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Biochar at The Helix

15 Mar

At The Helix we try to make the most innovative projects happen, develop as many new ideas as we can, and involve as many people as possible.

Biochar is one of those ideas.

Biochar is a material a lot like charcoal, though it is created not to be burnt, but to be buried. The structure of biochar is highly porous, meaning it can store a large amount of nutrients and minerals and also retain four to five times it's weight in water.

Natural drainage processes mean that a lot of the minerals in the soil, like Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, get drained out of the soil. This is called leaching, and results in lower fertility soil, reducing the ability of plants to grow. Leaching is more common on land used to grow food, as the plants are removed year to year, leading to a removal of natural material that would usually bio-degrade into the soil and top up the store of nutrients.

Adding biochar to the soil increases the retention of these important minerals, which does two things:

  1. Plants are able to access higher levels of nutrients, meaning they can grow faster and stronger.
  2. The soil doesn't need as much fertiliser, which means less carbon emissions.

Most fertilisers are made from chemicals that start out as crude oil. Using biochar means you need less of these fertilisers, which means less chemicals are needed, and less energy is used to produce those chemicals from oil.

Making Biochar

Biochar is made in a similar way to charcoal. It basically involves baking wood in a kiln - the aim is to preserve as much of the solid material as possible. It is then ground up, and can be added straight to the soil to start absorbing nutrients or it can be pre-charged with nutrients to act as a fertiliser as soon as it goes into the soil. One of the things we are looking at is mixing horse manure with the biochar to make a really high fertility soil improver.

By making wood into biochar, the  carbon stored in the wood gets stored in the soil which means less carbon in the atmosphere. Planting trees and other plants in soil enriched with biochar draws even more carbon out of the air and means stronger, heathier, nicer looking trees and plants. Some biochar studies have shown increases in plant growth by as much as 50 per cent, but we are keen to find out if this is the case, and if it can help the Helix.

So why is The Helix involved in Biochar?

The Helix is very lucky to have some great woodland areas within the site. We are also putting in an allotment site which will be a great place to test and develop biochar. Biochar is a very new idea, and we thought it would be great to bring it to Central Scotland and try it out at a local scale.

More importantly, the biochar kiln we have ordered is a simple piece of equipment that takes in small amounts of wood, and could be managed by members of the community as a social enterprise. It is also quite mobile, which means it could be taken to other sites within the Falkirk district to make use of wood from tree clearing or wind damage.

The community woodlands in the Helix are at a stage in their growth cycle where they need to be managed. This will involve thinning out some of the trees to make sure there is enough space for the woodland to grow, and to also make sure enough light gets to the soil and plants under the trees to boost biodiversity. Healthy woodlands need healthy trees, but they also need healthy soil and plants under the trees. Using biochar in the woodlands will improve the soil, which will lead to healthier plants and trees.

Take a look at the biochar demonstration video made when I visited one of the kilns - you can see it on the biochar page - thats also where I'll post more details when the kiln arrives, so if you are interested, keep an eye on that page for info, or get in touch via the comments or contact page

Categories: The Helix
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