Global Warming

Gasification and Biochar: Gearhead Tested, Gaia Approved

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Back in the May 2008 issue of Reason magazine I wrote of the adventures and travails of a group of Berkeley-based art-gearheads experimenting with gasification and its resulting biochar as means of transportation, power generation, and perhaps even carbon footprint reduction (and running into some troubles with city government in the process). And in October I tagged along as a gasification vehicle tried to win an alt-fuel road rally sponsored by that same crew.

Those ideas continue to gain currency in the enviro-tech world, and in the January 29 issue of New Scientist, famed Gaia theorist James Lovelock declares gasification and the resultant biochar the potential saviors of the planet:

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste—which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering—into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

…..The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won't do it.

Even some strong enthusiasts of localized gasification experimentation on a listserv I'm on are saying Lovelock is far too optimistic about the bio-economy-wide results of mass gasification. Jim Mason, the star of my first gasification story, points out that Lovelock is giving "an opportunistic rendering of the numbers. The actual biomass available for thermal rendering is much smaller than this. We can't claim that the total biomass production on the planet is available for biochar making."

Phil Glau, an active participant in both the original gasification experiments I wrote about in May 2008 and the alt-fuel race, points out that farmers often use that "agricultural waste" Lovelock wants gasified as direct fertilizer and thus might be reluctant to change for sensible reasons, from their pespective. Glau also notes that lots of energy and effort would be involved in collecting that ag-waste into usable, gasifiable quantities, and then in taking that resulting charcoal and putting it back in the fields, making the total energy and carbon-reduction qualities of the system as a whole far less certain than Lovelock's optimistic estimates.

Still, an interesting sign that those wild ideas I wrote about, which struggled for experimental space against Berkeley's bureaucracy are growing in currency, whether or not they will eventually change the world for the better.

NEXT: The Ryan Frederick Trial, Days Four and Five

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  1. Gasification.

    I dont get it. Is it an energy source based around farts? Like Beyond Thunderdome? TWO MEN ENTER! ONE MAN LEAVE! I’m all for that. With my whopping intelligence, I could be Master, dhex could be Blaster…

    I initially thought that term was a reference to the verbal habits of enviro-malthusians.

  2. Gilmore–While my May 2008 feature linked in this entry gives a slightly more complicated explanation of the hows of amateur gasification, and various places on the web could give you a more equation-heavy chemistry explanation, a laymen’s basic explanation is quoted above from Lovelock: “What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell.”

  3. “…..The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes”

    So our one species “only” pumps out 5.5% of the carbon output of all the species of life together?

  4. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit.

    If you think that will prevent oppotunist, douchewad politicians fro finding some way to make us pay for it, you’re sorely mistaken…

  5. Brian,

    I’m down with that. sorry for the lack of actual reading on my part. Not familiar with the specific issue although i try and keep an eye on the alt energy topic.

    from what i see, a lot of this stuff is going to be possible subject of Government ‘green spending’. Not that I have any expectations for success. I think the whole Green thing is eventually going to fall flat on its ass (primarily on cost, if not first by complexity), and be replaced by “efficiency” as the next movement du jour.

    Whenever i hear the expression ‘saviors of the planet’, i immediately have an image of naked hippies being chased by lions. I know, weird.

  6. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.

    If it’s profitable the global warming problem has been licked. Yippee! Color me gigaskeptical on this one. I wouldn’t invest a dollar in it.

  7. “So our one species “only” pumps out 5.5% of the carbon output of all the species of life together?”

    And the biosphere pumps in all of what it pumps out…but not so much of what we pump out.

  8. Converting to nuclear power would make a difference too, but we aren’t going to do that either, because OMG! WeLl All Get Cancer And Have Three Headed Babies THink Of The Children!!! OMG! OMG !!! OMG RAdIaTiOn!! AHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

    So instead we’ll screw around with some windmills and fairy magic and complain about how evil capitalism is destroying the world.

    Lecturing people about greed is so much easier than getting over irrational fears and learning some actual science.

  9. “Whenever i hear the expression ‘saviors of the planet’, i immediately have an image of naked hippies being chased by lions. I know, weird.”

    not as weird as wanting to ride around on my shoulders, though.

  10. Not to mention that farmers use the harvest waste as a mean to return nutrients to the soil and protect it from erosion. The worms and bacteria in the soil perform a great job in decomposing the waste and maintaining soil fertility. If the waste is removed probably the farmer will need to invest more in petroleum based fertilizer and a lot more diesel in preparing the soil for the next crop.

  11. So our one species “only” pumps out 5.5% of the carbon output of all the species of life together?

    Top o’ the carbon chain motherfuckers!

  12. “getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field.”

    Slight problem with this plan… What farmer would be stupid enough to plough perfectly good charcoal into his field when he could make some decent money by selling it?

    For example, in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, charcoal is a major household fuel source. It is produced in rural areas, transported for miles on trucks, bicycles or piled on people’s heads, to be consumed in urban areas. Unlike electric power or natural gas, charcoal is the only reliable source of cooking fuel for most of the population.

    Good luck convincing anyone to bury it instead of burning it.

  13. some clarifications are needed on the clarifications.

    the point of biochar is in fact to return the nutrients in the plant matter back to the soil in a manner more efficient than the usual on the ground rotting.

    these nutrients are mostly significantly the minerals, which return to the soil as the ash in the biochar. the carbonaceous matter is largely converted to charcoal, but with some of this also left in various forms nice for bug food.

    the char then creates a micro honeycomb sort of structure which better fixes minerals, nitrogen, water and other good things to generally produce a large bloom in microbial life, and much improved plant performance.

    lovelock’s numbers are not suggesting we should convert the entire globally available biomass to char. he was giving the reference points in the question. how much is actually available for conversion is another front of math that is much debated.

    neither gov’t nor cranky libertarians are doing a good job coming up with these actual nuanced numbers. who will?

    jim

  14. Perhaps an advanced ancient saurian civilization already faced the same climate-change problem we did, and elected to gassify waste plant material and plow under trillions of tons of residual charcoal as some of us are proposing to do. Maybe some of the deposits we encounter today came from such attempts to influence the climate — apparently futile, if the point was to keep the planet hospitable for the then-dominant saurian races.

    Hey Harry Harrison! Here’s your next “Eden” novel!

  15. Regarding biochar, the idea is to use it to create Tera Preta, see http://rs.resalliance.org/2006/08/11/using-tera-preta-increase-soil-resilience/

    So far it looks like it’s a great fertilizer, so no it wouldn’t result in the creation of more fossil fuel fertilizer to make up the difference.

    @above: haha yeah I had the same idea a couple weeks ago and it is just as amusing now as it was then 🙂

  16. Whenever i hear the expression ‘saviors of the planet’, i immediately have an image of naked hippies being chased by lions.

    Me too, from now on.

  17. “There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal”

    Since no one has actually proven that there is anything we need to be saved from in the first place, just forget the whole thing.

  18. I like J.A.M.’s sci fi concept. So THAT’S why we keep finding fossils in petroleum beds: workplace accidents.

    Converting to nuclear power would make a difference too, but we aren’t going to do that either Actually, Hazel, the first permits for new nuclear plants since the 70s are winding their way through the application process as we type.

  19. If the “green” left starts supporting nuclear power than I will be believe they are honestly concerned about the environment and not just against efficient generation of energy in general.

  20. I thought these updates and endorsements may interest you,

    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

    Below are my current news & Links to major developments;

    Cheers,
    Erich J. Knight
    540 289 9750

    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!

    The IBI Announces Success in Having Biochar Considered as a Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Tool;

    POZNAN, Poland, December 10, 2008 – The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) announces that the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has submitted a proposal to include biochar as a mitigation and adaptation technology to be considered in the post-2012-Copenhagen agenda of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A copy of the proposal is posted on the IBI website at
    The International Biochar Initiative (IBI).

    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.

    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 also have been corresponding with Michael Pollan ( NYT Food Columnist, Author ) to do a follow up story.

    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.
    It’s what Mann hasn’t covered that I thought should interest any writer as a follow up article;

    Biochar data base;
    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.

    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.

    In a recent National Public Radio interview, Michael Pollan talks about how he was approached by a Democratic party staffer about his New York Times article, The “Farmer & Chief”, an open letter to the next president concerning U.S. agriculture/energy policy. The staffer wanted Pollan to summarize the article into a page or two to get it into the hands of Barack Obama. Pollan declined, saying that if he could have said everything that needed to be said in two pages, he wouldn’t have written 8000 words.

    Michael Pollan is well briefed about Biochar technology, but did not include it in his “Farmer & Chief” article to President Obama, (Which he did read & cited in a speech) but I’m sure Biochar will be his 8001th word to him.

    Total CO2 Equivalence:
    Once a commercial bagged soil amendment product, every suburban household can do it,
    The label can tell them of their contribution, a 40# bag = 150# CO2 = 160 bags / year to cover my personal CO2 emissions. ( 20,000 #/yr , 1/2 Average )
    http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/ind_calculator.html

    But that is just the Carbon!
    I have yet to find a total CO2 equivalent number taking consideration against some average field N2O & CH4 emissions. The New Zealand work shows 10X reductions.If biochar proves to be effective at reducing nutrient run-off from agricultural soils, then there will accordingly be a reduction in downstream N2O emissions.

    This ACS study implicates soil structure as main connection to N2O soil emissions;
    http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2008am/webprogram/Paper41955.html

    Biochar Studies at ACS Huston meeting;

    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

    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.

    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

    There is list of the additional beneficial effects of the 3R FORMULATED BIOCHAREU DOSSIER for permit administration and summary of the results from 4 different Authorities who executed different test programme is under construction
    I suggest these independent and accredited EU relevant Authority permit field tests results will support the further development of the biochar application systems on international level, and providing case evidence, that properly made and formulated (plant and/or animal biomass based) biochars can meet the modern environmental – agricultural – human health inspection standards and norm, while supporting the knowledge based economical development.

    We work further on to expand not only in the EU but in the USA as well. My Cincinnati large scale carbonization project is progressing, hopefully the first industrial scale 3R clean coal – carbon plant will be ready in 2009.

    Sincerely yours: Edward Someus (environmental engineer)
    HOMEPAGE 3R AGROCARBON: http://www.3ragrocarbon.com

    http://www.terrenum.net
    EMAIL 1: edward@terrenum.net
    EMAIL 2: edward.someus@gmail.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.
    http://www.EcoTechnologies.com

    Hopefully all the Biochar companies will coordinate with Dr. Jeff Novak’s Jeff.Novak@ars.usda.gov soils work at ARS;

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

    October 28, 2008

    U.S. Department of Agriculture to Evaluate CQuest? Biochar

    Non-Funded Cooperative Agreement Signed

    The objective of the biochar research is to quantify the effects of amending soils with CQuest? Biochar on crop productivity, soil quality, carbon sequestration and water quality. Field trials will involve incorporation of biochar in replicated field plots and on-farm strip trials with monitoring of crop yields, soil quality, water quality, emissions of greenhouse gasses, and soil carbon sequestration. Laboratory studies will involve amending soils with biochar and quantifying changes in soil quality and microbial activity during incubations.

    Biochar will be shipped from Dynamotive’s West Lorne facility to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) locations in Iowa, South Carolina, Idaho, Washington, and other ARS locations. Initial results are expected during the 2009 growing season.

    http://www.dynamotive.com/en/biooil/biochar_tests.html

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