Biochar to Combat Climate Change

Chemists Without Borders is uniting minds to combat pressing issues across the world

I started working with Chemists Without Borders in 2014, and I've been President of the organization since 2016. Our mission? To solve humanitarian problems by mobilizing the resources and expertise of the global chemistry community and its networks.

We work with people around the globe to fulfil this mission. For example, one of our teams has three members in Australia, Switzerland and Argentina respectively – three points that couldn’t be geographically further apart. Together, we work on numerous projects, focusing on issues from improving living conditions in less developed countries to combating global issues and scientific education. Scientists have a duty to further understand and improve the human condition, and I believe that many of us could make more active contributions to improving lives around the world. That is why I joined Chemists Without Borders.

A huge issue the world faces right now is climate change; we’ve burnt fossil fuels for over a century, greenhouse gas levels have climbed and temperatures have followed suit. In fact, the global temperature has risen by approximately 1 degree Celsius since the start of the industrial revolution. Though the rise may seem negligible, the climate is extremely sensitive to such changes – hence the sharp rise in storms, droughts, hurricanes and floods that we have witnessed these past few years.

Looming tipping points such as the melting of the permafrost in the arctic, which would release large quantities of greenhouse gases, mean that we must find a solution quickly; we risk an irreversible global temperature increase that we may not survive. And though many groups have focused on political activism and the growth of green energy sources, I have focused my attention elsewhere: biochar.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide throughout their life and release it back into the atmosphere upon dying. The production of biochar – primarily carbon extracted from dead plants – can block this cycle, preventing carbon dioxide release and limiting eventual increases in atmospheric temperature. Around 200 companies are operating globally in this area already – analyzing and improving their biochar with techniques like Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy and solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance – but our aim is to expand the industry further. Providing sales support to these companies could provide a much-needed push into the mainstream. Growth of this industry to a size at which it could process most of the world’s dead plants could produce positive change.

We’re currently working with five biochar companies across America and Canada, and our next steps will be to build networks between these businesses, farmers, and the US Department of Agriculture. These networks will be essential to open up communication with those who will benefit from using biochar for their specific soil and environmental conditions. In short, as in all areas of science, communication and collaboration will be key to our success.

"Looming tipping points such as the melting of the permafrost in the arctic, which would release large quantities of greenhouse gases, mean that we must find a solution quickly; we risk an irreversible global temperature increase that we may not survive."

To this end, we’re constantly recruiting volunteers to support our cause, including students involved in crop and soil research, environmental science, agriculture, and even business. We are encouraging university professors in the relevant fields to design student research projects on biochar applications for masters’ programs and PhD theses. These thesis projects could simultaneously solve the problems faced by biochar customers and grow the market. In short, the model offers a win-win-win-win: the student gets a thesis topic with mentoring from Chemists Without Borders and the biochar producer; the biochar producer improves their sales; the biochar purchaser gets the benefits from its use; and the world comes closer to a solution of the climate crisis.

Many skills will be needed to communicate our message widely through the scientific and agricultural communities (marketing, social media, sales, engineering, and so on), and the more people we can recruit with expertise in these areas, the better. Bringing together such minds could enhance not only the reach of our climate change project, but also the numerous other projects in which Chemists Without Borders are involved.

Consider this a call to arms. Whether your talents lie in laboratory work, communication through social media platforms or the running of successful business, we would love to hear from you. Analysts have molded the world we live in and continue to do so every day – why not help in extending this hand to the people and causes that would benefit from it most?