Biochar is basically charcoal with a purpose. However, it's a product with a very interesting purpose that could be used to promote conservation and sustainable development in a number of ways. Numerous groups have started researching ways that biochar can help sequester carbon, replenish soil nutrients, and be used as a source for biofuels. Its many uses have sparked the interest of donors such as the Blue Moon Fund, which has identified biochar as one of its main focuses in recent years.
The Blue Moon Fund (see Blue Moon Fund: Grants for Conservation) lists biochar as one of its 13 "Jewels" or focuses for investment. Jewels include resources such as biochar and bamboo and geographic areas such as the Louisiana Wetlands and the Peruvian Amazon.
In 2011, the Blue Moon Fund backed up its commitment to biochar by giving several grants for the development and use of the product throughout China and the United States. The China National Research Center of Bamboo received $24,500 to use biochar in field experiments to mitigate greenhouse gases, while the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Research Center for Energy and Power received $127,000 to develop biochar to produce clean energy, sequester carbon, improve soil productivity and reduce non-point source pollution. In the United States, the Eastern Shore Resource Conservation and Development Council received $16,750 to support the use of poultry litter biochar as an environmentally friendly fertilizer around the Chesapeake Bay.
These grants are not particularly large, but they could signal the opening up of a new interest in conservation projects. Biochar use could be a significant development for conservation. Using it to improve soil health could reduce slash-and-burn agriculture, which in turn could reduce deforestation and carbon dioxide emissions. Burying biochar can help sequester carbon in soil for hundreds to thousands of years, thus helping to fight global climate change.
Biochar appears to be a new product with multiple interesting uses. Research into how it could best be used is, however, ongoing. The Blue Moon Fund prides itself on taking risks and trying "unconventional forms of philanthropy," and it appears to be riding the edge of a new wave with its biochar focus.
UPDATE: The Blue Moon Fund has completed its “sunset strategy” and is no longer a grantmaking organization. Click here for more information.