Assessing biochar's permanence: An inertinite benchmark

Hamed Sanei*, Arka Rudra, Zia Møller Moltesen Przyswitt, Sofie Kousted, Marco Benkhettab Sindlev, Xiaowei Zheng, Søren Bom Nielsen, Henrik Ingermann Petersen*

*Corresponding author for this work

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The natural removal of carbon dioxide and its permanent storage by the Earth system occurs through (i) inorganic carbon and (ii) organic carbon pathways. The former involves the “mineralization” of carbon and formation of carbonate minerals, whereas the latter employs the “maceralization” or natural carbonization of biomass into the “inertinite maceral”. The production of biochar is a carbon dioxide removal (CDR) method that imitates the geological organic carbon pathway, using controlled pyrolysis to rapidly carbonize and transform biomass into inertinite maceral for permanent storage. Therefore, the main challenge in assessing biochar's permanence is to ensure complete transformation has been achieved. Inertinite is the most stable maceral in the Earth's crust and is hence considered an ultimate benchmark of organic carbon permanence in the environment. Therefore, this study aims to measure the degree of biochar's carbonization with respect to the well-established compositional and microscopic characteristics of the inertinite. The random reflectance (Ro) of 2% is proposed as the “inertinite benchmark” (IBRo2%) and applied to quantify the permanent pool of carbon in a biochar using the Ro frequency distribution histogram. The result shows that 76% of the studied commercial biochar samples have their entire Ro distribution range well above IBRo2% and are considered pure inertinite biochar. The oxidation kinetic reaction model for a typical inertinite biochar indicates a time frame of approximately 100 million years for the degradation and loss of half of the carbon in the biochar. This estimate assumes exposure to a highly oxidizing environment with a constant surface temperature of 30°C, highlighting the inherent “permanent” nature of the material. In a less hostile environment, the expected permanence of inertinite is generally anticipated to be even longer. In addition to the inertinite that constitutes the largest fraction of the typical commercial biochar, an incompletely carbonized biochar may contain up to three other organic pools in descending order of stability. The relative concentration of these pools in a biochar can be quantified by a combination of geochemical pyrolysis and random reflectance methods. Furthermore, the Ro can be used to calculate the carbonization temperature (CT oC) of a biochar, which is the maximum temperature to which biochar fragments have been exposed during pyrolysis. This indicator provides important information about the efficiency of the carbonization process and subsequently the biochar's stability, with respect to production temperature (PT oC), heating residence time, and thermal diffusivity. Short summary: The Earth's carbon dioxide removal and storage occur via inorganic and organic pathways: mineralization and maceralization. Biochar, imitating the organic pathway, undergoes controlled pyrolysis to transform biomass feedstock through a carbonization process into the inertinite maceral, which is a permanently stable form of organic carbon. Kinetic modeling in this study confirms inertinite's carbon stability over geological time scale. Assessing biochar's permanence hence hinges on achieving complete carbonization and transformation. Inertinite serves as the gold standard for organic carbon permanence, guiding this study to measure biochar's carbonization against inertinite characteristics. Analyzing the random reflectance (Ro) of biochar reveals that 76% of studied samples qualify as pure inertinite. Apart from inertinite, other organic pools in biochar, quantifiable through geochemical pyrolysis and Ro methods, affect stability. Determining the carbonization temperature offers insights into biochar's efficiency and stability concerning production variables.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104409
JournalInternational Journal of Coal Geology
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 5. Jan 2024


  • Biochar
  • Carbonization temperature
  • Inertinite benchmark
  • Permanence
  • Production temperature


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