan Pratt, the Astarte farm manager at 123 West St., pointing to a five-gallon bucket filled with the deep brown, finely ground biochar.

“In a six-week period last year with no rain, two inches down (in the soil) we would see moisture. In untreated soil, we would have to go six to eight inches down” for moisture.

At the same time that other area farms were scrambling to find water, Astarte did not irrigate, said Annalise Clausen, the farm’s production manager. “Other farms were running out of water,” Clausen said.

The biochar used at Astarte comes from NextChar, an Amherst-based biotech startup, established in 2015. Its founders envision creating a high-end product, using patent-pending technology that will improve crops, while providing renewable heat energy and reducing carbon dioxide emissions associated with wood debris.

NextChar is an outgrowth of AC FOX, a Harvard-based company where a pilot processor, using pyrolysis, converts biomass directly into biochar, said chief technology officer Hugh McLaughlin, of Groton.

“The (pyrolysis) process is heating biomass, but heating it in such a manner that it turns into biochar, but not with enough oxygen so that it turns into ash,” McLaughlin said.

The biochar is now used primarily to supplement compost, helping to keep the moisture in soil and its nutrients from escaping.

McLaughlin said NextChar purchased all rights to AC FOX’s equipment and 14 years of development efforts, including the 2013 recipe used to make its biochar from biomass. The new company is focused on creating biochar in small batches and repeatedly testing the material to get the right consistency and absorbency.

Larger processor

NextChar is already moving forward with a processor five times the size, called the 5X processor, that will need 2,000 tons of dry biomass a year to make 500 tons of biochar. Now being built in central Massachusetts, NextChar hopes to locate this at the Five College Farm in North Hadley, the former Montgomery Rose on Route 47, later this year.

McLaughlin said the company has a $1 million budget to build and site both the 5X and a planned 6X processor, and anticipates needing to raise an additional $2.5 million from investors to become a self-sustaining operation.

Unlike a biomass plant, such as the one that helps to heat Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton that burns the material and leaves ash at the end, the NextChar processor roasts the woodsy material with little oxygen. That provides significant heat, while at the same time trapping the greenhouse gases as part of the biochar.

Keegan Pyle, vice president of communications and project development for NextChar, said the goal is significant reductions in the greenhouse gases that are released by biomass plants, the natural decay of wood or wood being mulched and chipped.

“When put through this process, it traps about 50 percent of the carbon dioxide,” Pyle said, adding that the biochar creates what she calls “a condominium of plant life.”

“We’re working with agriculture right now because that’s the environment most people are comfortable with,” Pyle said. “The idea is you spend less on compost and fertilizer over the years because the biochar holds nutrients in there.”

“What it does is creates all these layers, thousand of layers, by pyrolysis,” Pyle said. “That makes it super absorbent so when you put it in the soil it acts like a sponge.”

Varying quality

At Astarte Farm, owned by Jim Mead, Pratt said he previously has used other forms of biochar, ordering from three outlets and noticing a variation in the material. This varying quality may cause resistance from some farmers who have seen biochar retard the growth of plants.

From his view, the biochar produced by NextChar has a nice granular composition, slightly moist and is non-dusty. “It’s something comfortable to handle,” Pratt said.

Inside an unheated high-hoop greenhouse, rows of plants are growing that have not been irrigated since November, which Pratt attributes, in part, to the use of biochar.

The various plants are growing in soil that is a mix of 10 percent biochar and 90 percent compost, improving the yields of lettuce and garlic, Pratt said.

The farm also has applied about 3 cubic yards of biochar to asparagus, seeing how it migrates into the soil and increases the amount of earthworms and ground beetles. “It will absolutely load up the soil with microscopic, beneficial activity,” Pratt said.

Biochar may also mean reducing the tilling of soils, which releases carbon dioxide when soil is exposed.

“We’re experimenting with this as a no-till amendment,” Pratt said, adding he sees biochar as a “miracle ingredient.” He said, “I’m jacked about the product.”

Pyle said she is talking to local dairy farms about odor controls using biochar in “manure lagoon” treatments, and this month expects to meet with the Northampton Energy and Sustainability Commission showing members how the process can cut carbon dioxide emissions from biomass waste in half, while also providing heat to a city building.

Because it absorbs toxins and heavy metals, biochar is also ideal for preventing phosphorus and nitrogen runoff, such as in Vermont for farms near Lake Champlain. “We’re very confident it can keep nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil,” Pyle said.

In Europe and Japan, some farms have mixed a portion of biochar into feed for cattle, reducing the methane gas they produce which escapes into the atmosphere.

Biochar can also be used in making plastic to help it break down more easily.

“We can imagine all these different applications for biochar,” Pyle said.

Pyle said there is no danger that NextChar will run out of wood waste.

”What we use is mostly woody biomass,” Pyle said, adding that the company can also accept waste from farms. “It’s suitable so long as there is waste, and I don’t think there’s a shortage of woodsy biomass waste in New England.”