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BIOCHAR; The Little Hero That Could Save The Earth

Introduction

Tragically, in recent years, both wildlife and humans have been experiencing the consequences of climate change more constantly, such as flash floods, storms, and heat waves, which have led to the displacement of millions of homes and damage to land annually. These tragedies were the aftermath of increasing global temperatures every year (the more ice melts, the more water level rises).

Malaysian experts have shared that locals understand the seriousness of this planetary crisis but do not know how else to tackle it. Sure, we are cutting down the use of plastic and being mindful of excessive clothing purchases, but what else can we common folks do to slow down the imminent 2050 climate change forecast (when it’s too late to reverse the damage)?

The good thing is that we are all aware of climate change now, and one way we can help is to support any research regarding Earth’s natural resources, such as soil.


Soil: The foundation of life

Soil management is critical to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Being one of Earth's most invaluable resources, soil is the Earth’s most natural foundation for food growth. It grows almost everything we need for sustenance, such as wheat, vegetables, food for livestock and food for wildlife. If issues such as soil contamination, fertility problems, and erosion happen, it can quickly disintegrate our crops and cause another Irish Potato Famine episode.

Therefore, soil management needs to be done in a sustainable and effective way.

In order to reduce risks of constant soil damage, individuals like Associate Prof. Dr. Rosazlin Abdullah, a Soil Scientist and the President of the Malaysia Society of Soil Science (MSSS), are dedicating a large portion of their time to study ways to improve soil health.

Through research, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Rosazlin shared that one possible way to save the Earth is using Biochar as an environmentally-friendly solution to grow healthy plants. Best of all, it also keeps the climate healthy.


How can Biochar help

Since 1880, the incremental global temperature grew to 0.08° Celsius per decade.

A big contributor to warmer climates is due to large volumes of carbon emission, and it happens everywhere, from turning on your air conditioners to running a farm with livestock to feed.

In the agriculture trade, excessive inorganic fertilisers are used on soil for crops to meet the demands of the growing populations. As a matter of fact, there is an extensive use of nitrogen fertiliser, which helped to boost crop yield by up to 111.6 million tonnes in 2016. However, the excessive use of nitrogen fertilisers has caused severe environmental contamination.

This is why more agriculture companies today are practising sustainable ways to harness food for everyone. But this chain reaction technically orchestrates the “Chicken or egg first” game whereby sustainable practices often cause more laborious or expensive methods to be carried out.

Biochar is a charcoal-like material produced from plants via biomass waste conversion under the pyrolysis process, which is when an organic material is heated in the absence of heat. Biochar has the ability to stimulate the growth of plant-growth-promoting bacteria called rhizobacteria, which is a beneficial root colonising bacteria for plants. Therefore, Biochar helps to improve soil salinity. It can also permanently sequester carbon in the soil and thus reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. As a highly carbon-enriched material, Biochar securely retains carbon in its most stable form for an extended period of time. This lends little to no harmful causes to the soil.

With all that said, it is why something as simple as using Biochar would greatly benefit everyone from rice farmers and vegetable home growers to wildlife and our global temperature.


En route to recognising Biochar

Researcher like Assoc. Prof. Dr. Rosazlin is racing to carry out more studies on the use of Biochar in soil for agriculture.


Associate Prof. Dr. Rosazlin's showcase during the Festival of Ideas (FOI 2023) exhibition - 'Unlocking the Potential of Biochar for Food Security and Climate Change Mitigation'


With every win in their research, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Rosazlin and her team are one step closer to initiating collaborations that will benefit everyone worldwide. That includes getting in touch with international bodies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and APRU Sustainable Waste Management Program.


According to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Rosazlin, when urea is present among activated carbon (also known as enhanced Biochar), it can regulate the release of urea fertiliser in the soil. Urea itself is a popular fertiliser that helps with plant growth and increases yield. But too much of urea at once will cause dire results as it releases ammonia gas due to volatilisation as well as nitrate leaching.

Dr. Rosazlin and her team carried out a glasshouse study using a Biochar product called ACTIVCUREA on common Purslanes (Portulaca oleracea) as test crops.


A Biochar product called ACTIVCUREA was used on common Purslanes (Portulaca oleracea) as test crops for the study.

Derived from oil palm kernel shells, ACTIVCUREA is rich in benefits like nutrient retention, improved water retention and reduced urea leaching into soil and water. It can also enhance soil structure and may reduce urea volatilisation. Furthermore, Biochar has the potential to adsorb and capture ammonia, thereby reducing ammonia release into the atmosphere and preventing it from becoming a greenhouse gas.

The test results were successful. With just ACTIVCUREA, performance and results were on par with commercial controlled-release fertilisers. It was believed that the benefits and positive results were further boosted by Biochar's high surface area and porous structure allowing effective absorption of urea as well as retaining other necessary nutrients. Furthermore, Biochar’s properties enable it to absorb and retain nitrates and ammonium in soil, thus preventing water pollution and eutrophication due to excessive nitrate leaching. Collectively, these results point to Biochar’s great potential in climate mitigation.


A little goes a long way in supporting soil scientists

Echoing Dr. Rosazlin’s principle: "Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people”. Basically, the absence of soil means there will be no plants to grow, no animals to feed, and no humans to live on.

Through her research, Dr. Rosazlin intends to disseminate the findings through various channels, including community engagement projects, research papers, social media, conferences, and newsletters. These avenues will allow her group to reach a broader audience, including policymakers and industry leaders, and make a more significant impact on the community.

Biochar will greatly aid not just our climate but also the health of the soil, which is closely linked to the health of the plants that grow in it. That in turn dictates the health of the people who consume those plants. By learning about and supporting the use of Biochar, we can slow down and have more time to figure out another 100 ways to reverse climate damage.

 
Researcher featured:
Associate Professor Dr. Rosazlin Abdullah,
Institute of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, UM

Author:
Tan Jo Dee
If she’s being wishful, Jo Dee wishes to help enhance the way Malaysian children learn about life through education.Working as a consumer product writer cum editor, Jo Dee gets to write about and share meaningful readings through her work.
Having the chance to partake as a Masters in English Language Studies student in UM, Jo Dee hopes to realise her vision where she can educate the public with thoughtful knowledge about the world, without any communication boundaries.

Copyedit:
Siti Farhana Bajunid Shakeeb Arsalaan Bajunid
Assistant Registrar, UM


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