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Iowa State University’s Promising Carbon Sequestration Tool

Earlier this month, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds answered questions from reporters about the status of the carbon capture industry in her Condition of the State address. In response to queries regarding the multitude of private carbon pipeline projects that are proposed within the state and whether public funding will soon follow, Reynolds used the opportunity to talk up the progress being made at Iowa State University. “There’s a lot of interest in capturing carbon, and we want to truly understand that,” said Governor Reynolds. Her answer was in regards to the university’s research on ways for farmers to efficiently sequester carbon on their own and secure those much-desired carbon credits. “It’s a value add for our farmers. It’s really important, I think, for the industry to not only sustain it but to build on our leadership,” she added.

The governor’s comments align well with what’s being studied over at ISU – biochar. Biochar is what you get from heating wood or organic wood byproducts like stems or leaves inside a reactor with little oxygen. This pyrolysis converts wood matter into a powdery substance used as a fertilizer.

Photo Courtesy: Christopher Gannon

Past efforts to make biochar work as a large-scale fertilizer were largely unsuccessful. The cost was the primary limiting factor. After all, why would farmers pay a premium for biochar when standard fertilizers offered the same performance? However, in recent years, the emergence of carbon markets has paved the way for increased demand for biochar.

As it turns out, biochar is pretty great at helping with carbon sequestration. After a few years of hard work, a few million in USDA funding through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, and a little luck, Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute has developed the Pyrolysis-Biochar-Bioenergy Platform.

This platform essentially takes discarded crop residue– stalks, grass, wood, or other byproducts that might otherwise be wasted– and easily converts it into biochar.

Using this, farmers can take their applicable waste and walk away with a fertilizer that will improve their land’s habitability for future crops. 

Photo Courtesy: Zoe Schaeffer

It is a similar concept to what the ancient Amazonian people would do. It has been understood that their farmers used a form of charcoal that was then mixed with a relatively infertile type of soil. The resulting mixture, called ‘terra preta,’ would perform significantly better as far as hosting crops compared to before, and it is one of the earliest known examples of the humans of old having a high-level understanding of agricultural techniques. Today, farmers can utilize biochar just as our ancestors did, by generating carbon credits. Not only does this help reduce the abundance of carbon in our atmosphere, but it provides economic benefits to those who make up the backbone of our nation’s food production.


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