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Biochar - Keystone Species of the Bio-Based Economy

The word "keystone" has been in the US news a lot lately although sadly it has been for all the wrong reasons - the Keystone XL Pipeline that would facilitate extraction of polluting tar sands. This led me to thinking about the proper use of the word keystone.

When you look at an arch, the stone in the very middle at the top - the one that holds all the other stones tightly together - is called the "keystone." In biology the term "keystone species" is used to describe a plant or animal upon which other species depend and without which eco-systems will likely fall apart (e.g. wolves, beavers, starfish).

"Bio-based economy" is another term that is also starting to pop up more in certain circles. Basically this contrasts the current petroleum based economy with a plant based paradigm. In both economies I would argue that carbon plays a role similar to that of a keystone species. However the difference in impacts between using new carbon (biomass from plants) versus historical carbon (oil, gas, coal) are enormous; nearly polar opposites in fact.

Carbonizing new carbon sources, such as plant residues, produces biochar plus a number of other useful co-products that can include heat energy, syngas, wood vinegar and more. Research on the use of biochar to displace all manner of goods for which dinosaur carbon is currently used has been expanding. Exciting new biomaterials including plasters, packaging, cosmetics, and more are being developed. In contrast to the "earth-ache" that fossil fuel based products cause, biochar based products actually revitalize the planet, both below and above-ground!

Think how much better off the planet would be if we would just let sleeping dogs (and dinosaurs) lie!  - Kathleen Draper


  • Robert Lavoie, Canada
    14.02.2015 04:33

    From Keystone to Keystone

    Sorry, I got halfway through writing a comment only to lose it because of a keyboard glitch... I only wanted to say the following... "Before we attach Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), we need to have all the facts straight. Ironically CCS is a "Bridging" technology that will reduce carbon emissions during a time when world wide societies and economies are weaning themselves from their dependance on fossil carbons as a source of energy and an important ingredient used for fertilizer production (nitrogen). This "Bridging" period of time will likely last for the remainder of this century and will usher in a more sustainable replacement for energy and nutrients for soils - the bio based societies and economies of the future. It is rather idealistic to believe that such a dramatic transition can be made without a "Bridging" technology, i.e. CCS. Lets not attach significant methods of avoiding carbon emissions to the atmosphere. We are in need of keeping all the options on the table as we navigate through this very challenging period of history as a human race. I agree entirely that CCS is not sustainable over the long term and isn't the ideal... but it will get us to the long term over a transitional period with a little less disruption to the world's economies (which will be significant over the decades to come). CCS will help us get to the bio-based economies we all desire. Until we are successful at regenerating soils and plant productivity over vast areas of the planet, we will need socio and environmentally responsible use of fossil carbons. What we need is a plan for a transition (a bridge with possible "Keystones") to eventually reach this sustainable bio-based world.

  • Neil Lumanlan, Philippines
    19.02.2015 06:25

    Biochar as Keystone species and Biochar as a household word!

    Thank you very much Ms. Katherine Draper for sharing this wonderful idea. In my work as a college instructor of environmental science for accounting majors, this is my fifth year to incorporate biochar and wood gas stoves in teaching the concept of sustainability and environmental citizenship. With people, the planet, and prosperity as 3P's as another way of putting social, economic and environmental development in the minds of the next generation of business leaders. I believe that we can utilize word play to plant new ideas into the consciousness of young people, and like a seed that bears fruit a hundred fold, it will spread to their household, families, and communities. The stove is an essential household item, why not make biochar a household name? And families of students may then see the opportunity of being in the business of sustaining the environment not just profitable, but also spiritual, fulfilling and fun. Agriculture is a primary contributor to the economy of the Philippines and I see a vision of biochar becoming part of the lifestyle of people in the food growing regions and as an integral means of solid waste management in Manila and other major cities. I believe that biochar could become a focus of research in Microbiology and Chemistry, as much as in Ecology and Chemical and Civil Engineering given the right "treatment" or and opportunity. This would be similar to branding in marketing terminology. Thank you. Neil Ian P. Lumanlan University of Santo Tomas

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