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Forest Disturbance Processes

Biochar: A Sustainable Soil Amendment

Research Issue

[photo:] Biochar processed from beetle-killed lodgepole pine.Biochar is a value-added byproduct of the bioenergy industry that contributes to sustainability of the energy supply chain via more complete use of the feedstock used for the primary energy product (e.g., bio-oil). As a soil amendment, biochar exhibits porosity that increases particle surface area, resulting in nutrient adsorption and higher levels of cation exchange capacity relative to unamended soils. Additional soil benefits of biochar include increased water holding capacity and pH, as well as decreased nitrogen losses. While biochar has been used extensively in forest applications, less is known about its efficacy for greenhouse and nursery operations, which could benefit from cost savings associated with substitutions for more costly amendments, such as vermiculite.  

Our Research

We have shown that when substituted for vermiculite in greenhouse production, biochar provided similar benefits to poplar energy crops in terms of nutrient availability and growth. As result, we are currently testing a greater number of genotypes across longer time periods in greenhouse and field conditions. Our overarching objective is to use phyto-recurrent selection to choose poplar genotypes that exhibit greater survival and growth when grown in biochar-amended soils versus those containing vermiculite or no soil amendments.

Expected Outcomes

This information is important for industry leaders and resource managers interested in enhancing the sustainability of their energy supply chains. Researchers will gain vital information for understanding the potential physiological and silvicultural implications of amending greenhouse and nursery soils with biochar – thereby promoting the advancement of phytotechnologies.   

Research Results

Headlee, W.L.; Brewer, C.E.; Hall, R.B. 2014. Biochar as a substitute for vermiculite in potting mix for hybrid poplar. BioEnergy Research  7:120-131.

Zalesny, R.S. Jr.; Headlee, W.L.; Page-Dumroese, D.S. 2014. Application of phyto-recurrent selection: poplars grown in biochar-amended soils. In: International Poplar Symposium VI; July 20-23, 2014; Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.   

Headlee, W.L.; Hall, R.B.; Zalesny, R.S. Jr. 2013. Interpreting hybrid poplar responses to soil and foliar applications of bioenergy byproducts via vector analysis. In: 10th International Phytotechnologies Conference; October 1-4, 2013; Syracuse, NY, USA.

Zalesny, R.S. Jr.; Headlee, W.L.; Page-Dumroese, D.S. 2013. Using phyto-recurrent selection to identify favorable Populus genotypes grown in biochar-amended soils. In: 10th International Phytotechnologies Conference; October 1-4, 2013; Syracuse, NY, USA.   

Headlee, W.L.; Hall, R.B.; Zalesny, R.S. Jr. 2012. Biochar as a substitute for vermiculite in soilless potting media: cation exchange and nutrient effects. In: 9th Conference of the International Phytotechnology Society: Phytotechnologies – Plant-based Strategies to Clean Water, Soil, Air and Provide Ecosystem Services; September 11-14, 2012; Hasselt, University, Diepenbeek, Belgium.

Zalesny, R.S. Jr. 2012. A review of North American Populus phytotechnologies research published from 1989 to 2011. In: 9th Conference of the International Phytotechnology Society: Phytotechnologies – Plant-based Strategies to Clean Water, Soil, Air and Provide Ecosystem Services; September 11-14, 2012; Hasselt, University, Diepenbeek, Belgium.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • William L. Headlee, Iowa State University, Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Ames, IA
  • Ronald S. Zalesny Jr., US Forest Service Northern Research Station- Team Leader, Research Plant Geneticist

Research Partners

  • Deborah S. Page-Dumroese, US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station- Research Soil Scientist
  • Adam H. Wiese, US Forest Service Northern Research Station- Forestry Technician
  • Bruce A. Birr, US Forest Service Northern Research Station- Laboratory Technician

Last Modified: October 4, 2016