Charcoal, Bio Char and Nanotechnology

February 24, 2010

Where's the beef?!
Creative Commons License photo credit: Robert S. Donovan

Most of you, my dear readers, have heard of charring or charcoal at some point (a few might even know the term “Charyou Tree” from the novels of Stephen King). So you may be asking yourselves what is biochar? Is it different from normal charcoal? Why are people putting it in the ground and not using it for bar-b-q?

Biochar is organic material, mostly wood, that has been heated until it has been completely carbonized. How is this different from charcoal? It differs in its primary use. When people think of and use charcoal in America, it’s mainly for burning the charcoal. Biochar’s main uses are as a carbon sequester and a fertilizer. What that means is that when wood is turned into charcoal (or biochar) the carbon it holds is not released into the atmosphere. Instead you end up with a little lump of carbon (not like this, but like this). It turns out that lump of carbon can be used as a very effective fertilizer.

Now why do I bring all this up? It’s not only to talk a little about carbon sequestration or to talk about a hobby of mine, but to talk about up and coming science.

Over at Rice University they are using modern methods of chemistry to try and create the best biochar for fertilizer and how to promote it in developing countries.

Why is this important? First it is a way to improve soil quality without adding too many artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Second, it is a way to store the carbon without releasing it immediately into the atmosphere.

Using charcoal as fertilizer is not a new invention. The idea and practice has been around for thousands of years. One example of it has been slash and burn agriculture.

So what does biochar have to with carbon nanofibers?  Both are made from carbon. Both are being worked on at Rice.

So what is a carbon fiber nanotube? It is a string of carbon molecules that have been put together that are about 1 nanometer in diameter.

A man named 'Smalley' is meant to be a king of the Small world. He was.
Creative Commons License photo credit: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³

These smallest of the small have big potential. A long carbon string made using these carbon nanofibers (and buckyballs) have the potential to help revolutionize fields such as electronics and building materials.

Carbon nanofibers have the strongest tensile strength (how well the material stands up to stress) and can also hold an electrical current 1,000 times greater than the copper wires we use.

So, why aren’t we already using it? That’s the really amazing thing. The technology is so cutting (and bleeding) edge that the implementation is not there yet. 

And there are greater things yet to come. “Oh brave new world that has such people in it.”

Authored By Daniel Burch

An inveterate punster, amateur chef, and fencer, Daniel B has a double degree in History and Museum Science from Baylor. He currently serves as the Assistant Program Coordinator for the Wiess Energy Hall and Adult Education at HMNS.

2 responses to “Charcoal, Bio Char and Nanotechnology”

  1. tash says:

    how we relate bio char and nano technology

  2. Daniel says:

    Rice University is working on building a bio char that is better at carbon sequestration and fertilization form the molecular level up (from the ground up). And that’s where the nano scale comes in. The bio char is a very large chain of carbon molecules being designed at the nano level.

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