How chocolate could fight climate change

How chocolate could fight climate change

Hamburg, Germany:

In a red-brick factory in the German port city of Hamburg, cocoa bean shells go out one end and an incredible black powder with the potential to fight climate change comes out the other.

The substance, dubbed biochar, is made by heating cocoa husks in an oxygen-free room to 600 degrees Celsius (1,112 Fahrenheit).

The process blocks greenhouse gases and the final product can be used as a fertilizer or as an ingredient in the production of “green” concrete.

While the biochar industry is still in its infancy, the technology offers a new way to remove carbon from Earth’s atmosphere, experts say.

According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), biochar could potentially be used to capture 2.6 billion of the 40 billion tons of CO2 currently produced by humanity each year.

But increasing its use remains a challenge.


“We are reversing the carbon cycle,” Circular Carbon CEO Peik Stenlund at the biochar factory in Hamburg told AFP.

The plant, one of the largest in Europe, receives used cocoa shells via a network of gray pipes from a nearby chocolate factory.

Biochar traps the CO2 contained in the skins, in a process that could be used for any other plant.

If the cocoa shells were disposed of normally, the carbon within the unused byproduct would be released into the atmosphere as it decomposes.

Instead, the carbon is sequestered in the biochar “for centuries,” according to David Houben, an environmental scientist at the UniLaSalle institute in France.

One ton of biochar – or biocoal – can store “the equivalent of 2.5 to 3 tons of CO2,” Houben told AFP.

Biochar was already used by indigenous peoples of the Americas as a fertilizer before being rediscovered in the 20th century by scientists studying the extremely fertile soils of the Amazon Basin.

The surprising spongy structure of the substance stimulates crops by increasing the absorption of water and nutrients by the soil.

In Hamburg, the factory is enveloped in the faint scent of chocolate and warmed by the heat given off by the plant’s pipes.

The final product is poured into white bags to be sold to local farmers in the form of granules.

One such farmer is Silvio Schmidt, 45, who grows potatoes near Bremen, west of Hamburg. Schmidt hopes the biochar will help “give more nutrients and water” to his sandy soils.

Carbon cost

The manufacturing process, called pyrolysis, also produces a certain volume of biogas, which is resold to the nearby plant. In all, the plant annually produces 3,500 tons of biochar and “up to 20 megawatt hours” of gas from 10,000 tons of cocoa shells.

However, the production method remains difficult to scale up to the level envisioned by the IPCC.

“To ensure that the system stores more carbon than it produces, everything has to be done locally, with little or no transportation. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense,” Houben said.

And not all soil types do well with biochar. The fertilizer is “most effective in tropical climates,” while the raw materials for its production aren’t available everywhere, Houben said.

The cost can also be prohibitive at “about 1,000 euros ($1,070) a ton — that’s too much for a farmer,” he added.

To make better use of the potent black powder, Houben said other applications would need to be found. The construction sector, for example, could use biochar in the production of “green” concrete.

But to make a profit, the biochar business came up with another idea: to sell carbon certificates.

The idea is to sell certificates to companies trying to balance their carbon emissions by producing a certain amount of biochar.

With the inclusion of biochar in the highly regulated European carbon certificate system, “we are seeing strong growth in the sector,” said CEO Stenlund. His company is looking to open three new sites to produce more biochar in the coming months.

All over Europe, biochar projects have started to multiply. According to the biochar industry federation, production is set to nearly double this year to 90,000 tonnes compared to 2022.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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