Biochar is produced when plant or wood residues are heated using the pyrolysis process at temperatures of more than 450 degrees and without oxygen so that they carbonize. Depending on the starting material and the way it is processed, the resulting biochar can have a carbon content of up to 95 percent. This permanently binds the climate-damaging carbon that would otherwise be released when the plants decompose. When applied to agricultural soils, biochar can loosen the soil, bind nutrients, and thus improve soil quality.
In the ROCKCHAR project, for which she received funding, Dr. Maria-Elena Vorrath wants to produce biochar from biological waste and mineral industrial byproducts such as steel slag and concrete waste. In addition to a positive effect in agricultural soils, she wants to show that CO2 is being removed from the atmosphere at the same time. “Not only is the carbon dioxide stored directly in the biochar via the plant residues, but the rock components dissolve in the water of the soil. In the process, CO2 from the soil is transformed and bound for thousands of years,” explains Vorrath, who conducts research in the Aquatic Geochemistry research group and is a member of the University’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability.
Another positive effect is that the production of biochar generates a lot of energy in the form of waste heat and gas, which can be used to generate electricity. “In this way, a maximum circular economy can be established,” said the geoscientist. For the project, she is collaborating with the Hamburg University of Technology (TUHH) and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, among other higher education institutions, as well as with the Hamburg-based companies Novocarbo, thyssenkrupp, Sibelco, and Silicate. “It is truly a high-risk, high-gain project. If I can show that it makes a significant difference, it could have an immediate, positive impact on agriculture and the climate. But it could also turn out that the impact is not as big as expected, and then we would need to do further research,” explains Vorrath.
The goal of the Klaus Tschira Booster Fund, which is provided by the Klaus Tschira Stiftung and the German Scholars Organization, is to support researchers’ career paths after they complete their doctorate. The focus is on the natural sciences as well as on mathematics and informatics. The fellows receive funding of up to €80,000 for their own high-risk or interdisciplinary projects. The funds are intended to create flexibility without which the innovative research would not be possible. In addition, the fellows are offered a wide range of workshops and consultations as well as opportunities to network with other researchers. In the fifth round of the program, a total of 16 fellows will be funded.