Fire creates wonderstuff

Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke (right) with NSW Primary Industries Department environmental scientist Stephen Kimber at the Wollongbar Agriculture Institute to inspect the biochar made from organic waste.
Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke (right) with NSW Primary Industries Department environmental scientist Stephen Kimber at the Wollongbar Agriculture Institute to inspect the biochar made from organic waste. Jay Cronan

TONY WALKER doesn’t know how biochar turned his sickly avocado trees into super-performers and he doesn’t much care – that’s a question for science boffins.

What the local farmer, Richmond Landcare secretary-manager and biochar project co-ordinator does know is that when he put the product on to sick avocado trees as part of a trial through the Wollongbar Agricultural Institute, they outperformed his healthy trees.

Yesterday, with Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke in town to take a look at the biochar project, Mr Walker and other members of Richmond Landcare were out in force to spruik the benefits of the wonder-product, which works as a fertiliser, a way of disposing of organic waste, creating electricity and reducing carbon emissions.

Biochar can be created from any organic material – from food waste to paper to lawn clippings – and is created by ‘burning’ it in an oxygen-free chamber. Without the oxygen, there are no flames and no carbon dioxide is created. A gas that is produced during the process can be used to create power to run the chamber and feed into the electricity grid. It is also believed the soil biochar is put in produces less nitrous oxide – another powerful greenhouse gas.

The problem, Mr Burke later pointed out, was different types of biochar varied in their performance depending on the soils they were in and the crops that were on them, and scientists needed to work out what worked with what before use of the product became widespread.

“There is no doubt good work is being done here and you can see very easily the difference in productivity between,” Mr Burke said.

The other thing that had to be worked out was the volume of greenhouse gas biochar cut from the atmosphere.

For the farmers involved in the project, such as Mr Walker, the question was not whether or how biochar worked – it was how they could get more of the stuff.

Mr Walker said the Richmond Landcare group had been forced to import biochar from Indonesia and the Philippines because Australia did not produce enough.

The group is now trying to convince Ballina Shire Council to invest $12 million in a unit to create biochar from green waste collected by the council.

Mr Walker estimated the unit would pay for itself after about five years.

Ballina Shire Council general manager Paul Hickey confirmed the council was looking at turning organic waste into biochar, in consultation with Primary Industries, as part of a broader look at managing waste.

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