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Physical feasibility of biochar production and utilization at a farm-scale: A case-study in non-irrigated seed production

Phillips, Claire L., Trippe, Kristin, Reardon, Catherine, Mellbye, Brett, Griffith, Stephen M., Banowetz, Gary M., Gady, David
Biomass and bioenergy 2018 v.108 pp. 244-251
agricultural soils, agricultural wastes, biochar, calcium hydroxide, cleaning, commercial farms, electric power, energy, feedstocks, field experimentation, gasification, grass seed, liming, profitability, soil amendments, straw, uncertainty, Washington (state)
Despite many demonstrated benefits that biochars can have on agricultural soils, there are few examples of profitable biochar utilization on commercial farms. Barriers to profitability include successfully pairing waste streams, production facilities, and farms where biochar is utilized. However, farm-scale biochar systems, which utilize agricultural wastes as feedstocks and produce energy and biochar for on-farm use, may have efficiency advantages over regional, industrial biochar production. Two critical uncertainties for the feasibility of on-farm production are 1) whether a biochar can be produced from on-farm feedstocks with appropriate qualities for soil amendment, and 2) whether on-farm feedstocks are sufficiently abundant to meet on-farm demand. Here we evaluate these issues for a farm-scale gasification system in NE Washington State that produces biochar from grass seed screenings and straw. Field trials to evaluate the biochar as a liming alternative found it was highly effective when broadcast at a rate of at least 18 Mg ha−1. Biochar outperformed hydrated lime in the first year of the study and improved yields by a factor of 2.88 across both years. Biochar produced from on-farm feedstocks were sufficient to amend 6.3–11.8% of the production area annually, translating to a return interval of 9–16 years. Potential co-production of electrical power far exceeded on-farm demand for operating a seed cleaning mill. We conclude that an on-farm biochar production system is physically feasible for meeting demands for both power and liming amendments.