Biochar: from laboratory mechanisms through the greenhouse to field trials

Friday, 19 December 2014: 4:45 PM
Caroline A Masiello, Xiaodong Gao, Brandon Dugan, Jonathan J Silberg, Kyriacos Zygourakis and Pedro J J Alvarez, Rice University, Houston, TX, United States
The biochar community is excellent at pointing to individual cases where biochar amendment has changed soil properties, with some studies showing significant improvements in crop yields, reduction in nutrient export, and remediation of pollutants. However, many studies exist which do not show improvements, and in some cases, studies clearly show detrimental outcomes. The next, crucial step in biochar science and engineering research will be to develop a process-based understanding of how biochar acts to improve soil properties. In particular, we need a better mechanistic understanding of how biochar sorbs and desorbs contaminants, how it interacts with soil water, and how it interacts with the soil microbial community.

These mechanistic studies need to encompass processes that range from the nanometer to the kilometer scale. At the nanometer scale, we need a predictive model of how biochar will sorb and desorb hydrocarbons, nutrients, and toxic metals. At the micrometer scale we need models that explain biochar’s effects on soil water, especially the plant-available fraction of soil water. The micrometer scale is also where mechanistic information is neeed about microbial processes. At the macroscale we need physical models to describe the landscape mobility of biochar, because biochar that washes away from fields can no longer provide crop benefits.

To be most informative, biochar research should occur along a lab-greenhouse-field trial trajectory. Laboratory experiments should aim determine what mechanisms may act to control biochar-soil processes, and then greenhouse experiments can be used to test the significance of lab-derived mechanisms in short, highly replicated, controlled experiments. Once evidence of effect is determined from greenhouse experiments, field trials are merited. Field trials are the gold standard needed prior to full deployment, but results from field trials cannot be extrapolated to other field sites without the mechanistic backup provided by greenhouse and lab trials.