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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Chris Goodall, Johannes Lehmann, Tim Lenton, Chris Turney: 'Biochar' goes industrial with giant microwaves to lock carbon in charcoal

'Biochar' goes industrial with giant microwaves to lock carbon in charcoal

Climate expert claims to have developed cleanest way of fixing CO2 in 'biochar' for burial on an industrial scale

by Alok Jha, green technology correspondent, The Guardian, March 13, 2009

Burning Charcoal

Burying charcoal produced from microwaved wood could take billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year. Photograph: Rex Features

Giant microwave ovens that can "cook" wood into charcoal could become our best tool in the fight against global warming, according to a leading British climate scientist.

Chris Turney, a professor of geography at the University of Exeter, said that by burying the charcoal produced from microwaved wood, the carbon dioxide absorbed by a tree as it grows can remain safely locked away for thousands of years. The technique could take out billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year.

Fast-growing trees such as pine could be "farmed" to act specifically as carbon traps — microwaved, buried and replaced with a fresh crop to do the same thing again.

Turney has built a 5-m-long prototype of his microwave, which produces a tonne of CO2 for $65. He plans to launch his company, Carbonscape, in the UK this month to build the next generation of the machine, which he hopes will process more wood and cut costs further.

He is not alone in touting the benefits of this type of charcoal, known as biochar or biocharcoal. The Gaia theorist, James Lovelock, and Nasa's James Hansen have both been outspoken about the potential benefits of biochar, arguing that it is one of the most powerful potential solutions to climate change. In a recent paper, Hansen calculated that producing biocharcoal by current methods of burning waste organic materials could reduce global carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by 8 ppm (parts per million) over the next 50 years. That is the equivalent of three years of emissions at current levels.

Turney said biochar was the closest thing scientists had to a silver-bullet solution to climate change. Processing facilities could be built right next to forests grown specifically to soak up CO2. "You can cut trees down, carbonise them, then plant more trees. The forest could act on an industrial scale to suck carbon out of the atmosphere."

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.

In a recent analysis of geo-engineering techniques published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry, Tim Lenton, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, rated producing charcoal as the best technological solution to reducing CO2 levels. He compared it to other geo-engineering techniques such as dumping iron in oceans or seeding clouds to reflect the sun's radiation and calculated that by 2100 a quarter of the effect of human-induced emissions of CO2 could be sequestered with biochar production from waste organic matter, giving a net reduction of 40 ppm in CO2 concentration.

Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University has calculated that it is realistically possible to fix 9.5 billion tonnes of carbon per year using biochar. The global production of carbon from fossil fuels stands at 8.5 billion tonnes.

Charcoal is usually produced by burning wood in high-temperature ovens but this process is dirty and only locks around 20-30% of the mass of the wood into charcoal. Turney's idea to use a microwave, which he found could lock away up to 50% of the wood's mass, came from a cooking accident when he was a teenager, in which he mistakenly microwaved a potato for 40 minutes and found that the vegetable had turned into charcoal. "Years later when we were talking about carbon sequestration I thought maybe charcoal was the way to go," he said.

A number of governments are investing their hopes for sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere in large-scale carbon capture and storage projects. But Turney said this would not provide a full solution. "It's only for large single sources of emissions like large power stations and that accounts for about 60% of emissions. It doesn't deal with anything up in the atmosphere already which is driving the changes we see today."

Chris Goodall, writer of the Carbon Commentary blog, proposed biochar as a solution to climate change in his recent book, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet. "The only big problem is organising it on a large enough scale," he said. "Organising it so that farmers get paid and put the charcoal in the ground rather than burning it for their own food is a big problem to organise on a global scale."

This could be done if biochar were incorporated into the carbon markets making it more profitable to bury rather than burn. There is an emerging campaign, he said, to get governments to recognise biochar in the post-Kyoto agreement on climate change that will be negotiated in Copenhagen later this year.

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1 comment:

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,

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

Biochar data base;

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.

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."

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. .

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.


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.



665 - III.


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


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.

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

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.