The Italian National Research Council (CNR) coordinates EuroChar, a European project dedicated to the development of technologies for long-term carbon sequestration and large-scale removal of greenhouse gases (GHG) from the atmosphere. EuroChar investigates carbon sequestration potentials achieved by transforming plant biomass into charcoal (or Biochar) that can be added to agricultural soils. EuroChar is a part of the Seventh Framework Programme, it started in 2011 and it was to end in 2013, but it was extended until June 2014.
“The main idea is the following: to take advantage of photosynthesis to store carbon and make it stable instead of burning it,” explains Giustino Tonon, from University of Bozen, one of the participants to the project. “The idea is as old as the world, but we had not thought about it yet.”
In other words, the difference between how organic compounds are treated traditionally and the process studied by Eurochar experts is that traditionally these organic wastes are burned , producing CO2 emissions that come back into the atmosphere. Their approach is instead to transform residues in a process called pyrolysis: such process produces thermal energy and a gas that can be use to produce electricity, but also leave a carbon-rich residue called biochar, that can be returned to the soil producing a net CO2-sequestration.
Biomass pyrolysis is obtained by heating in the complete absence of oxygen. In synthesis , if heated under anaerobic conditions , the biomass undergoes the cleavage of chemical bonds leading to the formation of simple molecules. “Until now,” says Franco Miglietta, the coordinator of the EuroChar Project, “we have focused on two main issues, that generated significant results. First, we investigate the stability of biochar, by measuring how much of the carbon actually goes back into the atmosphere as CO2.” In fact, some data from old charcoal deposits in the Alps seem to suggest that no more than 20% of the carbon contained in charcoal was lost over the last 150 years, thus confirming that the biochar strategy is a realistic option to reduce anthropogenic CO2 emissions. The second question concerns the effects of biochar when used as a soil amendment. A series of experiments were made involving teams of Italian, French and English researchers and the results seem to confirm that the addition of biochar to the soil protects soil organic matter. All these results will be illustrated in a series of papers that are still under review and that will be published in the next months.
But EuroChar is also addressing other questions: the toxicity of biochar for vegetation and microorganisms and the risks of increased susceptibility of plants to pests and diseases. “After the conclusion of EuroChar,” says Miglietta, “there won't be specific opportunities to participate in Horizon 2020, but several research groups around Europe will continue to work on this topic. EuroChar will also contribute to a new European legislation on biochar. Europe still lacks a common legislation and Italy could turn out to be a pioneer in this respect. Recently, the Italian participants to EuroChar, together with the Italian Biochar Association (ICHAR), have submitted a request to the Ministry of Agriculture aimed to include biochar in the list of soil amendments and a first favorable response has been already obtained. We just have to see what the next developments will be.”