A multinational research team is developing biochars--fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.
These additives can improve crop yields, help inoculate plants with beneficial microorganisms and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Better crop yields can increase farm income and improve human nutrition. The combination of biochar production and clean-burning cook stoves may reduce indoor air pollution and fuel use in developing countries. This would be especially helpful in Africa, where smoke from cooking fires is still one of the major causes of respiratory diseases.
The survival and efficient operation of beneficial microorganisms depends on the material that the organisms live on. While biochars can support microbial growth, positive outcomes depend on selecting the most appropriate biochar to support each organism.
A team from Cornell University, the University of California, Irvine, the University of New South Wales and the World Agroforestry Center are investigating a variety of aspects of biochar development. The Cornell team has already shown that various biochars can provide either good or poor living conditions for microorganisms.
Switching from burning wood to charring agricultural residues provides a number of benefits. Clean-burning stoves would reduce the amount of wood needed for cooking, thereby easing womens' collection workloads. The stoves would also use fewer forest resources, allowing for improved preservation. The potentially valuable biochar product could help users adopt modern stoves that burn cleaner.