From compost to biochar and back to compost.

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From Peat to Green: Transforming Soil Care with Biochar Innovation.

Mark Hanly’s Irish-based company Greenlawn Horticulture was once focused only on the peat business. However, in recent times, the peat industry has faced environmental concerns due to the impact of peat extraction on carbon storage and biodiversity. 

So, Mark’s business sought to diversify into wood chips for biomass power and mulch. However, difficulties quickly surfaced as the Irish market was too small and competition entered. Peat was still important to the agriculture side of the business but seeking an alternative that still had water retention properties was needed. 

Mark then heard from a colleague working in forestry about biochar. There was interest in improving soil carbon and in re-forestry projects. Also,  peat and biochar are known for their ability to retain water. 

After consideration, Mark and his partners settled on an ARTi machine. Soon they were producing biochar and conducting tests in frosty applications. However, these were still early days and there wasn’t any awareness, let alone market for biochar yet. Many aspects of production had to be learned before they could make a good quality biochar. 

Fast forward to 2023 and all has changed. New legislation required farmers to drastically reduce soil nitrogen application to their land. This caused a crisis with farmers as the animal manure produced on their farms could no longer be added raw to the soils that way it had been done before. Excess nitrogen in farmlands can lead to environmental issues, such as water pollution and aquatic ecosystem damage. Animal manure and compost can contribute nitrogen to soil, but improper management can lead to nitrogen runoff and pollution. Now the farms had the problem of what to use instead of the manure. 

Then the enthusiasm for biochar changed. Mark and his company used biomass residue from mushroom farming. The mushroom industry uses substrates and growing media to grow the mushrooms but every number of weeks they replace this material and throw it out. But now this spent growing material can be reused as feedstock for biochar and the resulting compost mixture. 

The biochar compost mix is then added to compost! Compost to biochar to compost. This process also greatly reduced odor which was a big bonus. The quality of the compost increased as well with a more regulated temperature and a higher nutrient level. 

Before, the cost of feedstock in Ireland was expensive. But now everything has changed. Helping the farmers get rid of excess biomass means the company can pick up the feedstock for the cost of transportation alone. All of this has cut the cost of the biochar down by 50%. So there’s a better use for what was once waste and compost has been greatly improved. If carbon credits can be added that would be another added bonus but the entire operation is viable and consistent already. 

Future plans include producing biochar up to carbon credit certification standards and characterization for the production specific biochars for specific applications. And also to produce better quality biochar in general. 

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