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Bamboo-based Charcoal Restores Soil Health

February 10, 2014

dirtBy Andrew Wilcox, CEES Fellow

Charcoal isn’t just for grilling anymore.  Biochar, a specific kind of charcoal produced efficiently from sustainably sourced feedstocks, such as agricultural residues, bamboo, and timber waste, holds great promise in boosting agricultural yields, cleaning up contaminated soils, and sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide.  This summer, Wake Forest’s Center for Energy, the Environment and Sustainability (CEES), will be launching an innovative project in the Peruvian Amazon to produce, research, and promote biochar made from the region’s native bamboos.  The project will be located next to the world famous Manu National Park and will be investigating bamboo biochar’s potential role in improving agricultural yields in the region, reducing deforestation, and rehabilitating mined soils.

Tropical soils tend to be thin, acidic, and low in nutrients, conditions that result in a continuously expanding agricultural frontier.  Biochar could interrupt the slash and burn cycle by making lands that have already been cleared more productive and diminishing the pressure on old growth forest.  Additionally, Peru is home to an exploding illegal alluvial gold mining sector that converts diverse rainforests into sandy, mercury-contaminated wasteland.  This project will be investigating whether biochar could improve the growing capacity of the soils and immobilize enough of the heavy metal to allow for reforestation of the mined lands. 

Working with the Amazon Conservation Association and other Peruvian non-governmental organizations and government agencies, the project will be demonstrating this new technology while also developing a new use for Peruvian bamboo, a renewable resource that has the potential to be responsibly and sustainably managed.