West Virginia farmer Josh Frye raises chickens for a meat processor and sells most of their manure to nearby crop growers for use as fertilizer. But what he does with the rest of the manure could help tackle two big environmental problems: cutting back nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and reducing carbon emissions that accelerate global warming.
A bus-size contraption next to Frye’s three chicken houses bakes mounds of chicken litter — the mixture of manure, feathers and bedding materials that cover the houses’ floors — at temperatures up to 1,300 degrees. The result is biochar, a black powdery substance that Frye said can serve many purposes, from improving soil health to sponging up nutrients from stormwater runoff.
“Why can’t you take a pollutant out of the Chesapeake watershed and use it for a benefit?” asked Frye, whose farm is perched just inside the western edge of the Bay’s drainage area, near Wardensville, WV, and the Cacapon River.
A NASA scientist has dubbed biochar an “environmental superstar.” Al Gore has called the carbon-rich substance “one of the most exciting new strategies” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
What’s more, making biochar can be lucrative, bringing in up to $2,000 per ton rather than the $10 per ton they get for raw poultry litter, Frye said.
So why is Frye one of the relatively few poultry farmers making and selling biochar in the Chesapeake’s 64,000-square-mile watershed — or elsewhere, for that matter? The answer, biochar companies say, boils down to a lack of industry standards and the stubborn persistence of a marketplace that is either unaware of biochar’s potential benefits or skeptical of them.
“Everything eventually ends up having its own operational value — what they’re willing to pay for a material,” said Tom Miles, an Oregon-based biomass energy consultant and board member with the International Biochar Initiative, which promotes the technology. “That just hasn’t happened yet for biochar.”
Something old, something new
Biochar is rooted in a natural process; it can be produced in a forest fire. But the earliest known human-made biochar dates back hundreds of years to Amazon Indians, said Johannes Lehmann, a soil scientist at Cornell University.
When he and other researchers released their findings about the “black soil” in the early 2000s, it kindled a wildfire of scientific and entrepreneurial interest in the substance. What often gets lost in the telling of that moment, Lehmann said, is that no one could say for sure whether the Indians had produced the biochar intentionally or were just burning debris.
“To say we’re rediscovering an ancient wisdom from the Amazon is a nice story, but I’m not sure we will ever be able to say that conclusively 100 percent,” he said.
Today, more than 100 U.S. companies produce biochar, according to International Biochar Initiative surveys. About 45,000 tons are made each year, and almost all of it is derived from wood waste, Miles said. Sawmills in the South cook sawdust in large gasifiers to produce biochar and methane, which they use to heat the kilns that dry their lumber. In the West, urban landscaping debris is fed into biomass boilers that generate electricity and biochar.
In the mid-Atlantic, biochar usage has spread little beyond the academic world. But advocates say the technology is on the verge of breaking into the mainstream.
Millions of chickens are produced each year in the Chesapeake watershed, particularly on the Delmarva Peninsula. Farmers use the chicken manure to fertilize crops on nearby fields, but the rate of application is sometimes higher than crops can absorb. The excess nutrients wash into the Bay, fueling algae blooms that lead to oxygen-starved “dead zones” all but devoid of marine life.
Despite improved science and management strategies, agriculture, in general, remains the Bay’s largest single source of nutrients.
Enter biochar. Lehmann said raw manure contains about 2–3 percent phosphorus, one of the nutrients fouling the Bay. Converting manure to biochar boosts the phosphorus content to about 15 percent, putting it on par with commercial-grade fertilizers. Farmers wouldn’t have to apply nearly as much of it and could target only the spots that most need the nutrient, Lehmann said.
Scientists also have found that biochar can grip onto nitrate in the soil — a leading theory is that it’s negatively charged surface attracts the positively charged nutrients — and prevent it from leaching into nearby waters.
The charred material also is porous, which helps it absorb and retain stormwater. A budding industry is mixing biochar into “bioreactors,” which act like large water filters at the edges of farm fields and urban spaces. Not only does biochar hold onto the water longer, it also soaks up its nutrients.
The nonprofit Ridges to Reefs is working with a grain farmer on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to test the use of biochar as a nutrient sponge. The bioreactor used in that project consists of a 100-foot-by-30-foot patch of wood chips and biochar buried along a drainage ditch.
Installed nearly two years ago, it looks like just another patch of grass. But according to Ridges to Reef’s pre-construction estimates, the bioreactor should be removing up to 90 percent of the nitrates and 60 percent of the phosphorus from the stormwater that passes through it.
The group collected water samples over the summer at the Talbot County farm, and the results should be available in the coming months, said Julie Chang, a restoration ecologist with Ridges to Reefs, which is based in Sykesville, MD.
“It’s not going to be the silver bullet,” she said. But because bioreactors can be installed without reducing a farm’s cropland acreage, Chang added, “theoretically there shouldn’t be an issue to implementing it everywhere.”
Miles, the biochar industry consultant, is an optimist. But even he concedes that the economic deck remains stacked against biochar.
“You could turn the clock back 30 years and be describing the composting industry,” he said. “A big difference is with compost, [a company can] get paid to convert the residue to a product and with biochar, no one’s paying you.”
With compost, municipalities pay a “tipping fee” to the facilities that convert the material into energy, Miles said.
The nascent biochar industry has also been challenged by an identity crisis. Biochar can be derived from a host of organic source materials, including: wood, coffee husks, coconut shells, cow manure and poultry litter.
As a result, different recipes bearing the same “biochar” label may yield widely divergent amounts of carbon and nutrients. For example, carbon makes up about 70–80 percent of wood-based biochar but only 10–34 percent of poultry litter-based char.
“When you’re buying Cheerios, you’re buying Cheerios,” said Joe Berg, a restoration ecologist with Biohabitats, a Baltimore-based conservation planning and ecological restoration firm. “When you’re buying biochar, you don’t want to be buying six different types of biochar. If there are six, they need to be labeled.”
If the labeling problem could be fixed, biochar companies would still face another hurdle: overcoming scientific uncertainty about biochar’s ability to lock carbon in the ground. In recent years, soil scientists have been feverishly working to provide scholarly perspectives on boosters’ claims. A search of the term “biochar” in a major electronic academic database shows nearly 3,500 results over the last five years compared with just shy of 700 the previous 10 years.
Some studies have suggested that biochar can keep carbon from being released into the atmosphere for thousands of years. Normally, when plants decay, carbon dioxide is emitted into the air. Biochar, however, converts carbon into a more-stable form that decays over millennia instead of months, researchers say.
That has led advocates to push for a marketplace in which biochar-producing companies sell “credits” to industries that release carbon to offset those releases.
But those hopes were dealt a huge blow in 2015 when the American Carbon Registry, a nonprofit that sets carbon-trading standards, declined to endorse the International Biochar Initiative’s protocol for biochar credits. The scientific literature “did not provide sufficient evidence of the stability of soil carbon sequestration” in treated farm fields, the registry’s reviewers said.
The trade group is unlikely to take up the effort again anytime soon, Miles said.
A lack of scientific consensus also led to a bleak assessment of biochar in a 2011 U.S. Government Accountability Office report on potential climate engineering technologies. On a “technology readiness level” scale of 1 to 9, biochar received a 2, owing to a lack of plans for large-scale implementation and uncertainty over its ability to trap carbon.
‘Why isn’t this happening now?’
At a recent biochar conference in Wilmington, DE, a speaker asked a room filled with dozens of industry members and scientists to raise their hands if they were involved in turning animal manure into biochar. A lone hand shot up into the air from the far end of the front row.
A few weeks later and 200 miles to the west, Josh Frye extended the same hand to show off the powdery evidence.
“The way to tell if your carbon is good is if it wipes off easy,” Frye said as he ran his blackened hands together.
Frye never expected to become a biochar pioneer. He is the latest of several generations of farmers in his family and raises 800,000 chickens a year in three long, metal buildings on their old homestead nestled in a mountain valley.
Winters are long and cold in this part of Appalachia, and his heating costs just kept rising. In 2007, he heard about a technology that promised to help keep more money in his pocket. Like the big power plants out West, he could use poultry litter to generate energy.
With the help of state and federal agricultural grants, Frye had a $600,000 gasifier assembled next to his chicken houses in 2007. It sprouts a conveyor belt on one side, supports a ladder in the rear and has a cavernous oven in the middle.
The gasifier doesn’t incinerate the poultry litter. Rather, it heats the litter at high temperatures in a low-oxygen environment to trigger a process called pyrolysis. There is virtually no smoke or smell.
“The material, when it’s in [there], it looks like the end of a cigarette butt. It’s not fire, it’s smoldering,” Frye said.
Because of a design flaw, Frye’s hopes of heating his chicken houses with the gasifier never fully materialized. Only one of the houses was ever hooked into the system. But the biochar output exceeded his wildest expectations. Frye can produce 1,000 pounds of biochar per hour, and he stores the material in tarp-covered mounds until he can find a buyer.
He sells the biochar primarily to golf courses, which mix it with soil to improve turf growth, and scientists, who use it in their research. But his profits are limited by the lack of a larger market.
“I can’t take these groups out to wine and dine them to get them to try my product,” Frye said.
A coalition of agricultural extension agents and wood industry leaders, known as the Mid-Atlantic Biochar Working Group, is trying to help producers like Frye overcome such hurdles. It helped him, for example, acquire $10,000 from a West Virginia economic development organization a couple years ago to repair some of his gasifier’s failing parts.
One of the coalition’s goals is to create a regional processing facility, where several chicken farmers can have their litter turned into biochar, said Tina Metzer, executive director of the Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College’s business startup arm and an organizer with the biochar working group.
She still recalls her reaction when Frye first gave her a tour of his farm, its unusual piece of machinery and even more unusual product.
“We were like Josh — ‘It’s a no-brainer. Why isn’t it happening now?’” Metzer said.