A sample of biochar produced from coarse woody biomass. Photo credit: US Forest Service
Biochar: An Emerging Market For Underutilized Woody Biomass
By Collin Buntrock, DNR Forest Products Services Team Leader
What Is Biochar?
Biochar is a high-carbon product made from organic material that is generally produced through a process called pyrolysis. Pyrolysis occurs when organic matter is heated in an environment where little or no oxygen is present.
Biochar Production And Opportunities For Forest Businesses
Biochar can be produced from woody biomass such as sawdust, shavings, chips or bark generated by timber harvesting or as a by-product of wood product manufacturing.
Historically, the Lake States Region has experienced steady demand for wood residues in paper and engineered wood products and in the landscaping industry. However, energy markets, another major outlet for wood residues, have declined in recent years primarily due to low fossil fuel prices and relatively mild winter temperatures across the northern US.
As a result, finding alternative markets for low-value, underutilized wood products generated from mill processes, urban tree removals and forest management activities are becoming a growing interest. An emerging biochar industry shows some promise as a solution for adding value to these biomass materials.
Biochar production technologies are classified as either pyrolysis or gasification systems. The pyrolysis of biomass results in three main products: biochar, bio oil and syngas. Bio oil and syngas may have potential value-added uses as fuel and chemical additives. On the other hand, gasification produces smaller quantities of biochar in a directly heated reaction vessel with introduced air. Although pyrolysis systems result in higher concentrations of biochar, both production systems can be developed as mobile or stationary units as per the need and availability of feedstock.
Emerging Markets And Uses
Many factors impact the development of biochar markets, including the need for consumer education and marketing, the establishment of product quality standards, and additional research and technology transfer efforts. According to a 2018 report published by Dovetail Partners, the U.S. biochar industry consists of approximately 135 firms that produce between 35,000 to 70,000 tons of biochar per year. However, the market potential is estimated at over 3 billion tons annually.
A mobile firebox unit at a debris site in northern Wisconsin. This unit can be operated to produce small quantities of biochar. Photo credit: Wisconsin DNR
Biochar can be used as a soil amendment in agricultural applications and as media for storm water and wastewater filtration and environmental remediation efforts. Beyond these applications, other areas of interest among the biochar industry are biochar as a livestock feed supplement and as an animal litter additive. In Europe, biochar as a feed ingredient is believed to improve herd health while also reducing overall methane production and manure odor. It should be noted, however, that research has yet to fully investigate the potential benefits of biochar as a feed supplement.
In Wisconsin, biochar has gained interest as a soil amendment, although the market size remains relatively small. For example, several nurseries in the state have incorporated biochar in their plantings and operations.
In addition, the University of Wisconsin Madison Arboretum has partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on a research project to explore the role of biochar amendments in improving soil quality while also controlling invasive jumping worm populations.
Past and current research demonstrates that markets for biochar are experiencing growth and will likely continue to grow with additional research and marketing of potential uses and benefits. This expected market growth will positively impact the forest products sector because it can expand the use of underutilized woody biomass generated by wood manufacturing and forest management activities.
Furthermore, biochar can be a value-added product for existing forest businesses or a stand-alone venture in locations with an available supply of woody biomass.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service also hosted several outreach events highlighting biochar basics, production systems, and markets in the Lake States region. A recording of these webinars is available on the Wisconsin DNR forestry video webpage .