The Story of Peat

You might have used peat in your garden but you probably didn’t know that Nova Scotia peat helped save lives in WWI and it might be used in electric car batteries one day! Here’s the story of Nova Scotia’s peat!

Peat is the partially-decomposed remains of plants and animals which have accumulated in oxygen-poor, freshwater-saturated environments. In Nova Scotia, most of our peat formed from mosses that died in swampy areas, drifted to the bottom of the swamps/bogs and gradually formed peat, a soggy, sponge-like material.

Nova Scotia has peat moss deposits throughout the province but much of it is concentrated in southwestern Nova Scotia. A government report done in the 1980s estimated that the province has about 161,810 hectares of peatland and about 410 million bales of harvestable peat. Most of our peat has formed since the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago, accumulating at a rate of about 30 centimetres per thousand years.

There have been a number of companies that extracted peat in Nova Scotia but the biggest producer has been the Annapolis Valley Peat Moss Company, which was founded in Berwick in 1949. The operation began production by cutting blocks of peat by hand and drying them. Early production was around 2,000-5,000 bales of peat annually. Vacuum harvesters were first used at the site in 1954 and production jumped to 35,000-50,000 bales per year. By 1993, the company was producing 200,000 bales annually.

The company provides peat moss for what is likely its best-known use: as a soil conditioner that helps aerate and enrich soil.

However, peat has many other important uses. For example, it is used to clean up oil spills. Due to peat’s fibrous structure and how companies like the Annapolis Valley Peat Moss Company process it, peat can absorb oil while repelling water, meaning that it is very effective at cleaning up spills on both land and water. Dehydrated peat can absorb about eight times its weight.

Peat is used to treat wastewater, acting as a filter to clean it.

Peat has been used for at least a thousand years to pack wounds and absorb blood. Irish warriors are known to have used it. However, this practice did not just take place in ancient times. In WWI, a shortage of cotton led to sphagnum moss, the most common form of peat, being used to make millions of surgical dressings. In 1916, the Canadian Red Cross Society provided over one million dressings, nearly two million compresses and one million pads for wounded soldiers in Europe, using peat from Nova Scotia, British Columbia and other swampy, coastal regions. Peat produces sterile environments by keeping the pH level around the wound low, thus inhibiting the growth of bacteria and reducing infections.

Peat is being studied as a potential ingredient in sodium-ion batteries which could be used in electric vehicles to either replace or complement lithium-ion batteries. Experiments are in early stages.

Peat is often burned to dry malted barley in whisky-making. Peated whisky gets its smoky flavour from the peat fire. The length and intensity of exposure to the peat smoke, and the characteristics of the peat itself, dictate the strength of this flavour.

Peat has also been used for a long time as a fuel, particularly in northern Europe. In fact, peat is a stage in the formation of coal.

After peat formed in Nova Scotia swamps during the Carboniferous period (360 to 299 million years ago), the weight of accumulating peat compacted the lower layers by squeezing out water. As the peat became buried deeper, pressure and heat on the peat increased, causing chemical and physical changes, and pushing out oxygen. Over thousands of years, this turned the peat into the coal that still provides half of Nova Scotia’s electricity.

(To be clear, the peat that became Nova Scotia’s coal deposits formed 360 to 299 million years ago, whereas the peat discussed above formed more recently, mostly in the last 12,000 years.)

Peat’s use as a fuel is declining for the same reason that coal’s is – it emits large amounts of greenhouse gases because it is made of the same organic materials that coal is.