December 6, 2008

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 – §