Worldwide audience for Portland's organic charcoal research

A handful of biochar. Photo: Michele Mossop.
A handful of biochar. Photo: Michele Mossop.

BENEFITS of biochar as demonstrated through south-west research have been taken to the world stage.

Portland's Doug Phillips returned this week from Japan, where he attended the second Asia Pacific Biochar Conference.

The event was held in the historic city of Kyoto and saw environmental researchers unite to discuss their latest findings.

Biochar, also known as organic charcoal, is a by-product of producing bioenergy and has the ability to provide a storage mechanism in soils to sequester vast amounts of carbon.

It differs from charcoal due to its use as a soil amendment rather than as a fuel.

Mr Phillips - Greening Australia's Alcoa Landcare South West Seedbank manager - presented a paper on the germination and growth responses of native plant species to biochar-amended potting mixes.

"We found some species involved in that trial delivered statistically significant germination responses over the control," he said.

"Obviously we've translated some of that work into the field, where we're doing field trials to establish whether we're going to get improved growth rates and resilience from the addition of various percentages of biochar against controls.

"We're also doing what can be best described as a (biochar) storage trial, where we're looking at how much we can put underneath our revegetation species and not cause detrimental impacts."

The germination trial was supported by Portland nursery Kyeema Seawinds, with Chatsworth-based Franklin Plant Native conducting parallel work.

While in Kyoto Mr Phillips also discussed Greening Australia's BIO4 research project, which has been funded by the Alcoa Foundation.

BIO4 aims to restore native vegetation and landscapes to a healthy state while also exploring the opportunities native plants could provide in delivering bioenergy outputs to diversify farm incomes.

"I think the majority of the conference was around the agricultural application (of biochar)," Mr Phillips said.

"There was a fair bit of data presented on recalcitrance in terms of how long certain biochars exist in the soils before they break down and that was very interesting."

Manures tended to break down in less than 100 years, though wood-based char was shown to last far longer.

Mr Phillips said researchers from Australia and New Zealand were leading the way when it came to understanding uses for biochar.

"I think we're down to a point where it's establishing the soil responses to char and then the appropriateness of the addition," he said.

"I don't think it's a one size fits all scenario . . . there have been a number of soil types that have been quite responsive, and others have been a bit slower out of the blocks.

"Obviously if you've already got very high carbon soil there's probably not much point in putting it on."