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Innovating biochar as a value-added crop input for emerging opportunities?

Deepesh Bista, Parama Sikdar, Ph.D., Joshua Haslun, Ph.D., and Arnold Bos
December 22, 2021

Demand is increasing for agriculture inputs tied to sustainability, or the concept of regenerative agriculture driven by global initiatives for industry decarbonization (e.g., carbon sequestration or greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions reduction) and reducing environmental impact.

Biochar is a carbon-rich soil amendment obtained by anaerobic pyrolysis of organic feedstock like plant residue (e.g., wood). It not only provides a direct and slow-to-decompose carbon source to build topsoil but also can reduce non-CO2 GHG emissions by as much as 50%, increase yield, and improve soil phosphorus availability. The sticking point is that biochar has many hurdles to overcome for scaled use. In lieu of upcoming promises stemming from COP26, following the broad interest in feedstocks for circular-economy opportunities, especially in agriculture, and the tremendous interest in decarbonization across industries, Lux is revisiting the potential of biochar to understand whether technology opportunities are emerging to overcome its hurdles and create a novel path toward expanded commercialization.

The state of biochar as a soil amendment

The current implementation of biochar in agriculture is limited to potting soil mix applied domestically, in the greenhouse, and for high-value crops in the United States and Europe. In the United States, the momentum for biochar application is limited to the West Coast, where feedstock is ample. This reflects a common trend globally. According to the International Biochar Initiative, more than 150 companies sell biochar worldwide, of which 90% focus on small specialty retail markets like nursery and garden centers, and 10% focus on larger markets like agricultural land-remediation projects. Commercial-scale production requires a large and consistent supply of feedstock and relatively sophisticated pyrolysis techniques, which makes the cost to produce and sell biochar much higher than its potential ROI.

Technology enablement of biochar

Although pyrolysis techniques are showing limited innovation, there is recent momentum toward creating value-added biochar. The term “value-added” is becoming commonplace in academic research around biochar's application in agriculture (Figure 1). Despite the high production and scalability challenges, value-added biochar is gaining some early traction in both private and public sectors because of potential reduced carbon footprint and lower input levels. Value-added biochar is still produced from plant feedstock, but the biochar is then amended with soil microbes capable of biostimulation or improving nutrient-use efficiency by the crop or nutrient availability in the soil. Another amendment is with macro-and micronutrients, often from an organic source. This strategy is most prominent among players emerging in the last five years. Lux recently investigated the value-added biochar space to determine how quickly this emerging opportunity is evolving.

Graph showing number of research articles for value-added biochar in agriculture applications from 1998 to 2021

Figure 1: Research articles for value-added biochar in agriculture applications

The research showed that a small list of players is developing commercialization of value-added biochar. Lux reviewed seven of them and identified two innovation strategies:

  1. Integration of additional inputs directly into biochar – Companies including bio365 have products with organic fertilizers, microbes, and media along with biochar that help in the efficient delivery of nutrients and water.

  1. Coapplication of biochar with crop nutrition alternatives – Companies including Smart Microbes develop products that may be coapplied with biochar assets.

Table showing product description, product name, feedstock source, and product claims for seven companies in the biochar sector.

In the above table, SymsoilCharGrow, and bio365 integrate additional inputs like microbes, fungal foods, humic acids, organic compost, organic worm castings, and mineral powders with biochar for better water and nutrient absorption by plants. This also helps in the slow release of fertilizers that could improve microbial activity in the soil. On the other hand, Smart MicrobesPacific Biochar, and Mirimichi Green have products that activate the biochar, which helps enhance its full potential as a soil amendment.

Cost and feedstock availability continue to challenge conventional agriculture's use of biochar, but its application as a value-added input deserves exploration. Most of the value-added biochar products are amended with soil microbes and organic fertilizers and applied directly to the soil, but companies can't yet provide clear and reliable application recommendations or potential ROI.

Key takeaways

Value-added biochar options are commercially available but are at an early stage of development. Monitor players like those listed above and look to strengthen these technology offerings. While exploring the opportunity, keep the following three criteria in mind:

  1. Has the player clearly outlined an application strategy and potential outcomes?

  2. Does it have a supply for large-scale opportunities?

  3. Does the product overcome the cost hurdle for biochar?

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