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Biochar: A synthesis of its agronomic impact beyond carbon sequestration

Spokas, Kurt A., Cantrell, Keri B., Novak, Jeffrey M., Archer, David W., Ippolito, James A., Collins, Harold P., Boateng, Akwasi A., Lima, Isabel M., Lamb, Marshall C., McAloon, Andrew J., Lentz, Rodrick D., Nichols, Kristine A.
Journal of Environmental Quality 2012 v.41 no.4 pp. 973
biochar, carbon, carbon markets, carbon sequestration, crop yield, hardwood, kilns, pyrolysis, soil amendments, soil quality
Biochar has been recently heralded as an amendment to revitalize degraded soils, improve soil carbon sequestration, increase agronomic productivity and enter into future carbon trading markets. However, scientific and economic technicalities may limit the ability of biochar to consistently deliver on these expectations. Past research has demonstrated that biochar is part of the black carbon continuum with variable properties, due to the net result of production (e.g., feedstock and pyrolysis conditions) and post-production factors (storage or activation). Therefore, biochar is not a single entity, but rather spans a wide range of black carbon forms. Biochar is black carbon, but not all black carbon is biochar. Agronomic benefits arising from biochar additions to degraded soils have been emphasized, but negligible and negative agronomic effects have also been reported. Fifty percent of the reviewed studies reported yield increases following black carbon or biochar additions, with the remainder of the studies reporting alarming decreases to no significant differences. Hardwood biochar (black carbon) produced by traditional methods (kilns or soil pits) possessed the most consistent yield increases when added to soils. The universality of this conclusion requires further evaluation due to the highly skewed feedstock preferences within existing studies. With global population expanding while the amount of arable land remains limited, restoring soil quality to nonproductive soils could be a vital key to meeting future global food production, food security and energy supplies; biochar may play a role in this endeavor. Biochar economics are often marginally viable and are tightly tied to the assumed duration of agronomic benefits. Further research is needed to determine the specific conditions under which biochar can provide real economic and agronomic benefits and to elucidate the fundamental mechanisms responsible for these benefits.