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Dr Attilio Pigneri (left) and Professor Mike Hedley with a sample of biochar, the substance that may help mitigate climate change.

Dr Attilio Pigneri (left) and Professor Mike Hedley with a sample of biochar, the substance that may help mitigate climate change.

Biochar research centre key to fighting climate change

The Government has announced funding for two new professorships in biochar - a research field expected to mitigate climate change. The positions will be based at Massey University and are a first step in building a world-class centre of excellence in biochar research and use.

Biochars are very stable forms of carbon that could be produced from a range of New Zealand tree and arable crops, agricultural and urban wastes. Biochars can be incorporated in the soil as a permanent carbon stores. The complete process, from the assimilation of atmospheric carbon dioxide by tree or crop growth; pyrolysis of the biomass to produce high value biochemicals or biofuels to using the remaining charcoal as a soil amendment, is a carbon negative technology with the potential to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.

Announcing the professorships this afternoon, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Jim Anderton said one position would be focused on biochar and its behaviour in New Zealand soils, and one on processing of biomass feedstock into biochar, known as pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is combustion in the absence of oxygen, the process used to make charcoal.

The two new professors will lead research to advance the understanding of biochar as a mitigation solution to global climate change and to enable its uptake in New Zealand - particularly by the agricultural and forestry sectors.

Professor Mike Hedley, who with Dr Attilio Pigneri led the scientists, engineers, life cycle economists and research consultants that developed the proposal, says the team is thrilled with the outcome.

"The proposal to establish a New Zealand Biochar Research Centre received enthusiastic support from the University's world-class research expertise in the disciplines of energy and bioprocess engineering, soil science, agricultural science, life-cycle analysis, management of primary production systems and climate change science," Professor Hedley says.

Two world-leading individuals will be recruited to the professorship positions early next year, he says.

"They will lead wide-ranging research and development that includes collaboration with other New Zealand and overseas universities, crown research institutes and industry including engineering, energy, agriculture, forestry, and fertiliser manufacturing and distribution companies as well as with regional government and community groups."

College of Sciences Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Anderson says securing the two positions in the face of strong competition from other universities is evidence of the University's leading role in climate change mitigation and sustainability. Funding for the initiative comes from the Government's investment initiatives under the Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change Plan of Action, and will be administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF).

"We also welcome the opportunity to partner with MAF to make a real contribution to reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of our primary industries," Professor Anderson says.

The initiative will be organised into three closely linked streams: pyrolysis plant and biochar engineering, soil science and biochar, and biochar and greenhouse gas mitigation strategies.

The University team that developed the bid was Professors Mike Hedley and Russ Tillman from the Institute of Natural Resources, Professors Don Cleland and Clive Davies, Dr Attillio Pigneri and Peter Read of the Institute of Technology and Engineering, and Bill Dyck of Research Management Services.

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