New LU technology is a stepping stone to a greener future

Dr. Raymond Bayan, an associate professor at Lincoln University, has been creating biochar and testing it in soils in a laboratory with the help of students.

The 2013 growing season is over, but research stemming from Lincoln University may have you putting away your fertilizer next spring.

Students filled styrofoam containers with chips of black material that looked like burnt grass and wood.

The small, almost weightless chips are called biochar, and they could hold the key to the next big thing in green technology.

A small piece the size of your thumb can absorb the size of one football field covered in water.

Dr. Raymond Bayan, an associate professor at Lincoln University, has been creating biochar and testing it in soils in a laboratory with the help of students.

Bayan showed the staggering results of mixing biochar with soil with some plant experimentation using a control pot with nothing added to the soil, and several other pots with different types of biochar mixed in.

"You can look at the yield on this soybean pot versus this pot we have added 2% biochar. Everything else is equal. It has done a miraculous job in effect that it has produced far more yield than the plant with no biochar," said Dr. Bayan.

It might seem too simple to be true, but you could be adding biochar to your garden this spring.

Here's how it works:

In a lab setting, Dr. Bayan uses a double barrel method by placing a biomass, for example, pine or willow, into an inner barrel.

The inner barrel is placed upside down in an outer barrel, then cedar chips spread inside the outer barrel and ignited to heat the biomass.

The container, or reactor, is then heated between 400-600 degrees Celsius.

In lab experimentation, miscanthus and switchgrass have been the most successful biomasses, but the others still had quite noticeable impacts on plant growth and yield.

The university owns land south of Jefferson City along Highway 54 where a large grove of tall miscanthus grows for the purpose of this project.

So, how does biochar improve plants and soil?

"Biochar increases the soil available water capacity. The period between the droughts...let's say it rains and then it doesn't rain for a month, and plants start going into the wilting point and dying. Biochar expands that period. In other words, plant roots have access to moisture that's held by biochar, so biochar helps plants resist effects of drought and stay alive until the next rain comes," said Dr. Bayan.

Since the plant is able to grow larger and healthier, it also grows more leaves, increasing the amount of photosynthesis that takes place and in turn removing more carbon dioxide from the air.

Jack Ryan knows biochar can help erase hunger in the community.

"We thought well why not put all of this together in a project to develop a community garden, if you will, that will not only produce food for senior citizens particularly but demonstrate the effectiveness of biochar in our local soils. And in so doing, lay ground work for commercialization of the whole thing," said Ryan.

Ryan founded the Nutrition, Energy, Environment, and Economic Development project, or NEEED.

While the garden is a large objective, another future goal is capturing the excess biogas and oil that are by-products of the biochar process to make it economically viable.

"You can use it as much as you use propane. It will run a gasoline engine or internal combustion engine, generate electricity. It will also burn quite nicely to heat a building," said Ryan.

The project is unique to the show-me state.

Ryan hopes to have a garden up and running starting next spring, with a goal of 4-5 acres of biochar-enhanced soil.

"This is a new thing, it's a coming thing, and may...underline may...have as much significance ultimately as the green revolution of the 1970s," claimed Ryan.