Can we firght climate change- by turning up the heat?

Producing biochar. Photo - Photo - Wilson Biochar, wilsonbiochar.com.

Producing biochar. Photo - Photo - Wilson Biochar, wilsonbiochar.com.

What if we could combat climate change by making mountains of charcoal? It's not as crazy as it sounds.

Here's the backstory: Part of the mission of Ecology's Waste 2 Resources program is supporting recycling in the state. That's not just bottles and cans and newspapers, it's also food and grass clippings and other organic material. That's what composting is all about – recycling organics.

A lesser-known part of that organics recycling work is what's called "waste to fuels." Anaerobic digesters are one example of this – digesters capture the methane from decomposing cow manure plus other organic material like food and green waste, and repurpose it as natural gas, either for heating or generating electricity.

Another example is biochar. And here's where we get back to saving the planet.

Biochar sounds sort of mysterious, but you might have a bag of it already out by the grill.

"This term 'biochar' is a new term – we used to call it 'charcoal,'" said Mark Fuchs, a hydrogeologist with Ecology's Eastern Regional Office in Spokane.

"It's pretty cool stuff that we're looking at," said John Cleary, an Ecology engineer also working on waste to fuels. "We're trying to find new ways to look at waste."

Charcoal (and biochar) is produced when you partially burn woody debris, removing moisture and volatile compounds. To produce biochar efficiently, you use a process called pyrolysis, where the wood is heated in the absence of oxygen – meaning that you do as little actual "burning" as possible. After all the volatiles cook off, you're left with a block of what is mostly carbon.

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