Biochar at Scale: Aligning Economic and Environmental Incentives for Farmers
I like to think of agriculture as humankind’s way of solving our most complex problems to meet our most basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing.
As we explore this “Sustainability at Scale” series, two “needs” that have come up multiple times are the need to build healthier soils and the need to remove greenhouse gasses from the environment.
These problems are both complex and massive in scale, but can be approached in tandem through carbon sequestration.
Carbon sequestration is the process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it into a solid (or liquid) form. In an agricultural context, if we could convert this gas into the right form, we could use it to build soil health.
“Engineered biocarbon technology is basically a biochar-based material that’s designed to work in the soil much like a coral reef would work in the ocean”, says Loar, “So a reef supports life by providing structure, resources and habitat in an ocean that would probably otherwise be relatively baron”.
“We’re providing the habitat for the soil biology, the microbiology of the soil, to colonize and grow and prosper.” — Jim Loar, CEO of Cool Planet
Biochar refers to charcoal-like material that has long been used as a soil amendment. While it has been effective on a small scale in the past, there have been concerns that it would not be feasible on a commercial scale. Specifically, could the industry produce a consistent product with a proven return on investment (ROI) that was logistically feasible for larger farmers to utilize.
Jim and his team at Cool Planet set out to solve these concerns. They developed proprietary processes to produce a consistent product. To understand its effectiveness, they conducted over 100 trials in collaborations with 50 different universities and independent 3rd party researchers across a number of crop and locations.
Through these trials, they found that crops growing with the Cool Terra product were outgrowing the control by over 12%. “That’s significant”, says Loar, “agriculture is an industry that kind of lives and dies by small increments. Increments in yield, or increments in control of pests or increments in fertilizer utilization.”
The end result is an engineered biocarbon designed to improve soil health, optimize water retention, foster beneficial microbes, and build lasting soil structure. This product is made from renewable, non-food biomass that has taken carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
While improving consistency and improving the effectiveness were essential, Cool Planet had to continue to make sure they created a product with the farmer in mind. “Once you arrive at a material that has value in the soil”, says Loar, “then you really need to think about okay how am I going to get it to the soil. What farm equipment do I need to use to apply it?”
With the farmer in mind, Cool Planet has developed a granular consistency that allows for easy spreading using equipment most farmers will already have on hand. There is still a real cost to transporting a product like this, but the product only needs to be around the rhizosphere (root zone) of the plant. Also, the material has a half life of hundreds of years.
This creates a sort of win-win-win trifecta with positive ROI for the farmer, long term soil health, and carbon sequestration.
There is another aspect of Cool Terra that’s exciting to think about: a delivery mechanism for beneficial microbes. In the 100th episode of the “Future of Agriculture” podcast, we explored how companies like Indigo are marketing beneficial microbes to farmers. To date, the primary delivery mechanism for these microbes is a seed treatment. Could engineered biocarbon become an additional delivery mechanism in the future?
Jim admits that this is a future possibility. “Amazon is a good company but requires UPS and FedEx for delivery” he says. Might Cool Planet be the UPS/FedEx for microbes?