Biochar Research and Winter Visitors

We don't do any formal experimentation here at SCSA.  Our research is limited to reading about what others have formally investigated, and a little of our own seat-of-the-pants trial and error.  We opted out of formal experimentation when we left the academic scene many decades ago.  Nevertheless, we are interested in what's going on, in agriculture, sustainability, biochar, etc.  And we have occasional visitors here and others who've communicated with us, who are involved in experimentation, both formally and informally.  Here's an update on some of our interaction this winter. Dr. Jeff Licht is a professor at UMass Boston who is in the forefront of formal biochar research.  We helped him produce biochar from cardboard for research he has been doing.  Recently, he sent me part of a report (which is still in review) on some of that research.  Using cardboard as feedstock for making biochar seems like an excellent possibility to us.  Used cardboard is ubiquitous and free for the taking.

Todd Anderson is a postdoctoral researcher at Mount Holyoke College, doing research under the umbrella of the Restoration Ecology Program.  One of the projects he is looking to get underway involves biochar.  Broadly, he is interested in potential benefits of using biochar amendments as part of wetland restoration methodology.  He contacted us a possible source for biochar for his experimentation.

Todd writes:  "It is an area that is more-or-less untouched (at least in the literature), has been suggested here and there, but no one has really done anything in these ecosystems.  And in our view, these are prime areas to target for biochar application.  Most wetland restoration projects are occurring on former agricultural lands (which were previously wetlands, but drained and/or converted to ag use), and as such, contain legacy nutrient and pesticides.  As you know, biochar may be effective at immobilizing some of these pesticides and nutrients, as well as increasing soil fertility and reducing certain greenhouse gas emissions.

"So . . . add it all up, and we want to start testing biochars in restored wetland soils.  I've built a large batch of flow-through mesocosms (essentially PVC soil columns) that will allow us to replicate wetland soils and investigate the effect of biochar amendments on nutrient and contaminant leaching, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil development.  The idea being we can test a variety of biochars (differing in feedstock, temp of pyrolysis, quality) and application rates in the lab here.  While we envision this as an iterative process, developing new hypotheses along the way, our early results will inform a complimentary field study that we hope to have in place sometime this spring/summer (depending restoration activities).  Briefly, our lab group is involved in the largest wetland restoration project to date in Massachusetts, a coastal cranberry bog that is expected to be the gold standard for all future cranberry bog restorations in the state.  The owners of the farm have partnered with a huge number of organizations/entities to make this happen, including Mass Department of Ecological Restoration, Mass Audubon, MIT, UMass, and others. And they are giving us free reign to set up experimental plots (!) out at the farm."  Here is his formal research proposal.

Kyle Feldman is a student working at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.  He came up to obtain some biochar for a experimental project he is working on there.

Kevin Maher came over from upstate New York to check out our operation and obtain some biochar for his tree nursery.  After a tour and stimulating sharing of ideas, he graciously left us some black locust seeds that he brought.  He said that Dave Jacke told him that black locust is one of the best trees for coppicing.  That's good news to us, because our own coppicing program hasn't been progressing very well. We hope that Dave's pending book is progressing well.  He is an excellent author as well as speaker.

Archie McIntyre is Executive Director of Wright-Locke Farm in Winchester, MA.  Archie was referred to us by long-time good friend Ruth Trimarchi, a volunteer at the farm.  Besides getting some biochar for an informal experiment at the farm, he was interested in seeing our retort setup, to see if a retort might work for them at their farm.  Wright-Locke Farm is well established and has missions and values that resonate with us.  We hope one day to follow their example.

---Steve