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Switzerland: the first European country to officially approve biochar

by Hans-Peter Schmidt

Switzerland has become the first country in Europe to officially approve the use of certified biochar in agriculture, with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture issuing its approval on 23 April 2013. In it, the Delinat Institute is given responsibility for controlling biochar quality and the sustainability of its production.

Following an exceptionally thorough 3-year approval procedure involving the various research groups of the Biochar Science Network of Switzerland and the Federal Ministries of the Environment and Health, the Swiss Federal Ministry of Agriculture has issued conditional approval for the use of biochar in agriculture. Approval is based on strict, scientifically checked requirements with regard to the sustainability of biochar production, to biochar quality and to user protection in its application.




Production sustainability


Until the sustainable use of other biomasses has been thoroughly checked and accepted as such by the federal administration, the only biomass authorised as source material for producing biochar is untreated wood. This includes roots, prunings from trees, vines and shrubs, wood from biomass plantations, bark, wood chippings and shavings, sawn wood, wood waste, sawdust, wood chips, wood wool and husks. The feedstock for producing biochar must not be contaminated by organic or inert waste (e.g. plastic or remains of paint) or with heavy metals.
In the production of the biochar, any syngases are to be trapped and/or appropriately burned, allowing the emission thresholds for wood-burning systems to be complied with. Material properties and pyrolysis conditions required to achieve the right biochar quality (e.g. pyrolysis duration, temperature, type and moisture level of the input, and other relevant parameters) are to be specified by the producer.




Biochar characterisation


The product definition of biochar is dependent on the source material, the pyrolytic production process used, the carbon content (Corg > 50% dry mass) and the molar H/Corg ratio (0.1 – 0.7). Biochar produced using other processes such as HTC (hydrochar), torrefaction or coking do not fully meet these requirements and are therefore excluded from this approval.
The heavy metal content of the biochar must not exceed the thresholds for fertilisers produced through biomass recycling. The emission levels of PAHs, dioxins and furans must not exceed the recommended values for compost and digestate. Nutrient content and the pH value must be specified.
All specification requirements, all thresholds and the analysis methods to be used correspond to the premium quality of the European Biochar Certificates (EBC-Certificate).






The biochar is to be prepared in such a way (e.g. spraying it with water or mixing it with manure) that no dust occurs when working with it / applying it. Packaging must refer to the need to wear appropriate protective clothing when working with / applying the biochar.




Monitoring / certification / approval


Producers wanting to market biochar in Switzerland require the approval of the Delinat Institute. To gain this approval, the Institute requires the certification of production and product quality in accordance with the European Biochar Certificates.The monitoring of this certificate is in the hands of the independent, state-certified monitoring organisation q.inspecta. Swiss users are only allowed to use biochars for soil conditioning purposes which have gained approval from the Delinat Institute and which therefore are in possession of an EBC Certificate. The Delinat Institute is accountable to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture for the amounts of biochar used in agriculture, and bears responsibility for compliance with the quality and sustainability requirements.
The approval remains in force until biochar is added to the List of Approved Fertilisers (Düngebuchverordnung). The Federal Government has specified a three-year timeframe for this. Within this period further biomasses suitable for producing biochar are to be checked and included in the extended approval procedure, using the positivlist of the EBC Certificate as a basis.




Status of the EU approval procedure


In 1984, Japan became the first country worldwide to approve the use of biochar as a soil conditioner. Switzerland is now the first country in Europe officially authorising biochar for use in agriculture. Switzerland’s strict quality and sustainability regulations are a major factor driving the development of biochar technology as a key technology for closing material cycles. Such regulations are currently missing in the European Union Member States, as well as in the USA and other countries using biochar in considerable amounts in agriculture.
Looking at the EU, the use of biochar in agriculture is neither clearly regulated nor explicitly forbidden. In Germany for example, the use of biochar as animal feed is allowed. It can thus be composted with the manure and applied to fields. In addition, charcoal is allowed as an additive for fertilisers and soil conditioners. What however is missing is an exact definition of what can be counted as biochar and which production conditions and thresholds need to be complied with. With the Swiss approval, we now have an exact definition, along with a requirement for strict quality controls. As a result of this approval, Switzerland can justify its leading role not just in the research and application of biochar, but also into its regulatory approach.
Thanks to a number of EU-sponsored research projects such as EBRN, Interreg or Refertil, we can now hope that a regulatory basis for the sustainable use of biochar will be created within the next few years, and that the development of a centuries-old agricultural tradition will not remain limited or even prohibited by fertiliser legislation pandering to the agri-chemical industry.


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