Thursday, April 02, 2009

Biochar & Synergistic Solutions

When dealing in complex systems, and working to create solutions to tough problems, it’s rarely useful to look for a “silver bullet” – one single answer that can solve all the problems. We hear this with regard to the climate crisis quite a bit – we can’t eliminate our net emissions with just one activity or technology. It’s not just efficiency, or better design, or biofuels, or solar, or wind, or geothermal, or changing lifestyles, or new laws that will do it – it’s some combination of all them, plus many more exciting solutions we will create.

However, in complex systems we can (and should) look for synergistic solutions – positive activities that also generate more positive side-effects. We’ve been talking about this with regard to Village Corps, and the possibility of helping to generate some economic activity through animal husbandry, which could provide food and income, and could help the chances of reopening a processing plant which would create jobs, and the animal waste could be used in an anaerobic digester to generate methane for cooking fuel, which is cleaner burning and more healthy than wood fires, and would help stem deforestation in the area, which would help stop erosion and improve agriculture, which would provide more food and jobs, etc. etc.


Well, a similar kind of synergistic solution with tremendously exciting global potential is biochar – essentially charcoal derived from any kind of biomass that acts as a carbon sink for thousands of years. It is essentially a way to lower the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 (currently at 387 parts per million) back down to what more and more scientists are sighting as a safe level – 350 ppm. The process of creating it generates carbon neutral electricity (displacing the current common sources like coal, that has a whole host of other negative side effects) and the char itself provides a powerful organic soil amendment (displacing the current common sources of chemical based options that deplete soils over time and pollute oceans and water tables). While the reasons are fully understood (because the complex world of soil science isn’t fully understood), the biochar provides a great habitat, essentially, for the diverse array of soil microorganisms that create healthy, fertile soils.


This article from the Financial Times last month provides a great overview on how this technique was “rediscovered” by studying patches of fertile soil left by ancient peoples of the Amazon: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/67843ec0-020b-11de-8199-000077b07658.html.


There is lots of exciting research and development going on around the world. Our colleague Scott Grierson in Australia has been doing research on the potential of algae feedstocks for biochar. Universities in the US are looking into as well, including Cornell, UGA, and Iowa State.


And there are some young companies looking to commercialize this process and bring it to scale, including Best Energies and Eprida (who we had a chance to see present at Bioneers last year – very exciting results). The International Biochar Initiative is keeping track of the developments in this rapidly growing area and has a lot of great information.


It’s no silver bullet, but estimates for how much CO2 this process could remove from the atmosphere each year range from 2-4 Gigatonnes –that’s a billion tonnes – and a significant percentage of the approximately 8.8 GTs humans emit annually. And with all of the positive ‘side effects’ – like clean renewable energy, and healthy, productive soil gives biochar great potential as a synergistic solution on the path to sustainability.


Stay going

4 comments:

onestraw said...

This is something we are actively working on in Wisconsin. We've built two small scale gasifiers capable of powering a 20kW generator and have 2 more almost complete.

I see gasifiers as the heart of some truly synergistic energy systems that can produce food, energy, heat, and sequester carbon on a home/farm scale.

http://onestraw.wordpress.com/fema-gasifier-sustain-jefferson-style/why-gasifiers-rock/

Very excited to see how the research plays our on Bio-char.

-Rob @ onestraw

Erich J. Knight said...

Biochar Soil Technology.....Husbandry of whole new orders of life

Biotic Carbon, the carbon transformed by life, should never be combusted, oxidized and destroyed. It deserves more respect, reverence even, and understanding to use it back to the soil where 2/3 of excess atmospheric carbon originally came from.

Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.
.

Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw;
"Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes;
"Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !".
Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar.
Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
As one microbiologist said on the Biochar list; "Microbes like to sit down when they eat".
By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.


One aspect of Biochar systems are Cheap, clean biomass stoves that produce biochar and no respiratory disease. At scale, the health benefits are greater than ending Malaria.

The biochar Fund is also doing amazing work in the developing world;
terrapretapot.org/

Also , I would like Rebut the BioFuelWatch folk's recent criticisms with the petition of 1500 Cameroon Farmers;
The Biochar Fund
biocharfund.org/
and to explain their program;
biocharfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=26&Itemid=46




Charles Mann ("1491") in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.
ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/09/soil/mann-text

Biochar data base; TP-REPP
terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

NASA's Dr. James Hansen Global warming solutions paper and letter to the G-8 conference, placing Biochar / Land management the central technology for carbon negative energy systems.
arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0804/0804.1126.pdf




internationally, the work of the IBI fostering the application by 13 countries for UN recognition of soil carbon as a sink with biochar as a clean development mechanism will open the door for programs across the globe.
www.biochar-international.org/biocharpolicy.html.


Reports:
This new Congressional Research Service report (by analyst Kelsi Bracmort) is the best short summary I have seen so far - both technical and policy oriented.
assets.opencrs.com/rpts/R40186_20090203.pdf .

This is the single most comprehensive report to date, covering more of the Asian and Australian work;
www.csiro.au/files/files/poei.pdf


Given the current "Crisis" atmosphere concerning energy, soil sustainability, food vs. Biofuels, and Climate Change what other subject addresses them all?



Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.
Cheers,
Erich



I will be speaking at the first North American Biochar Conference, in Boulder Aug 12-15, about my efforts to network the many disciplines and organizations researching and implementing biochar systems.
Keynote speaker Secretary Tom Vilsack & Dr. Susan Solomon (NOAA's head atmospheric scientist) at.
www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?eventid=684390

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