Biochar

December 6th – Yesterday I attended some wonderful side events.  Two in particular discussed an extremely valuable ‘piece of the puzzle’.

Apparently there are pockets, or pools, of very black soil in the Amazon region called ‘terrapreta’ in Portuguese.  These are the result of carbon being worked into the soil over time by indigenous peoples.  This soil is know to be much more fertile than surrounding areas of ‘normal’ rainforest soils, known to be exceptionally ‘washed out’ and nutrient poor.  But more important perhaps, is that the carbon is stable in the soil, and thus represents a sequestration of carbon by ancient peoples.  So we are rediscovering this old ‘technology’, dusting it off, and calling it biochar.  Granted we will likely create the ‘char’ in a more efficient manner, but I am tempted to quote the old adage that there’s ‘nothing new under the sun’ (pun intended).

Biochar can be made from any biomass feedstock, wood, agricultural waste (including manure), greenwaste from households or landscaping, etc.  It is made by a process called ‘pyrolysis’, the heating of the material in the absence of oxygen.  It differs in the method used to create ordinary charcoal in that the gasses that are emitted from the pyrolysis are captured and used.  These gasses would ordinarily be released into the atmosphere where they contribute to the greenhouse warming of the earth.  Or if the biomass were to be burned, such as is done daily in developing nations around the world, the gasses would become indoor air polution causing resperitory and other health problems.

But the capture gas can be used in one of several ways.  They can be burned to help fire the continued production of biochar; they can be captured for use as cooking gas or other heating gas; they can be liquified to become something now known as bio-crude, which is feedstock to refineries which can produce liqued transportation fuels; and more promising still, they can be fractionally distilled to search for applications to any number of valuable uses.  I am told that one of the ingredients of Chanel No. 5 perfume is a fractional distillate of Brazilian rosewood, for example.  Who knows what ‘cancer cure’ (figuratively speaking) may be locked up in some biomass feedstock for biochar.

This is an amazing potential win-win-win-win process.  It is early in its research and development stage, and people are seeking to have it listed as an approved CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) solution in terms of the climate change treaty under negotiation here in Poznan.  This approval could not come soon enough in my humble opinion.

The speakers were Debbie Reed, from the International Biochar Initiative, Jim Fournier from the Biochar Energy Corporation,
Johannes Lehmann, Cornell Soil Scientist and leading expert on biochar in US and likely in the world.

Folks, this is a big winner and its proliferation could not be more important as a distributed solution to many problems at once, carbon sequestration, soil productivity (food) in developed and developing nations, water conservation in agriculture (the char helps soils retain water better), alternative energy production, and potentially countless other valuable side-products as yet to be discovered.

For the Earth – §

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2 Responses to Biochar

  1. Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth), 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.

    Charles Mann (“1491”) in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.
    I think Biochar has climbed the pinnacle, the Combined English and other language circulation of NGM is nearly nine million monthly with more than fifty million readers monthly!
    We need to encourage more coverage now, to ride Mann’s coattails to public critical mass.

    Please put this (soil) bug in your colleague’s ears. These issues need to gain traction among all the various disciplines who have an iron in this fire.
    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/09/soil/mann-text

    I love the “MEGO” factor theme Mann built the story around. Lord… how I KNOW that reaction.

    I like his characterization concerning the pot shards found in Terra Preta soils;

    so filled with pottery – “It was as if the river’s first inhabitants had
    thrown a huge, rowdy frat party, smashing every plate in sight, then
    buried the evidence.”

    Biochar data base;
    http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

    I also have been trying to convince Michael Pollan ( NYT Food Columnist, Author ) to do a follow up story, with pleading emails to him

    Since the NGM cover reads “WHERE FOOD BEGINS” , I thought this would be right down his alley and focus more attention on Mann’s work.

    I’ve admiried his ability since “Botany of Desire” to over come the “MEGO” factor (My Eyes Glaze Over) and make food & agriculture into page turners.

    It’s what Mann hasn’t covered that I thought should interest any writer as a follow up article and your transition team

    The Biochar provisions by Sen.Ken Salazar in the 07 & 08 farm bill,
    http://www.biochar-international.org/newinformationevents/newlegislation.html

    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, New Zealand and Australia.

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

    The International Biochar Initiative Conference Sept 8 in New Castle;
    http://www.biochar-international.org/ibi2008conference/aboutibi2008conference.html

    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.

    Michael Pollan is well briefed about Biochar technology, but did not include it in his 8000 word, “Farmer & Chief” NYT’s article to President Obama, but I’m sure Biochar will be his 8001th word to you.

    Erich
    540 289 9750

  2. I would like to learn more about this product so that i could try and start a biochar production mania in my country so plz tell me all about it!

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