Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Biochar: The Viagra of Mitigation

The Guardian has had a nice series of articles on that possible mitigation wonder: biochar.

The basic idea is explained here. Basically, it involves cooking wood into charcoal in order to sequester the carbon. By planting fast-growing trees, and then cooking the wood, we could potentially suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

The Guardian subsequently published several opinion pieces on the matter:

James Lovelock and Chris Goodall are for it (along with NASA climate scientist James Hansen, but he didn't write a Guardian op-ed), and George Monbiot is against it.

I'm just an uninformed layperson, but that's never stopped me from having an opinion, has it? So here's mine, and feel free to change my mind here, but as an uninformed layperson, I'm pro-biochar. Do I think we should be using biochar to the exclusion of everything else? No, of course not. And I think Monbiot brings up some good points as to where these biochar farms are going to be grown. Clearly, a lot more research and investigation needs to be done on biochar. But the reality is, I think we will need every single tool in our tool-belt to combat climate change. While geo-engineering wouldn't have been my first choice, at this point I think it may be necessary.

What do you think?

21 comments:

Farmer's Daughter said...

This is the first I've heard of it...

Thoughts from a botany teacher and farm kid...

Won't fast-growing trees grown in succession deplete the soil?

Won't this be sequestering other nutrients as well?

Where are we going to put all this biochar?

Just wondering...

ruchi said...

Well, in fact the biochar could be placed in the soil itself to make the soil more fertile. From the first Guardian article:


The biochar could be placed in disused coal mines or tilled into the ground to make soil more fertile. Its porous structure is ideal for trapping nutrients and beneficial micro-organisms that help plants grow. It also improves drainage and can prevent up to 80% of greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxides and methane from escaping from the soil.

Rosa said...

If you believe the internet, there's quite a bit of small-scall biochar going on, and I keep giving handouts on it to people I know who burn wood for fuel anyway - if you're gonna cook over an open fire, might as well do it low-oxygen. (These are all people burning scrap wood, or coppicing, anyway.) Every backyard that has a burn barrel should have one set up for low-oxygen fire, and so should every open cookfire in the world. If people are burning wood anyway, teaching biochar techniques will mitigate what they're doing.

The debate seems to be whether it's good enough to mitigate how the rest of us live too. And for that - well, it might have the same issues as Big Biodiesel. But we'll have to actually try it, to find out.

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.

We all know we are carbon-centered life, we seldom think about the complex web of recycled bio-carbon which is the true center of life. A cradle to cradle, mutually co-evolved biosphere reaching into every crack and crevice on Earth.

It's hard for most to revere microbes and fungus, but from our toes to our gums (onward), their balanced ecology is our health. The greater earth and soils are just as dependent, at much longer time scales. Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel.

Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,

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, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth, TP), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!
Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration,10X Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.
Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration, Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

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, build it and they will come.
As one microbologist said on the TP list; "Microbes like to sit down when they eat". By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.

Senator / Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has done the most to nurse this biofuels system in his Biochar provisions in the 07 & 08 farm bill,

http://www.biochar-international.org/newinformationevents/newlegislation.html

Charles Mann ("1491") in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/09/soil/mann-text

Biochar data base; TP-REPP

http://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.

http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0804/0804.1126.pdf

The many new university programs & field studies, in temperate soils; Cornell, ISU, U of H, U of GA, Virginia Tech, JMU, New Zealand and Australia.

Glomalin's role in soil tilth, fertility & basis for the soil food web in Terra Preta soils.

UNCCD Submission to Climate Change/UNFCCC AWG-LCA 5
"Account carbon contained in soils and the importance of biochar (charcoal) in replenishing soil carbon pools, restoring soil fertility and enhancing the sequestration of CO2."
http://www.unccd.int/publicinfo/AWGLCA5/menu.php

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.
http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/R40186_20090203.pdf .

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

This is a Nano technology for the soil that represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.

Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.
Cheers,
Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens
540 289 9750


Biochar Studies at ACS Huston meeting;

Most all this work corroborates char soil dynamics we have seen so far . The soil GHG emissions work showing increased CO2 , also speculates that this CO2 has to get through the hungry plants above before becoming a GHG.
The SOM, MYC& Microbes, N2O (soil structure), CH4 , nutrient holding , Nitrogen shock, humic compound conditioning, absorbing of herbicides all pretty much what we expected to hear.

578-I: http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4231.html

579-II http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4496.html

665 - III. http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4497.html

666-IV http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Session4498.html





Company News & EU Certification

Below is an important hurtle that 3R AGROCARBON has overcome in certification in the EU. Given that their standards are set much higher than even organic certification in the US, this work should smooth any bureaucratic hurtles we may face.

EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests
Subject: Fwd: [biochar] Re: GOOD NEWS: EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests successfully completed

Doses: 400 kg / ha – 1000 kg / ha at different horticultural cultivars

Plant height Increase 141 % versus control
Picking yield Increase 630 % versus control
Picking fruit Increase 650 % versus control
Total yield Increase 202 % versus control
Total piece of fruit Increase 171 % versus control
Fruit weight Increase 118 % versus control

HOMEPAGE 3R AGROCARBON: http://www.3ragrocarbon.com


Also:

EcoTechnologies is planning for many collaborations ; NC State, U. of Leeds, Cardiff U. Rice U. ,JMU, U.of H. and at USDA with Dr.Jeffrey Novak who is coordinating ARS Biochar research. This Coordinated effort will speed implementation by avoiding unneeded repetition and building established work in a wide variety of soils and climates.
www.EcoTechnologies.com

Hopefully all the Biochar companies will coordinate with Dr. Jeff Novak's soils work at ARS;

http://www.ars.usda.gov/pandp/people/people.htm?personid=24434


I spoke with Jon Nilsson of the CarbonChar Group, in their third year of field trials ;
An idea whose time has come | Carbon Char Group
He said the 2008 trials at Virginia Tech showed a 46% increase in yield of tomato transplants grown with just 2 - 5 cups (2 - 5%) "Biochar+" per cubic foot of growing medium. http://www.carbonchar.com/plant-performance

Low Tech Clean Biochar;
http://holon.se/folke/carbon/simplechar/simplechar.shtml

ruchi said...

Rosa, I agree, I think we need to try out biochar to see whether or not it will work.

Erich, thanks for that information!

Natalie said...

This is so interesting. The most comprehensive and practical carbon sequestering system I've heard of.

Some questions...

Isn't this predicated on business as usual? Cheap, available water and energy would seem to present a serious stumbling block, if predictions are to be believed. Constructing these large scale microwaves is going to require energy (read as carbon) input. And don't forget transporting the biomass to these ovens would require energy, not to mention actual infrastructure in many cases as well.

And the land? Again, if predictions are true, won't we be suffering from a loss of arable lands? Like Monbiot points out, won't this project come into conflict with agriculture?

Also, doesn't dark green plant matter actually absorb more heat energy than less vegetated areas? Off setting carbon yes, but ultimately a sum zero in trapping heat? Possibly?? I'm sure there's an equation to figure that out somewhere on them here innernets. Abbie??

Overall, though, this seems like an interesting avenue to explore!

ruchi said...

Natalie, right, I think the lack of arable land is a concern as well ... though, hey, if we all go vegetarian, we should have plenty of land for biochar!!

And I think you're right that building the microwaves and what not would require a lot of energy. But anything we do is going to require an upfront energy investment, I think. Converting to wind and solar is also going to require an upfront energy investment. I guess the hope is that it would be worth it.

Anonymous said...

why do you think that geo-engineering would be the first kind of engineering that doesn't leave a bigger mess than the one the engineers started fixing? The geo-engineering scale is huge as are the stakes.
EJ

ruchi said...

EJ, well that's why I think everyone approaches geo-engineering with some trepidation. But more and more, scientists are starting to say that we will likely have to try some form of geo-engineering, and of the forms I've read about, biochar seems to be one of the most innocuous.

Rosa said...

Yeah, the hi-tech centralized biochar they're talking about in that article has all the problems of big organic, or big biodiesel, or any other centralized, industrial process.

I really think the true promise of biochar is in low-tech small-scale stuff (I was just looking on the 'net and I can't find the picture of the slash & burn biochar kiln in the Amazon I wanted to link to.)

But here are some nice stoves:
http://www.motherearthnews.com/Hands-On-How-To/Biochar-Stoves.aspx

Some of them have the added benefit of putting out less particulate matter, too.

This isn't just appropriate technology for the third world, either - lots of rural people in the US and Canada still burn trash and yard waste every year. A simple, popular low-oxygen burn barrel design would turn that burning carbon-negative or carbon-neutral.

(Man, I haven't looked up biochar in months and it EXPLODED since then, I guess - the document I'm looking for was from Cornell and used to be in the top 5 on Google.)

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Michael Garjian said...

Not all charcoal is biochar. True biochar is the result of heating biomass in an emission free pyrolysis reactor devoid of oxygen. Biochar has been shown to be a very effective soil amendment in numerous studies in South America and Japan. It is becoming popularized enough in the US that Biochar Xtra is now even being sold on Ebay. Others are using the bio-oils derived from biochar
production to replace fossil fuels. Some folks are alarmed at the possibility of vast tracts of land being denuded to produce biochar. This is not a valid concern because, due to its very low density of from 20 to 35 pounds per cubic foot, the transport of biochar over long distances is not economically feasible.

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