Aftermath of bushfire hints at biochar’s true potential

Driving to Dubbo recently I was struck by the vastness of land and also by the huge extent of the recent Sir Ivan bushfire east of Dubbo.  

We passed through kilometres of bushfire ravaged forest and farmlands slowly recovering from the devastating April fires.  In total the fire claimed 55,000 hectares, many buildings and many animals. Thousands of kilometres of fences suffered and are still being rebuilt.  

The trees in particular caught my eye for two reasons. First, the green leaves bravely emerging from the charred sticks of the eucalyptus trees. The ability of the Australian flora to recover from fire is legendary and very peculiar to our trees.  We have all seen the sad end to a pine forest when burnt. Eucalypts on the other hand come back time after time, an evolutionary result of the traditional cool burnings practised over the past millennia by their native custodians.

Unfortunately fires today are much hotter and less frequent than in the distant past and the damage inflicted on native flora is much more devastating.  Second, I was reminded of biochar, and the research and development project we are currently running in China, by the black charring evident on the trees and surviving fence posts.  

Biochar is formed when biomass (usually wood) is pyrolysed by heating to around 400 degrees in oxygen-starved conditions.

It has many applications including use as a fuel, as a soil amendment to improve soil carbon and microbial activity, and for environmental remediation.  On arrival in Dubbo the wonders of the internet meant that I could participate in a funding review meeting of our biochar soil amendment project as it was being held in China.

Fingers crossed for the funding to be continued into the future.

Professor Tim Roberts is the director of the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment at the University of Newcastle.