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Since We Last Spoke: A Bright Future for Biochar

Updates to stories from the Pacific Standard archive.
A biochar-making batch pyrolyzer behind Brenton Ladd's house.

In June, the United States Forest Service entered into an agreement with Air Burners, an American machine manufacturer that specializes in wood and vegetative waste removal, to implement the company's technology to convert unwanted biomass in national forests into biochar.

The partnership is sure to excite conservationists: Torching biomass releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide—a potent greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere. But, as Pacific Standard's Kate Wheeling reported in the May 2018 issue, if that same material is burned without oxygen, it becomes biochar, a "shrunken, charred material, pure black and light as air, that smells like the remnants of a campfire and soaks up water like a sponge. It acts as a cache that can hold onto carbon for hundreds, if not thousands, of years."

Biochar can help the soil retain both nutrients and water. That could help the nation's forests become more resistant to droughts, which are projected to become more frequent and severe in many parts of the country.

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Pacific Standard.