Carbón VivoCarbon Vivo is a non-profit work cooperative whose purpose is to evaluate waste and, specifically, to democratise Biochar (biocharcoal). Javier Fernández, member of the cooperative, explains to us in a very clear way what this special charcoal is and what it is used for.
Biochar is a quite new word which is used to distinguish traditional charcoal from this new biocharcoal. A kind of charcoal with many uses, including agronomy. It is different from the charcoal that we know because biocharcoal is never burnt. This is what makes it so important for the environment, because Biochar is considered by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the UN Scientific Committee that studies climate change, to be one of the 6 negative emissions tools accepted to combat the effects of climate change.
Biochar gives a very interesting and lasting stability to its carbon content. In other words, it ensures that carbon will not be emitted again as CO2 within 700 to 3,000 years. It will not be degraded by microorganisms, which are the ones that oxidise it and emit it again. This is what happens with normal organic matter, if we leave it on the soil or if we carry out a composting process, it is degraded by microorganisms and then emitted again as CO2. Nature is carbon neutral, everything it absorbs is eventually emitted again. Therefore, it is absolutely balanced. It is true that, during this transition, there are many benefits for ecosystems. However, in our planet we have in fact a problem of excess of CO2, and for this reason, this kind of tools (carbon negative) are very interesting. The wood from plants which contains carbon (absorbed by leaves during photosynthesis) is carbonised and then given this stability and durability.
Another interesting feature of Biochar is the fact of keeping it on the soil. There are two main natural carbon drains, oceans are one of them. Nowadays, oceans are overloaded, but we cannot stop capturing CO2, which dissolves in the water and, as a consequence of this, it causes water acidification. This is a very dangerous thing which is resulting in the loss of species that cannot live in this pH which is so acid. The other natural drain is soil. Soil has a huge capacity to store carbon and, for this reason, the fact of using Biochar in our crops keeps it safely stored. In addition, this storage has many benefits for the whole soil ecosystem. We usually talk about a lack of organic matter in our soils. However, 50% of this organic matter is organic carbon, which is what Biochar is mostly made of: stable organic carbon that will remain in our soils for 700 to 3,000 years.
But just like everything else, not every product sold as Biochar has the same environmental and agronomic properties. There are two international organisations dedicated to the study and research of this biocharcoal: the IBI (International Biochar Initiative) and the ITACA Institute. They are two scientific organisations, although the second one has a more scientific and ecologic approach at the same time (it is made up by environmental scientists). It is precisely this second one, the ITACA Institute, that says that, to consider a charcoal to be Biochar, some sustainability conditions must be fulfilled during the whole process, starting from the raw material which must be obtained locally and sustainably. In other words, the wood produced must be local and from native species. There is no need to deforest our forests to plant quick-growing alien species.
And of course, Biochar must meet some product quality standards, physicochemical properties that we will check analytically. Regarding the energy consumed to produce Biochar, the efficiency of the process is also mentioned.
Biochar is not a fertiliser, at least not originally. What determines whether it is a fertiliser or not will be the raw material from which it is produced. It can be produced from the waste of forest management, from the waste of some industries like the heather industry (used in gardening), from the pruning of different crops… In these cases, it does not have many nutrients. However, it can also be produced from sewage sludge and farmyard manure beds. In these cases, its richness in nutrients is very high, so we could consider it to be a fertiliser.
Biochar is, by itself, regenerative, structuring, a soil conditioner. It is an excellent carrier of fertility and life. We need to imagine Biochar as a sponge, which can be filled with water and nutrients, because it has a great storage capacity. This is what makes it so interesting from an agronomic perspective. This, and the fact that it is the ideal habitat for soil microorganisms. As a sponge, it has many pores that are colonised by microorganisms (bacteria and fungus), they use them to live there, microorganisms which are basic for the soil fertility.
Some pores are filled with water, and others with oxygen. In fact, microorganisms living under aerobic conditions are the ones with more benefits for our crops.
Therefore, it has a high water and nutrients storage capacity, and it is a promoter of microbial life. The water storage capacity can lead to a reduction of watering, of water and nutrients consumption, we can reduce fertilisation of our crops, keeping or even increasing productivity.
However, it is still under study, because these are very slow processes, and many other factors take part (such as climate, the crop, etc.). However, there is no doubt that we are improving the soil properties, its structure and storage capacity of both, water and nutrients.
The cooperative Carbon Vivo produces Biochar in a traditional way, although it is seeking investment to carry out the process in a more industrial way. For the moment, they use some ovens developed by the ITACA Institute. These ovens are a low-cost design which was made thinking about democratisation of Biochar, and also to introduce it in developing countries. They also commercialise Biochar, provide training about this biocharcoal and its use, and are involved in environmental projects about waste recovery through its transformation in Biochar.
Besides, Biochar is very easy to make. Everyone can produce it. There is a very simple and traditional way to make it. However, it is an industry developed in our country. In the case of Mas Martinet, this is our first year using it, for the moment in the estate of Clos Martinet. It comes from the carbonisation of the vineyard pruning; we apply it in the estate just before starting the green pruning. Anything that we can do from our part to reduce the effects of climate change will always be of little help, but we remember what Capità Enciam (“Captain Lettuce”) says: small changes are powerful.
Thank you very much, Javier, for your time and for your detailed explanation of your work