Research Grants/Fellowships/SBIR

Producing Biochar on Small Farms to Enhance Soil Fertility and Provide Heat

EPA Grant Number: SU835319
Title: Producing Biochar on Small Farms to Enhance Soil Fertility and Provide Heat
Investigators: Teel, Wayne
Institution: James Madison University
EPA Project Officer: Lank, Gregory
Project Period: August 15, 2012 through August 14, 2013
Project Amount: $15,000
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2012) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Challenge Area - Agriculture , P3 Challenge Area - Energy , P3 Awards , Sustainability



The primary objective of this project is to design and build two biochar pyrolysis systems on two Shenandoah farms, with each system adapted to the particular need of that farm. The systems will produce biochar that will subsequently be composted with farm manure and other nutrient sources and prepared for application on farm land. This biochar will increase the nutrient and moisture holding capacity of the soil, increase farm productivity and reduce potential nutrient pollution problems in their respective watersheds.


The pyrolysis systems are designed to use agricultural and woody waste material to make biochar. We will work directly with the farmers to design the system so that they provide both biochar and process heat. The ways farmers choose to use this heat will vary depending on the specific needs of the farm. This will limit their need for fossil fuel generated sources of energy and the related costs. Biochar is a high temperature charcoal that is light and highly porous. It is known to capture and hold onto agricultural nutrients such as ammonium ions and phosphates, limit losses of these nutrients to water bodies, while at the same time making the nutrients available to plants. Techniques for composting the biochar with nutrient sources like manure, poultry litter and farm waste will be tested to maximize their effectiveness on crops and pasture land. This could significantly lower the costs of inputs for the farmers since both nitrogen and phosphorus are high budget items. We will also work with JMU’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Research to promote the results of this research to relevant agricultural operations in the broader Shenandoah Valley Community.

Expected Results:

The end results will include a working biochar pyrolysis unit and an effective and operational composting system on each of the two farms. These systems will produce a high quality agricultural input for crop and pasture land as well as energy for farm use. We do not expect to know the exact benefit to the farmer in terms of crop yield and pasture productivity in the time frame of this project grant. However, some qualitative evaluation of the impact of composted biochar will be done.