Biochar Potential: Burning Waste into Gold
As backyard barbecuers, we call it charcoal. Agricultural scientists looking for new ways to utilize woody waste call it biochar.
Biochar is a carbonaceous product made by heating organic matter – usually woody materials – in a process called pyrolysis. When heated under low-oxygen conditions, organic material doesn’t combust but rather “cracks.” Certain chemical bonds are broken in the material, and the results include a gas, a liquid and a solid. Biochar is the solid.
Pyrolysis comes in two speeds: fast and slow. Fast pyrolysis is done under high heat to produce “green gasoline” and diesel. Biochar is generally produced using low-heat, slow pyrolysis, through which a large percentage of the input mass is converted to a solid.
Biochar is being scrutinized in Washington as a soil amendment and a way to sequester carbon. In one WSU study, biochar was added to various types of soil commonly found in the state. As well, it was used in a field trial of corn and a greenhouse trial of wheat. While no clear improvement was found in the growth of plants in that experiment, biochar may still be useful as a way to deliver micronutrients or micro-organisms and as a way of removing excess nutrients from drainage water and livestock effluent.
Pyrolysis processes hold promise as ways of earning farmers and foresters carbon credits. Fuels can be made through pyrolyzing organic materials, essentially recycling the carbon in those materials, and researchers hypothesize biochar holds carbon stable in soil, sequestering it for 1,000 years or more, based on observation of ancient biochar additions in the soils of Amazonia.
While the jury is still out on the environmental and economic utility of biochar, WSU researchers are working in concert with scientists all over the world to explore new ways of adding value to organic materials that previously had to be disposed of as waste.
New WSU AgWeatherNet Products Aid Ag Industry
In an effort to provide valuable data to their technologically savvy clientele, the Washington State University AgWeatherNet development team has released two new weather products, as well as a third product developed by 4Quarters, Inc.
The first product is a new Web site, designed and formatted specifically for mobile computing devices. The AgWeatherNet mobile Web site will transform how the agricultural industry accesses real-time weather information, said William Corsi, technical coordinator of AgWeatherNet.
“This new product allows our users to access critical information when and where it is needed,” said Corsi. “Our mobile site puts access to real-time weather and modeling information at the user’s finger tips.”
The mobile version will work on any mobile device featuring a Web browser, said Gary Grove, AgWeatherNet director and professor of plant pathology. Grove is based at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser.
“Clients can configure the new product to browse weather-related information from any of AgWeatherNet’s 133 weather stations, including current conditions, regional weather maps, raw weather data, disease forecasting models and much more,” said Grove.
The second product AgWeatherNet has developed is a grape cold-damage decision-aid tool. The tool uses critical temperature data determined by WSU viticulture researchers. The tool provides information to facilitate both pruning and retraining decisions, said Grove.
“Temperature minima at many AgWeatherNet weather stations in wine country are used to identify potential areas of bud, bark and wood damage,” said Grove. “The resulting information is critical for the adjustment of pruning levels and the determination of the necessity for vineyard retraining, one of the most costly and disruptive undertakings for Washington growers.”
“This is a logical next step toward putting the cold hardiness data collected by Lynn Mills and others in our viticulture team to practical use,” said Markus Keller, WSU professor of viticulture based at WSU’s research station in Prosser. “It will give growers an additional tool in deciding how to respond to cold events throughout the winter.”
The third product is AgAlertz, developed by 4Quarters, Inc. of Yakima.
Employing a live data feed from AgWeatherNet, AgAlertz is a portfolio of user-defined “push” technologies that automatically deliver weather data, weather observations and disease models to mobile devices via email, text messaging or synthesized voice technology. The latter technology is particularly useful, Grove said, because more information can be delivered via voice “live” or, perhaps more importantly, via voice mail than via text messaging. Users have the choice of AgWeatherNet station location, weather parameter in near real-time, choice of disease model, output type (email, text messaging or voice), and time and frequency of notification.
Grove said that AgAlertz technology should be particularly useful to growers concerned with the potential for frost damage or those whose decisions include wind speed and direction as factors.
New Turfgrass Alumni Group Focuses on Supporting Students
After many years of planning, coordinating and organizing, the Friends of Turfgrass Management alumni group is now up and running and is already benefiting current turfgrass students.
Friends of Turfgrass Management is an organization formed to foster communication and involvement between Washington State University alumni and other supporters of the Turfgrass Management program at WSU. The program is housed in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.
Friends of Turfgrass Management facilitates fundraising for the benefit of turfgrass students, providing scholarships and fellowships, and arranging programs, travel opportunities and alumni-related activities.
A primary fundraiser for the organization is an annual golf tournament and banquet at the Palouse Ridge Golf Club. The first annual tournament was held in September and raised over $2,000.
Aside from providing scholarships and grants to current turfgrass students, the Friends also work in an advisory capacity to counsel the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences on how to better prepare students for work in the industry.
Rich Koenig, chair of Crop and Soil Sciences, said that while the fund-raising Friends of Turfgrass Management provides is crucial, the inside advice they can give is equally important.
“We receive feedback on courses, course content, program internships and other things that can help us improve the turfgrass program,” Koenig said. “The needs of the turfgrass industry change, so it’s good to have that direct feedback from people who have professional experience within the field.”
Todd Lupkes, superintendent of Palouse Ridge Golf Club and president of Friends of Turfgrass Management, has been working to form the Friends of Turfgrass group since 1993.
“The Friends of Turfgrass has become a tremendous asset to the university in terms of mentoring and fostering relationships between industry and students. There needs to be a connection for the students to use in the job world,” said Lupkes. “This is why our placement rate is nearly 100 percent in the job market with students graduating with turf degrees.”
By Ashley Scourey
CAHNRS Marketing and News intern