UMD researchers are working to understand the potential benefits of biochar as a sustainable agricultural fertilizer

Biochar is a black powdery substance that may be able to augment traditional fertilizer use, while providing carbon sequestration capabilities.

February 16, 2023
By Laura Wormuth

Traditional fertilizer use has long been known to raise environmental concerns – increased nutrients from fertilizers like poultry litter can increase plant size and yield of product, but the excess phosphorus and nitrogen can run off into local waters causing algal blooms and other problematic issues. Biochar may offer a safer, more sustainable way to get the same results, while providing additional environmental benefits like carbon sequestration capabilities.

University of Maryland scientists from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) are joining forces with Florida A&M University, University of Florida, and the University of California-Davis, to conduct trial studies on different types of biochar and its potential benefits as a supplementary fertilizer source to augment traditional methods through a recent $4.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service  (USDA-NRCS).

“Agriculture and food production produces a lot of waste and biomass, and occasionally we struggle with what to do with it,” said Rohan Tikekar, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in Nutrition and Food Science who is leading the UMD research team comprised of Shirley Micallef, Associate Professor in plant Science and Landscape Architecture, Zhao Chen, Assistant Research Scientist at the Joint Institute For Food Safety And Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN), and Ryan Blaustein, Assistant Professor in Nutrition and Food Science. “We at UMD are focused on using poultry litter as a source of manufacturing biochar because we generate a lot of it, and it has associated problems with nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.”

The project, part of the USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program and headed by lead principal investigator Florida A&M Assistant Professor Juzhong Tan, will focus on using poultry litter biochar to grow leafy greens in Maryland, while the other universities will test other forms of biomass as raw material for biochar and produce different types of produce like legumes.

“The geographic differences were intentional. What we’re doing is a little different from the other universities, but it’s complimentary,” said Tikekar. “The goal is to use biochar to fix carbon, potentially improve crop yield, and determine how it can change the microbiome of the soil to which it’s added.”

Converting poultry litter to biochar, a process called pyrolysis which is a slow, controlled burn at extremely high temperatures in the absence of any oxygen, creates a powdery end product that is high in carbon and other nutrients, and more stable than traditional fertilizers. “Where other fertilizers will degrade in a few months, biochar is stable and can stay in the soil for years,” Tikekar said. “This process can stabilize that carbon in the soil for much longer, which can have a carbon sequestration impact.”

The four-year project will focus on understanding the ideal parameters for manufacturing biochar from poultry waste, and then determining its optimal application in soil to develop best recommendations for farmers. 

“The technology is there and companies are already commercially producing biochar, so we want to improve the science, make definitive recommendations for farmers, and make its use more prevalent than it is now,” said Tikekar. “It won’t fully replace traditional fertilizers but it could reduce the amount needed, and if a farmer can reduce their fertilizer use by a certain percentage, that can have an economic advantage. And for farmers producing that waste, it could be an additional source of revenue.”

Clare Narrod, research scientist at JIFSAN, and her postdoctoral researcher Eric Owusu, will work with Tikekar to assess the financial impacts and potential incentives for farmers interested in supplementing their fertilizer with biochar, Tikekar said. “Dr. Narrod will assist in determining the hurdles that exist for farmers interested in implementing biochar, and how we can overcome them.”

Trial plots for the leafy greens will be studied in the greenhouse and in the field with the assistance of University of Maryland Extension Agriculture and Food Systems specialist Andrew Ristvey and Wicomico County agriculture educator Haley Sater. Once Tikekar’s group has developed recommendations, the Extension team will disseminate that information to Maryland farmers and trial locations will be turned into demonstration plots for farmers to see the effects and learn best practices for applying biochar to their crops.

“We’re taking something that’s already a waste with limited use and adding new value. It could increase the value of poultry litter while making it safer to use on crops and fresh produce, which is susceptible to contamination,” Tikekar says. “It potentially can increase the growth of plants and the yield, producing more food with less fertilizer, and less negative environmental impacts. All while sequestering carbon in the soil, which is a concern for climate change.”

To learn more about the Partnerships of Climate-Smart Commodities program from the USDA, go to