An advanced version of barbecue charcoal is being tested as a way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere for centuries to come.
The charred wood, known as biochar, has been tested on farmland for the first time on a large scale, with the hope that the carbon that trees capture from the air over their lifetime will be buried in the soil.
Trial leader Tom Bott, from the University of Nottingham, told Sky News the technology could help the country reach just zero.
“As a tree grows, it captures carbon from the atmosphere and turns it into wood,” he said.
“And then, if we add it (biochar) to the land, we might have some benefits for our crops, and we’re also sequestering carbon, which is important to help fight climate change.”
If wood rots or burns, it releases carbon back into the atmosphere.
But by heating it to temperatures of up to 600 degrees Celsius in an oxygen-removing oven, the carbon undergoes a chemical change that locks it up as biochar — often referred to as “black gold.”
Make Agriculture More Resilient
“Once you put it in the soil, it doesn’t degrade,” Dr. Bott said.
“It’s going to be there for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It’s just going to stay.”
The Allerton Project’s research farm is part of the Biochar Demonstrator programme, funded by UK Research and Innovation, which is testing the feasibility of using the material to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Farmland, which covers 70% of the UK’s land area, is seen as a solid resource for storing carbon.
There is also evidence that when the material is mixed into the soil, it acts like a sponge to store rainwater and provide it to crops during droughts.
This could help make agriculture more resilient to a changing climate.
Read more on Sky News:
France bans short-haul flights
Killer whale deliberately rams boat
Italy pledges £1.8bn aid package for flood-hit areas
“We have to show we are willing to change”
Last summer, farmer Olly Carrick spread 10 tonnes of biochar on a test plot at the Allerton project research site in Leicestershire.
He has since started sowing winter wheat, but it is too early to tell if there is any effect on plant growth.
Biochar could be a way to offset agriculture’s unavoidable carbon emissions, he said.
“It sounds too good to be true,” he said.
“But we’re keeping an open mind.
“It would be an added bonus if we could store more carbon in the soil without affecting crops.
“We have to take this opportunity to show that we are willing to change, certainly as an industry and as a business.”
An Innovative But Secret Technology
But biochar contains only a third of the material in the original “virgin” wood.
A team at Birmingham’s Aston University is looking for other ways to use the two-thirds of the carbon that would normally be wasted and leaked back into the atmosphere.
Tim Miller, director of the university’s Energy and Bioproducts Institute, has an innovative but secretive technology for capturing the gases and liquids released during the manufacture of biochar.
These include an oil that can be used to heat boilers and ship engines or form a key ingredient in bioplastics.
Vinegar can also be extracted and used as a herbicide and plant stimulant.
No matter where you get your podcasts, subscribe to ClimateCast with Tom Heap
“We’re trying to grab everything in the woods,” he said.
“We want to maximize it so we can make the best use of the carbon and also the best use of commercial products.
“The whole process needs to be commercially sustainable, so it can also be scaled.”
Watch Tom Shipp’s Climate Show on Sky News, the Sky News website and app, as well as YouTube and Twitter on Saturday and Sunday at 3pm and 7.30pm.
The show investigates how global warming is changing our landscape and highlights solutions to the crisis.