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Dr Martha Crockett from Earthwatch works on the biochar trial

Dr Martha Crockett from Earthwatch works on the biochar trial

On a former landfill site in Oxfordshire, UK, scientists armed with spades are about to start a new experiment.

They will assess the potential of charcoal – known as “biochar” – to see if it can help cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions while increasing plant growth.

“We’re planning to dig varying amounts of biochar into the ground, and monitor its impact over the long term,” says Martha Crockatt, a researcher at Earthwatch, the environmental non-governmental organisation conducting the field trial.

“We want to see, for example, how it affects the soil and plant growth.”

Biochar is not new. Amazonians discovered thousands of years ago that digging charcoal - made by burning crop waste with limited oxygen - into soil helps boost harvests.

The porous charcoal can retain water and nutrients that might encourage root growth.

Dealing with crop waste in this way has another major potential benefit. Left on the ground, plants would otherwise decompose and release carbon back into the atmosphere.

Keeping carbon in

Scientists, including Shell researchers, want to establish if the carbon remains as charcoal over time and does not turn into CO2.

This would help qualify biochar for government support. They also want to better understand the effects on plant growth, soil and the environment.

In Oxfordshire, Earthwatch teamed up with Agrivert, a sustainable waste management company that manages the trial site and Oxfordshire County Council, who own the land.

Shell has bought and supplied half a tonne of biochar, as well as offering scientific advice.

While Shell does not plan to bring the biochar industry into its business, it is helping to develop technology and research.

Jay Wise, Shell environmental scientist, explains that this approach could go a small way to helping reduce global CO2 emissions.”

Shell is supporting further research together with universities in the USA, UK and Italy.

This includes a field trial in Lincolnshire, UK, supported by the EU, where it has dug a tonne of biochar into the ground.