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a pile of biochar on a forest floor in Oregon
Biochar permanently sequesters carbon and returns nutrients to the soil to bolster soil microbial activity. Credit: Tracy Robillard, NRCS Oregon

Globally, biochar has been used for years as a soil amendment, but research on its properties and potential benefits have recently gained the attention of foresters and agricultural producers. Biochar is a stable solid, rich in carbon that is made from organic waste material or biomass that is partially combusted in the presence of limited oxygen. The qualities that make up biochar vary depending upon the material that it comes from (feedstocks; i.e., timber slash, corn stalks, manure, etc.) and the temperature at which combustion occurs. The various materials and methods to produce biochar result in a wide variety of chemical and physical properties across biochar products. To understand the properties of biochar, a user should know 1) what it was made from (i.e. the feedstock), and 2) the temperature at which it was made (i.e. 300-700C).

A common attribute among all types of biochar is the primary ingredient: a recalcitrant carbon that can persist in soils for years or decades, and even millennia. Biochar can be used as a soil amendment by itself, or it can be blended with other soil amendments to address a wide range of environmental, agricultural, and forestry challenges. Research underway by the USDA Forest Service, USDA Agricultural Research Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others will provide insight into how effective biochar is at binding with heavy metals and chemicals from agricultural and road runoff for the purpose of environmental remediation. Applications of biochar include improving soil health, raising soil pH, remediating polluted soils, sequestering carbon, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and improving soil moisture. Know your soil amendment goal(s), to determine which biochars are best to achieve your goals.

The Pacific Northwest Biochar Atlas is an online platform that helps users choose a biochar to suit soil health goals. In addition, the Atlas provides details about the benefits of biochar, case studies of over half a dozen example operations implementing biochar across the region, and a map of biochar producers to simplify access for interested users. These and other features of the Atlas help to improve information exchange, continuing education, and biochar accessibility for the Northwest.

Research forester Dr. Nate Anderson explains the process of creating and distributing biochar on a landscape. Credit: U.S. Forest Service.

Additional biochar resources:

  • US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Center's biochar page
  • Case studies of farms and ranchers using biochar across the Northwest
  • An Oregon Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant success story that is improving soils and economic opportunity. This success is also conveyed as a story map, Innovations in Biochar, detailing how land owners and agencies are working together to turning woody debris into economic and environmental opportunity in southern Oregon. 
  • Waste to Wisdom is a Department of Energy funded program that publishes reports, webinars, and general information about innovative biomass energy production in the United States.

    • A screenshot of the factsheet

      A Northwest Climate Hub factsheet explains that creating biochar from wood usually burned in slash piles provides multiple benefits such as soil remediation and reducing wildfire risk.