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Production and Use of Biochar and Bio-Oil from Farm and Forest Wastes to Enhance Small Farm Sustainability in the Northeast

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Principal Investigator/Project Leader: 
Department of Project: 
Stockbridge School of Agriculture
Project Description: 

Global climate change affects every aspect of our life. Global warming increases the intensity of drought, which leads to the increase in frequency and severity of forest fires. Beyond being a source of soot and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), severe wildfires/forest fires can damage soils, water quality and quantity, fisheries, plant communities, wildlife habitat, and endangered species; result in economic and property loss; and cause harms to the environment and public health. Forest thinning or prescribed burns reduce the accumulation of hazardous fuels and restore forest health. In 2002, the Forest Service and Interior Department have treated more than 2 million acres with thinning and prescribed burns (HFI, 2002). The thinning activities continuously produce large quantities of low-quality, low-value wood, such as small diameter logs. These wood wastes are often left on the field to decompose or burned, which yield low values and can cause environmental pollution. The major cause of global warming is the ever-increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere from the use of carbon-based fuels. Biochar, the anaerobic pyrolysis product of biomass waste material, has attracted research interest as a soil amendment that may improve soil structure, moisture retention, and buffering capacity, and that helps control plant root diseases and sequester carbon in soils (instead of release to air as CO2), as a result, mitigate greenhouse effect. Therefore, the goal of this proposed project is to utilize wood waste materials to produce biochar which can be used in both forest and agricultural soils to improve soil quality, sequester carbon in soils, and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (e.g., CO2 and N2O). Realizing the economic opportunity that the relatively steady-state flow of forest thinnings and other wood wastes offers, we propose a novel and value-added utilization of this resource: converting low-value wood into useful biochar for soil and environmental improvement. Our preliminary studies and those by others clearly demonstrate that biochar can potentially improve soil quality, adsorb contaminants and decrease emission of greenhouse gases. Thus, this project is closely related to the outlined research priorities: “utilization of wood and other forest products”, “protection of forest land and resources against fire, insects, diseases, or other destructive agents”, and “… to obtain the fullest and most effective use of forest resources”. We will collect different types of wood waste materials and find out the optimal pyrolysis temperatures to make biochar. Analytical and spectroscopic methods will be used to characterize biochar. Then batch experiments will be used to determine the ability of biochars to adsorb nutrients and pollutants (e.g., organic compounds). Also, biochars will be mixed with both forest and agricultural soils to evaluate their effect on soil quality and plant growth using greenhouse experiments. The results of this research will provide a good understanding on how to effectively use wood waste materials to make biochars and how biochars will improve soil and environmental quality. The data will be presented at conferences, UMass field days, and workshops. In addition, we will publish the results in refereed journals and make them accessible online.

Environmental Conservation topics: 
Climate Change
Forest and Forest Conservation
Soil