PhD Title: Anaerobic digestate biochar and soil health: a combined laboratory and field experiment ecosystem-based approach: testing impacts on the sustainability of grassland production.
2 years through a 3-year PhD study, funded by DAERA
Carried out at IGFS, in partnership with AFBI NI
What is your PhD about? The potential of biochar to lock in carbon that would be otherwise be released into the atmosphere and thereby reduce GHG emissions. Biochar is any organic matter that has been heated without oxygen present and is the name used for charcoal when used as a soil additive. If it’s not burned (as in the case of barbeque charcoal), the biochar can store carbon for thousands of years. I’m using biochar made from poultry litter post anaerobic digestion (digestate) – so it’s a by-product of the process of making renewable energy from poultry litter. In that sense, it feeds into the circular economy. What I am exploring is: What are the effects of using biochar on grass – does it improve soil health, plant health, grass yields, for example? And how does this compare to the direct application of its source material- digestate.
Why is your project important? The environmental question is obviously very urgent. I’m interested in taking something that we think of as ‘waste’ and turning it into a ‘resource’. In Stockholm Sweden, this is already happening on a large, industrial scale. They take municipal green waste, turn it into biochar and sell it to their forestry service to use when planting trees. They also give it out, free, to the public for use in their gardens. Stockholm expected to produce 7000 tons of biochar by 2020 sequestering 25200 tons of CO2 (the equivalent of taking 3500 cars off the road) and producing 25200MW/hour of energy (the equivalent of heat for 400 apartments). Within eight years the project will deliver an estimated revenue on the city’s investment of over 850,000 euros. We’re a good bit behind, but I believe that carbon credits will come to the fore soon if we have any chance of reaching the UK’s carbon net-zero target by 2050.
How supported to you feel as a PhD student? I feel so well supported, particularly by my supervisor, Dr Neil Reid. His door is always open, and he’s been a great mentor to me, not only through my PhD but previously as an undergraduate and masters student. My supervisor at AFBI, Dr Rodrigo Olave, likewise continues to be a great support to me. My PGR peers are also a great bunch, and we help each other. I enjoyed aspects of the induction offered by the QUB Graduate School but to be honest, over time, it felt more geared towards intellectual grammar whereas I’m more interested in scientific research and communicating the results to people at all levels.
You’re a mature student – how did you end up here? I had a career in public service, and, during that, I did a City and Guilds qualification in gardening, just for fun. I became hooked. When I retired, I embarked on a horticultural course at Greenmount College, but it didn’t totally chime – I found I was more interested in the environmental aspect rather than how pretty a garden looked. So, I went on to do a degree at Queen’s in Land Use and Environmental Management and everything flowed from that.
Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of doing a PhD? Go for it. Anyone can do a degree if they really want to – I’m living proof. I’m always saying to my kids, “Never look down on anyone just because they don’t have a degree, they are probably more than capable of it”. Follow your passion, you never know where it will take you.
What are your hopes for the future? I look forward to having grandchildren someday and playing a positive role in their education. Right now, I am doing a PhD for the love of science and learning and in the hope that my research is a step towards better environmental health.