I had the pleasure of spending some time in the company of Stephen Joseph, co-founder of the International Biochar Initiative, and one of biochar's true pioneers. Stephen was visiting Costa Rica as a consultant to our project, a slight detour from his home in New South Wales, Australia en route to Boulder, CO to attend the North American Biochar Conference
Stephen is a scientific genius, brilliant engineer, and visionary. Drawing on clues from multiple disciplines, ranging from surveys of "fired biomass" agricultural traditions to analyses utilizing state-of-the-art laboratory research tools, he has deduced how Terra Preta soils were created (not simply "biochar", as widely believed) and postulated plausible mechanisms by which they derive their extraordinary fertility and persistence. Next, he reverse-engineered their structure and came up with a recipe for their synthesis. He then went on to perform field trials with this synthetic Terra Preta, and has demonstrated extraordinary plant response, exceeding both biochar and conventional fertilizer treatments. This is an important accomplishment, coming at a time when biochar field research shows generally promising but often inconclusive results, and the mechanisms of the biochar/soil/plant interaction are still subject to speculation.
While Stephen's work is recent and needs to be corroborated by further study, it has important implications for commercialization potential, carbon balance analyses, and future research directions. Following Stephen's lead (a hasty white board sketch and much fast talking and hand waving), we are building a reactor to create synthetic Terra Preta from biochar, soil minerals, and other ingredients. This synthetic Terra Preta will be evaluated in field and greenhouse studies by CATIE (tropical agriculture research institution) along with simple biochar and conventional fertilizer treatments .