Lottie Hawkins, who cites David Attenborough as one of her role models, has found a way of removing carbon from the atmosphere.

A 26-year-old from Devon is fighting climate change by producing a unique substance that removes carbon from the atmosphere.

Lottie Hawkins, who lives near Bideford, says she first developed an interest in the environment after watching David Attenborough documentaries as a child.

However, after gaining a degree in Molecular Biology, she says struggled to find direction.

“My degree left me frustrated at the state of the environment and the slow pace of change in response to climate change.

“I knew I wanted to make a difference, but I couldn’t find any work in impact-driven companies. I felt like I was lacking purpose.”

However, after attending a talk with a friend on a substance called biochar, Lottie’s life took on a whole new course.

Biochar is a charcoal-like substance that’s made from burning wood at very high temperatures. This means it doesn’t turn into ash or biodegrade.

Normally, when trees decay or are sent for incineration, they release carbon back into the atmosphere.

However, in the case of biochar, the carbon, naturally occurring in wood, becomes a crystalline structure, so it can’t breakdown in the environment, meaning it’s captured and stored for hundreds of years.

“We went away buzzing with excitement around the potential of biochar to help mitigate two massive issues: soil health and climate change,” says Lottie.

Biochar is a charcoal-like substance that has the dual capacity to remove harmful carbon from the atmosphere and boost plant growth. Image: Earthly Biochar

“I was shocked I hadn’t heard about this incredible solution to climate change before.

“Biochar had a cult following in 2018 but very little awareness among the general public.”

Inspired by biochar’s potential to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Lottie set out to find out everything she could about this relatively unheard of substance – and to find a way of using it as a tool against climate change.

In 2018, Lottie and her friend, Connor Lascelles, launched Earthly Biochar – a start-up producing their own biochar.

The entrepreneurial pair were also the first to come up with a smokeless, purpose-built biochar kiln, so that people could make their own biochar at home.

Earthly Biochar’s smokeless kiln that allows people to make biochar at home. Image: Earthly Biochar

Things snowballed and in November 2020, Earthly Biochar won the Young Innovator of the Year Award from the Princes Trust and Innovate UK, with a £5000 grant to help develop the business.

Biochar is now listed as one of the UK Government’s carbon removal methods.

When 1 tonne of biochar is made, it prevents 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere and it’s estimated that biochar production could capture and store between 2.2-4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide (Project Drawdown).

But biochar has another benefit too: it can also be used as an effective ‘horticultural charcoal’ for boosting plant growth and crop production.

To put this to the test, Lottie hooked up with a nursery so they could trial biochar on 4,000 plants.

“The results were astounding,” she says.

“We improved the root development of the plants; we increased the growth rate and the flowering. The results were so impressive that the nursery asked if they could have a regular supply.”

Alongside running the company, Lottie is also studying biochar in more depth for a PhD.

Her research is driven by escalating the climate emergency and concerns over food security. She believes biochar can help provide solutions to both of these problems.

“The recent IPCC report says we have eight years until the worst of climate change is irreversible,” she says.

“The flash flooding and wildfires we’ve witnessed in the last two years are a very real reminder of climate change.

“We’re setting ambitious targets to reach net zero but we’re not moving fast enough.

“Biochar is the most immediate form of carbon capture, but we’re 10 years behind other European countries in terms of production volumes and carbon sequestration.”

And when it comes to food, she says biochar could provide a lifeline by improving soil health.

“We are always three days away from food shortages because we depend so heavily on imported foods and supply chains.

“The threat of extreme weather events closing down our food supply chain is looming, and we must begin to rely on nationally grown food, and for that, good soil health is vital, and that’s where biochar comes in.

“It is an effective way to increase soil fertility which is essential for healthy plants.

Earthly Biochar already sells biochar to houseplant lovers, gardeners, landscapers and allotment holders.

But Lottie is keen to scale things up.

“Our aim to be the first to setup a network of carbon negative biochar facilities in the UK to turn all of the waste wood which goes into landfill into biochar.

“This would make 1 million tonnes of biochar annually which equates to 2.5 million tonnes of carbon sequestered,” she says.

Her mission is for all gardeners to start using biochar.

“Every gardener in the UK could be using biochar tomorrow if they knew about it.

“By using just five litres of biochar every month, each gardener is supporting the capture of 2.5 kg of CO2.

“Scale this up, and we have 27 million gardeners capturing 800,000 tonnes of CO2 each year.”

At 26-years-old, Lottie is deeply concerned about the future of the planet. But she’s optimistic we can try and limit the damage.

“It is a complex problem but we all have a responsibility to help fight the worst of climate change.

“I personally think consumer behaviour change will be a driving force. I hope that as younger generations evolve into decision-makers in society and business, we will see a pivot towards net zero industries and everyone putting the environment first.

“I think the future will have to put the planet before profit.”

Biochar Bottom Lines

The total biochar cost was $200 per ton or $2,000 per acre, Beck says. The yield increase in the third leaf, the first year of production, was 1.3 tons per acre. At a grape price of $2,000 per ton, that’s additional revenue of $2,600 per acre.

“That’s a $600 profit above the biochar costs, so you paid for the biochar with year-one yield,” Beck says. “At harvest in 2020, biochar again yielded about a ton more per acre than the control, giving an additional income for the two years of about $2,600 per acre. If you assume only 0.5 tons per acre increase per season from a single biochar application over future years, then the extra income becomes quite attractive.”

The Oasis Vineyard trial used biochar produced from woody forest waste at a commercial plant in the Sierra Foothills. Santa Rosa-based Pacific Biochar provided the product in bulk and delivered it to the compost yard.


Doug Beck believes agriculture could benefit from an increased use of biochar.

To accomplish that, he recommends:

  • Utilizing abundant local sources of carbon for pyrolysis, specifically agricultural and woody waste. “If you can bring biochar to the local level, people will begin to use it. In trying to control wildfires, we’re going to be taking out a lot of biomass to create burn-resistant areas. Take that biochar and put it back into the ground rather than just burn it.”
  • Focusing on high-value permanent crops with a long-term payback.
  • Developing biochar standards and testing, something the International Biochar Initiative has begun to address.
  • Developing standardized trials to test the different feedstocks and types of pyrolysis so the benefits can be defined and confirmed.
  • Applying credits of some kind for biochar use. “If farmers are able to get some extra cash for putting biochar in the ground, I think we would see a real revolution in farming.”

According to Beck, there is an opportunity for permanent crops, such as vineyards, to sequester biochar underground and provide high-value carbon credits to offset industrial carbon dioxide emissions. Currently, the certified carbon credit market is voluntary, he says, “but with some certainty the process will become mandatory for many industries, as governments develop ‘cap and trade’ measures for climate change.”

While the carbon offsets will not pay for the entire cost of a biochar application, the revenue-stream credits provided will offer a healthy monetary offset, Beck says, especially as the burgeoning market develops.

Even without the carbon credit revenue stream, biochar is a solid investment in the long-term health of the soil and its biological capacity, Beck says. “This benefit alone is worth the price of application, and we anticipate the application cost will come down as the product is more widely available,” he says. “Furthermore, in the future we anticipate making our own biochar on site from the vines we remove during redevelopment. We are also working on a program to combine carbon credits with our grape contracts to help a winery offset CO2 emissions as Cap and Trade becomes mandatory. We anticipate this would enhance our ability to sell grapes in an over-supply market situation.”

Growers who want to produce biochar with pulled vines from their fields must light piles to burn from the top down so the heated gas goes up without taking the wood all the way to ash, Beck says. “You’ll need a water truck to quench the fire when you get to the charcoal stage. If you let it continue to burn, you end up with ash only, which is of no value in the ground,” he says. “You also might need a big magnet to remove all of the metal mixed with the vine trunks. We usually just rip out everything, including trellis, put it in piles, burn it, and then take away the metal. But in this case, you want what’s underneath the metal, so you have to take the metal away to get at the biochar. It’s a little bit complicated.”