4 takeaways from the British Biochar Expo 2014

Biochar, or charcoal created from heating biomass in low-/no-oxygen environments, has recently gained interest as a potential CDR approach. When biochar is applied to soils under certain conditions, it decomposes much more slowly than the biomass naturally would without the charring. in other words, the biochar production and application process has the potential to lock the carbon from biomass in the soil for decades (to as long as centuries), whereas non-charred biomass would release its carbon back into the atmosphere in much shorter time frame.
Farmers and scientists have also recently discovered that biochar can help improve soil fertility, clean soils, and retain water in certain circumstances, which has led to a growing interest in commercializing biochar products. Such enthusiasm was manifest today at the British Biochar Expo in Oxford, where biochar practitioners from across Europe gathered to discuss the latest trends in the biochar community. My key takeaways and pictures from Day 1 of the event follow:


1. The crowd at the event was quite small... and very specialized. From my count, around 50 people attended day 1, and of this group, the vast majority were academics and small-scale biochar producers. Few representatives from the investment, consulting, or large industry community attended, and only a handful of people new to biochar attended. Of the biochar producers in attendance, most produced at a very small scale (producing 1-100 tons of char per year in batch processes).

2. David Wayne from the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) summarized the latest IBI "State of the Biochar Industry: 2013" report findings in a very hesitant and cautious manner. He started his presentation with the caveat that the report's authors were only able to collect very rough data -- so rough that it was difficult to draw many meaningful conclusions. In addition, he expressed great skepticism that the cost of biochar could come down significantly from their present levels without large economies of scale in production. While Mr. Wayne remained agnostic about the ability of biochar to reach these economies of scale soon, many at the conference expressed much doubt that biochar could reach significant scale in the near future. Many participants expressed enthusiasm for biochar's applications as a soil additive for small scale farms (especially in the developing world), but doubted that biochar would be the highest value use of large scale biomass supplies (which otherwise could be burned for energy production).
3. The most common question I heard attendees ask presenters over the course of the first day was, "who are your customers?" This question remains of paramount importance to the industry, which currently doesn't sell to many large customers that could support industrial-scale production. As long as biochar producers sell primarily to small farmers and to niche environmental remediation customers, biochar businesses will languish in obscurity. Yet very little of the conference discussion touched on exactly how biochar producers planned to make this transition to larger sales volumes...
4. Measurement and verification featured prominently in many discussions during the day. Many participants view standards and carbon accounting protocols as critical for biochar to accelerate its sales to more mainstream customers. Work is underway on carbon protocols for biochar, but scientists still need to answer many questions about the lifecycle impacts of CO2 sequestered through biochar production and application for these protocols to gain wider adoption. The British Biochar Foundation plans to release their Biochar Quality Manual within the next week which will help set standards of quality, but much more work in this area is needed before biochar is likely to go mainstream.
Bottom line: I sensed great enthusiasm among a small core of biochar enthusiasts at this event -- but a much larger community of investors, policy makers, and large industry will have to come to the table and discuss strategies to sell biochar at large volumes (and verify carbon sequestration) before it is able to achieve CDR at any meaningful scale.