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Biochar

Biochar, also known as biocarbon or charcoal, is a climate-friendly alternative to fossil carbon, which is produced by carbonising biomasses (in other words, renewable organic materials), through pyrolysis. Biochar is used in process industries, for example, in metallurgic processes as a reducing agent and in agriculture as an earth improvement material. However, it also has a number of other uses and applications.

SINTEF has extensive experience with producing and using biochar, as well as advanced laboratory facilities and modelling tools that enable us to conduct ground-breaking and applicable research in the area. We offer project-based research and development for national and international industry, as well as research and management networks.

Biochar in the metallurgic industry

Carbon is an important input factor in the metallurgic industry. The challenge is that currently, fossil carbon is mostly used – something that leads to this industry being responsible for one of the largest sources of CO2 emissions in Norway.

However, biochar will be carbon neutral. The biomass consists of plants and trees that have already extracted CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. When this biomass is converted for energy or processing purposes, the same amount of CO2 is rereleased. In other words: no extra CCO2O2 is added to the atmosphere.

In order for biochar to be able to be used in metallurgical processes, certain quality requirements must be satisfied to ensure that the production processes and quality of the products are not diminished. This is a significant challenge for some metallurgical industries, and a crucial field of research.

Biochar is currently used in silicon production in Norway. In addition, we conduct research on how biochar can replace fossil carbon in other metallurgic processes, such as in manganese and aluminium production.

Biochar in agriculture and negative climate emissions

Biochar has properties that make it particularly suitable as an earth improvement material due to its porose structure and its ability to hold water and nutrients.

However, this is not enough. Biochar can actually contribute to removing CO2 from the atmosphere – something that we are completely dependent on if we are to reach our climate goals, according to the UN.

Through the pyrolysis process, approximately half the carbon is stored in the biochar. The other half of the carbon is converted into heat when the pyrolysis gas is combusted, when can then be used for direct heating, district heating or power production.

Biochar has an extremely long storage life and can hold carbon for many centuries. Therefore, if we put the carbon in the earth instead of burning it, we can efficiently remove CO2 from the atmosphere. In fact, using just one cubic metre of biochar in the earth would equal a reduction of 1,000 kg of CO2 emissions. If 4,000 Norwegian farms and gardens created biochar and mixed it in the soil, it could halve emissions from the agricultural sector. It could also make the plants stronger and healthier – in a completely natural way.

If BECCS is also used in the pyrolysis process, even more CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere.

Sustainable biochar value chain

In theory, biochar can be produced from any organic material, but the quality of the biomass will directly impact the quality of the biochar. Food waste, wood processing chips and agricultural residues are particularly suitable, as they principally have a relatively low alternative value, but can gain an increased value through becoming biochar. Therefore, biochar production can contribute to better resource exploitation as well as management of the increasing global waste problem.

Even though using biochar is environmentally friendly, that does not mean that producing biochar is. It is extremely important that we do not produce biochar at the expense of nature; we must establish sustainable value chains. This is a topic that we are researching at SINTEF, e.g. to implement the use of biochar in the metallurgic industry.

If the value chain is to be more sustainable, it must have a high energy efficiency, a low climate and environmental impact, and be socially acceptable and economically viable. This requires all stages of the biochar value chain to be optimised.

We do not currently have a particularly optimised value chain in place today, but we are well on our way. Several research projects have been conducted, and several are on-going, with the overall goal of sustainable biochar value chains. However, significant research is still needed to achieve this goal.

We work with the following areas:

  • Pyrolysis
  • Characterisation, testing and optimalisation
  • Technological development
  • Emission minimisation
  • Value chain analyses

Our typical projects include:

  • Producing biochar from biomasses
  • Characterising and testing biochar and optimising properties
  • Developing technology related to the pyrolysis process and upgrading biochar
  • Minimising emissions from the pyrolysis process and other steps in the value chain
  • Value chain analyses for various biochar value chains

Who do we do this for?

  • Metallurgic industry
  • Biomass- and agricultural-based industry
  • Public institutions and authorities

Selected biochar projects

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