By KEVIN MCCULLEN
RICHLAND, Wash. — Scientists in Eastern Washington are at the forefront of research into an ancient practice that shows promise as a clean fuel source, a way to improve soil condition and to capture carbon that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere.
Researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the federal Department of Agriculture’s research station in Prosser and Washington State University have been integral figures in studies of biochar and its potential uses.
Biochar, a charcoal-like material, is produced when biomass – including wood, plant and animal waste – is burned in the absence of or under low oxygen conditions so the material doesn’t combust.
This process, called pyrolysis, thermally decomposes the waste into biochar, bio-oil and syngas. Biochar and bio-oil show commercial promise and syngas offers a power source that can run a pyrolyzer.
The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service has estimated that if the United States were to pyrolyze 1.3 billion tons of various forms of biomass annually, it could replace 1.9 billion barrels of imported oil with bio-oil. That would represent about 25 percent of the annual oil consumption in this country. In addition, USDA estimates the country could sequester 153 million tons of carbon annually by adding biochar to soils.