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Scientists Speak - World Soil Day - Biochar - Novak and Spokas
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ARS Celebrates World Soil Day: Not Your Grandma's Nutrient Recycling -  Designer Biochar

Jeff Novak, ARS Research Soil Scientist, Coastal Plain Soil, Water and Plant Conservation Research Unit (Florence, SC) and Kurt Spokas, ARS Soil Scientist, Soil and Water Management Research Unit (St. Paul, MN)

Dr. Novak leads an ARS effort to better understand the properties of biochar and how to use it as a soil supplement. Biochar is defined as “black carbon produced from biomass sources [i.e., wood chips, plant residues, manure or other agricultural waste products] for the purpose of transforming the biomass carbon into a more stable form (carbon sequestration)”[1]   .

Can you tell us about your soil research project and the international collaboration involved?

“In years past, producers and farmers lacked information about how biochar interacted with different soils, and so didn’t know how to differentiate between the different types of char in the marketplace, with mixed results. Beginning in 2013, Dr. Novak and his collaborative team received a grant to develop designer biochars which varied in feedstock type, temperature of pyrolysis (the process of breaking down the feedstock with heat), and post-production handling. The goal was to create biochar with specific properties to match a specific soil deficiency. For example, sandy soils don’t hold water well, so the researchers experimented with different feedstocks until they discovered that switchgrass feedstock makes a biochar that boosts water retention. Similarly, experiments also found that manure-based biochars increase fertility of sandy soils. These designer biochars are now available commercially, and the global community has acknowledged their effectiveness as a soil amendment. This initiative developed into a multi-location field project that followed a set protocol using the same biochar sources, and yielded 15 published manuscripts.”

What is the objective of your project?

“The designchar4food (“d4f”) initiative was a response to the European Commission’s Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FACCE-JPI) and their call for research on soil amendments that would increase soil fertility and carbon sequestration while reducing greenhouse gases. The ARS researchers partnered with scientists from Spain, Germany, and Indonesia and ultimately received funding from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture. Their goal was to develop technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing soil fertility.

The collaboration eventually established CHARnet, a network of scientists which enables collaborators to better communicate results via Skype, sharing data on Sharepoint, and other technologies. CHARnet has incorporated research partners from nearly a dozen ARS locations across the U.S. as well as universities, citizen groups, and high school students. Over 30 countries are represented within the group, with nearly 20 post-docs and visiting scientists coming from all over the world to participate. The CHARnet network continues to grow globally.”

How has your work with international partners benefitted your project? What skills/expertise/other contributions have they brought to this research?

The international nature of the collaboration brings skill sets to the team that are not present in the U.S., for example in statistical meta-analysis, expertise in N2O formation mechanisms, and additional analytical instrumentation. Different members of the research team focus on different tasks, like identifying which biochar characteristics are most important for increasing water retention, and determining which properties are important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Several types of designer biochar were produced in the U.S. by ARS researchers and provided to the cooperators in Europe and Indonesia, where they are being evaluated under different testing protocols. The various members of the global research team also take different approaches to data interpretation, allowing for a more robust examination of the data.”

What are some of the critical research areas that still need to be addressed?

“More needs to be done to understand the mechanisms through which biochar affects the soil. The European Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have provided funding support for these research initiatives but more still needs to be done.”

Since we’re commemorating World Soil Day, our audience will be thinking about the importance of soil to our ecosystem and food supply. What is one thing you would like everyone to remember about soil health and soil fertility?  

“Everyone should understand the value of the soil beneath their feet, for food production and water storage. Healthy soil reduces erosion, feeds us, and provides fiber for our clothing. We need to take care of our soil and manage it so that it can continue to provide for the U.S. and global populations.”