Thousands of years ago, farmers in South America found that adding crop residues to soil was an effective way to get it to retain water and nutrients. Though that byproduct wasn’t called by the name we know it as today, the same technique is being used not only to encourage sustainable agriculture, but also to fight climate change at scale and even drive rural development.
This secret weapon is a carbon negative, charcoal-like substance called biochar, and NetZero, a family-founded start-up and member of the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab accelerator program, is leading the charge on its development. The company aims to encourage sustainable agriculture, rural development and fight climate change in tropical communities, which benefit the most from the use of biochar.
What are the benefits of biochar?
When you think of crop farming, you probably imagine fruits and vegetables and other plant products you might find at a farmer’s market or grocery store produce section. And you’d be right, but there’s more material out there than what makes its way to consumers.
Agricultural residue – and specifically crop processing residue – is what’s left over after fields have been plowed or picked and crops processed to retain their edible parts.
The nutrients from crop residue may be absorbed by future crops if the residue is returned to the fields from which it was harvested, this process is a slow and inefficient one, with only a small percentage of minerals able to be absorbed. Residues also contain a significant quantity of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when it’s disposed of in traditional methods like burning. When burned, the fires produce carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes negatively to climate change. Because it causes localized air pollution, the practice is increasingly being banned, particularly in India.
However, there’s another option to sustainably dispose of such residues: pyrolysis. This process heats up organic material in the absence of oxygen, decomposing the biomass to extract the carbon it contains and produce the star of today’s show: biochar. The production of biochar generates flammable gases which NetZero then captures and reuses to self-sustain the pyrolysis process.
How does biochar help in the long-term?
Part of the magic of biochar is that it lasts and remains stable for an incredibly long time – hundreds or thousands of years – even if mixed with soil. Crop residues capture carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, which is then extracted through pyrolysis, effectively removing it from the atmosphere and making it available for reuse. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), biochar can help remove up to 2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent each year if used at scale. As a tool for fighting climate change, it’s highly effective.
In the soil, biochar acts as a carbon sponge. It retains water and nutrients in soil, thus reducing the need for irrigation and improving crop resilience during dry weather. For the same reason, it can also help reduce reliance on fertilizer, since nutrients are better retained at the plant root level instead of being washed away.
What’s wrong with fertilizer, you may be thinking. Despite typically being made from naturally occurring substances, fertilizer can’t be completely absorbed by crops, and its excesses can seep into water sources – negatively affecting entire ecosystems – and can be broken down by microbes which release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. NetZero’s efforts to reduce reliance on fertilizer not only works in favor of the environment and local ecosystems, but acts as a cost-saving measure for farmers, too.
Given that part of the company’s mission is to provide economic benefit to small-scale farming operations, their approach represents a method that serves individuals and the planet, too.
How does NetZero harness technology for agricultural and ecological advancements?
NetZero’s goal is to develop a containerized production system so that the biochar and gasses produced during pyrolysis can be easily captured and repurposed. Doing so requires significant hardware development, for which the company deploys CATIA and SIMULIA solutions for both design and simulation.
Once this process is complete, the company will use DELMIA to manufacture the necessary equipment, and a host of other products like NETVIBES and 3DEXCITE for data management, monitoring and optimization. By leveraging technology to fuel their efforts, the company is setting up for success in the long-term, enabling scalability that offers with it a chance to rectify and even reverse environmental damage.
By taking part in the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab, NetZero has access to the entire suite of tools offered on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform. Using these innovative products allows companies like NetZero to make rapid advancements in fighting climate change, promoting sustainable agriculture and improving the lives and livelihoods of local farmers in small communities.
Learn more about NetZero’s work
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