Biochar Research at Colorado State University

Biochar is any organic matter that has been thermal decomposed (in a little to no oxygen environment) with the intent of applying the matter to soil to improve its productivity.

Morrison holding biochar

Biochar Research Being Conducted with Support of CSFS

Research Project

Amanda Morrison, CoWood staff member and forest sciences graduate student in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at Colorado State University, is looking at the effects of a biochar application on forest soils. Her research will determine if biochar made from aspen and lodgepole pine has a positive effect on water holding capacity and tree seedling growth. Results could indicate a potential market for woody biomass residues from forest product manufacturing operations.

Morrison is growing quaking aspen seedlings in a biochar/soil mix in a greenhouse. Soil collected from forest sites has been mixed with biochar made from quaking aspen and lodgepole pine wood chips. The quaking aspen seedlings are divided into four groups; each group receives a different amount of water.

In addition to the plant growth experiment, Amanda is determining moisture retention curves for four major soil types; each type is mixed with quaking aspen and lodgepole pine biochar. The experiment is designed to indicate how much additional water is held in each soil type where biochar has been added.

Based on previous research, she expects biochar will increase the amount of water held in the soil, and as a result, plants undergoing water stress will outperform plants grown without biochar.

Quaking aspen is an early seral species, one of the first species to appear in forests after a major disturbance such as wildfire. The establishment and success of these species is important to restoring disturbed lands to a pre-disturbance level.

Background on Biochar

  • Biochar is any organic matter that has been thermal decomposed (in a little to no oxygen environment) with the intent of applying the matter to soil to improve its productivity.1 Simply stated, biochar is charcoal mixed into the soil.
  • Biochar can be made from a variety of materials, ranging from biosolids and poultry manure to woody biomass and agricultural waste. Much of the biochar made and used for research in Colorado is produced from woody material like lodgepole pine wood chips.
  • Biochar can be produced by a number of mechanisms; pyrolysis and gasification are the most popular methods for biochar production.
  • The temperature, time and method used to produce biochar varies based on the feedstock (e.g. wood chips or agricultural waste); these factors influence the biochar ‘type’ produced.2
  • Not all biochars are the same; some chars are better suited for growing crops while others are better at carbon sequestration.

Before using biochar in your soils, have the soil and biochar tested. It is always a good idea to know what you are mixing into your soil before you invest too much time and money into the project. The results also will give you an idea of the amount to apply and if any additional soil amendments are needed.

1Lehmann, J. and S. Joseph, editors. 2009. Biochar for Environmental Management: Science and Technology. Earthscan, London.

2Novak, J.M., et al. 2009. Characterization of Designer Biochar Produced at Difference Temperatures and Their Effects on a Loamy Sand. Annals of Environmental Science, 3:195-206.

Research Applications

In Colorado, across the U.S. and in other countries, research is being conducted to determine the effects biochar may have when applied to various soils.

Scientists are interested in:

  • Biochar's role in carbon sequestration
  • Greenhouse gas emissions reduction
  • Soil productivity improvement
  • Moisture retention improvement
  • Biochar as a renewable energy source

For more information about current biochar research at CSU, please contact:

Amanda L. Morrison
Graduate Student - Forest Sciences
Colorado State University
Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship
Colorado State Forest Service

To learn more about biochar:

Please visit the International Biochar Initiative website. You will find information ranging from how biochar is made to what research currently is underway in other countries.

close-up of biochar biochar in hand fine biochar