Soil Food Web profile of John Miedema's Biochar project

Erin Rasmussen

Article originally written by Micheal Rost for the Soil Food Web Insights Newsletter

See the attached Soil Food Web Insights Newsletter for the full report, and check out their web site, for more information.


The biochar concept has challenged scientists to figure out the best approach to turning waste organic material into stable carbon. This exciting new development has attracted the attention of researchers like John Miedema.

Miedema is collaborating on biochar research with Oregon State University and USDA-ARS
and is funded by a Western Oregon timber company. He was an early adopter of the global warming
concept, and is concerned with mitigating the amount of excess CO2 being deposited in the Earth’s
atmosphere. He’s also concerned about devising new methods to feed the population of the world.

“We burn fossil fuels to produce our nitrogen fertilizers,” Miedema said. “As the supply is reduced
the price of production and transportation of those fertilizers will go up. The implications of high
prices and food riots is significant. This is a problem we have to figure out sooner than later.”

He hopes to address numerous problems facing the population of the world and the pollution
we create. One example is the waste created by concentrated feedlots that are common in the United States.

We’re not going to see the ‘50 cows on 50 acres’ farms like the one my grandfather had,” he said. “In that kind of situation the animals would supply the soil with nutrients at a stable rate. Now we’re seeing ‘5000 cows on 5 acres’ in contained feedlots and the problems inherent in those operations. There’s a lot of that waste going into our water supply.”
Miedema wants to capture the nutrients from animal waste products and cycle them back into the farm field with biochar. Biochar has the added benefit of potentially filtering the pollutants out of water sources.
“I want to try to turn that waste into a potential value rather than a waste stream that we have to deal with.” He added, “I see biochar as a material that, depending on how you process it, can hold onto various nutrients. We are developing a scenario where you can grab nutrients from waste and move them into soil.”
He has already successfully experimented with using biochar to filter heavy metals out of water. One documented result demonstrates the ability of biochar to reduce the amount of zinc from 750 mg/liter of water to 40 mg/liter. (EPA discharge level is 117mg/liter).
In addition, biochar could also be used to enhance soil nutrient retention.
“There are soils around the world that are very old and highly weathered. Many of the nutrients have been leached out and the clay that is left over doesn’t have much cation exchange capacity (ability to hold nutrients). Biochar can be utilized as a replacement for nutrient storage,” Miedema said.

Through oxidation, biochar material gains a negative charge that attracts many critical plant nutrient minerals like potassium (K+), calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+). This is critical for areas in the world with poor nutrient retention in their soils. Biochar also holds onto nitrogen in soils and reduces denitrification.

“Adding biochar to soil has been demonstrated to reduce denitrification by 50-80%. The implication for agriculture is incredible,” Miedema said.

Throughout all this, Miedema tries to be realistic... “Nobody is going to pay me to sequester carbon.” He continued, “There’s no value in carbon. It’s upon me to prove the tangible value of the product I’m making. We’ve got a wide range of possible benefits but we still need to develop the research and the process.”

Miedema isn’t looking to sell carbon sequestering potential, he merely sees it as added information for the consumer market. He wants to market biochar for agriculture and horticulture purposes while informing consumers how much carbon they’re sequestering.

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