Scientists on cutting edge

Research scientist Lukas van Zwieten at the Wollongbar Department of Primary Industries with crops in the background that have been improved by the use of biochar, compared with those in the foreground that have not.
Research scientist Lukas van Zwieten at the Wollongbar Department of Primary Industries with crops in the background that have been improved by the use of biochar, compared with those in the foreground that have not. CATHY ADAMS

BIOCHAR is set to make a significant contribution to food security throughout the world and Wollongbar Industry and Investment scientists are at the cutting edge of research and trials.

This month Dr Lukas van Zwieten travelled to Seattle to participate in a ‘convening’ on the potential of biochar’s role in helping to create food security.

The event was hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr van Zwieten said thepotential of biochar would be ‘very significant’.

“But it has to be done in a clever way,” he said.

“It has to be backed up by good science.”

Biochar is a charcoal created by pyrolysis, an incineration that decomposes organic materials by heat with limited oxygen.

Biochar can be used to amend degraded soils.

“In some cases biochar can increase yield,” Dr van Zwieten said.

“We know it can improve soil quality.”

It can also help withnutrients that leach in sandy soils.

“It has potential because there are degraded soils across the globe,” Dr van Zwieten said.

Biochar may also be able to increase the water holding capacity of soil which would allow crops to achieve their full potential, Dr van Zwieten said.

It is also of interest to scientists because biochar stores carbon for periods of from 100 to several thousand years.

For this reason it may be a valuable tool in fighting carbon pollution.

It also has the potential to be used as a fuel. Burning it creates syngas which can be used as a fuel.

Dr van Zwieten is part of a team of five scientists who have been conducting trials on biochar since 2004.

However, biochar has been around a lot longer than that. Two thousand years ago Amazonians used charcoal from their kilns in agriculture.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spends $1.2 billion annually to develop technology aimed at helping ensure food security.

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