Academia meets industry, practitioners, and enthusiasts at the US Biochar conference

Last week, a group of us from the Lehmann lab drove through the fabulous peak foliage gauntlet of NY and MA to attend the North American Biochar Symposium. It was a very interesting experience, for so many reasons! In particular, the diversity of backgrounds and interests of conference attendees and the enthusiasm of participants were unlike any other (non-biochar) conferences I’ve been to.

View of the lake (where I went swimming!) during our hike at Kate's place.

View of the lake (where I went swimming!) during our hike at Kate’s place.

The conference is by no means solely a scientific meeting, although there is some really excellent, cutting-edge research being presented. (For example, Joff Silberg, from Rice, presented some very interesting work on biochar quenching of bacterial signals.) Meanwhile, in parallel sessions, there might be discussions about scaling the biochar industry, ethics and sustainability, or small scale biochar production devices, such as cookstoves. As a scientist, this means that there are people at the conference who are already using biochar (in about as many ways as you can imagine, including as toothpaste and to tap into Colorado’s budding new industry), who want to directly apply your work. So, at the end of a presentation, researchers often get very applied questions, like, “So how much biochar should I use in my homemade water filtration system?” While the answer is often, “Well, we would need to do more research to say for sure,” it is also kind of great to have our feet held to the fire. Why are we doing this research, if not for our findings to be applied? With people sitting in the audience ready to use these findings, it forces us to directly connect our work to the real world.

An example of the weird and wonderful world of biochar enthusiasts

The weird and wonderful world of biochar enthusiasts

In a similar vein, the other really lovely thing about the conference is just how excited people are about biochar! It makes it easy to feel like my research is valuable when there are so many non-scientists excited about our findings. (It also highlights the urgent need to continue expanding our understanding of the properties of biochars and their production and application systems, as the industry is rapidly commercializing.) The “Biochar Banquet” on Monday night was so special. The organizers put a tonne of work into crafting an amazing menu with local produce and animal products grown or produced using biochar. Even the centrepieces had beautiful decorations that included charred pinecones, twigs, or corn cobs. I just can’t imagine many other conferences having people so dedicated and excited about a topic that they would put so much effort into creating such a special evening.

I hesitantly bite into a char vegetable cracker: it was actually pretty tasty!

I hesitantly bite into a char vegetable cracker: it was actually pretty tasty!

A few quick notes:

(1) I was psyched to see Johannes present my latest paper on BC stability and C management in a plenary session. One of the most important concepts from this paper is considering the C credit-debt ratio, which asks whether the C lost during initial biochar production is compensated for by its slower decomposition rate, as compared to the initial feedstock.

Group photo with Johannes and our lab, including our gracious host, Kate Ballantine, now a prof at Mt. Holyoke College.

Group photo with Johannes and our lab and our gracious host, Kate Ballantine, now a prof at Mt. Holyoke College.

(2) Rachel Hestrin and I worked with Christian Pulver, Kathleen Draper, and David Yarrow to create a workshop on Sunday for farmers. It was really fun! The room was full, and participants had lots of great questions and were very engaged. I ran the section on biochar and climate change, focusing on the questions, “Where does the climate impact of biochar come from?” and, “What questions should you ask about a biochar system to evaluate its impact on the climate?” 

(3) Another cool aspect to the conference was that it included inspirational keynote talks, including one by Frances Moore Lappé (author of Diet for a Small Planet). In particular, I really enjoyed the talk by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, who spoke on “Facing the Climate Crisis: Living in Hope”, asking, “In the face of ecological crisis, how do we maintain hope? Can we feel our grief without being overwhelmed by despair?” She’s a religious leader and a climate activist, and provided some insightful thoughts on how to stay engaged with troubling and deeply painful issues. I think this kind of earnestness is often missing from purely scientific conferences. Scientists might squirm at the fuzziness of concepts like a “framework for the heart” and feel like showing emotions makes us look weak, but I think we do engage with our work as humans with feelings as well as scientists, and sometimes that can hurt. Providing a framework for navigating those challenges is a really valuable step.

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