Background report / Version 1.0
This report was published 2023-12-20.
The preparation of this report was initiated in Autumn 2022, as part of research project on biochar persistence funded by the Swedish Energy Agency. More information about the project is available on this website.
This report provides a snapshop of the state of the knowledge as of 2023, with a focus on incubation-derived estimates of biochar persistence, among other approaches.
As biochar durability research is rapidly evolving, this report will be updated in 2025 to provide a more comprehensive understanding of biochar persistence, attempting to unify the various approaches to modelling & understanding biochar persistence.
Biochar is produced by heating biomass in the total or partial absence of oxygen. This report addresses the long-term persistence of biochar in soil and how this can be managed in climate calculations and reporting. The report consists of this summary and four chapters, which can be read independently.
Different terms have been used to describe the durability of biochar carbon storage, but also the physical presence of biochar in soils, e.g. persistence, permanence, recalcitrance, residence times, stability. Today, the term “durability of carbon storage” is preferred in policy contexts, but various academic disciplines such as soil science have other established terms like “persistence”. Here, both durability and persistence are used, rather interchangeably. It is important to be aware of differences in meaning that exist between disciplines.
The purpose of this report is to present the state of knowledge regarding the proportion of carbon in biochar that remains in the soil over time and provide recommendations for calculating this. There is a need to calculate the persistence of biochar in soil for national climate reporting, corporate climate reporting, carbon credit trading, and life cycle assessments for various purposes.
The amount of biochar remaining after a certain time depends on the properties of the biochar and the environment in which it is located. Nearly all research on biochar persistence has focused on its application in agricultural soils.
The main reason for the high durability of biochar carbon storage is the formation of fused aromatic stable structures during biomass pyrolysis. A high degree of fused aromatic structures makes biochar much less prone to microbial decomposition than fresh biomass.
Different biochars have different properties, and this influences how long they persist in the soil. To achieve biochar with properties that provide higher persistence, it should be produced at higher temperatures for a sufficient duration.
Established quantification methods of 100-year biochar persistence (e.g. referenced in IPCC inventory guidelines and used in voluntary carbon markets, to date) extrapolate short-term soil decomposition processes, and do not fully consider the processes that may explain millennial persistence.
Calculations regarding biochar persistence have traditionally used a time span of 100 years to describe the amount of remaining carbon after a certain time. The use of specifically 100 years lacks a well founded scientific reason, but has been regarded as “far enough” into the future from a climate perspective and close enough for modelling to be meaningful.
An active area of research relevant for the understanding biochar carbon storage durability is the development of advanced analytical characterisation methods of biochar that will enable measurement of the physicochemical heterogeneity in carbon structures present in biochar.
Another area of continued research is biochar incubation, with a focus on field conditions, to elucidate both differences from laboratory conditions, and how transport processes affect biochar in the field.
In the project, available research data has been aggregated into a functional model that calculates how much of the carbon in biochar remains after a given number of years. The model is based on the H/C ratio of the biochar placed in the soil and the annual average temperature at the location. The model is made freely accessible to provide biochar market actors with the best available knowledge for estimating the durability of biochar carbon.
Existing research results provide a sufficient foundation for estimation of the amount of biochar expected to remain over time. Future research results are expected to lead to increased knowledge regarding the decomposition properties of biochar, in particular biochars with a very low H/C ratio. Therefore, this recommendation will be revised by the end of the project in 2025.