Saturday, April 04, 2009

Carbon negative biofuels: 1-The lesson of ancient Amazon natives

Illustration - Micrograph of a piece of charcoal (biochar) showing its extreme porosity, small holes are about 1 / 100 of a millimeter in diameter. It is an ideal environment to retain water, nutrients and microorganisms, increasing soil fertility. (Source: Best Energies)

Over the past ten years, agronomists and environmentalists are increasingly interested in Amazon Terra preta, an extremely fertile black soil resulting from amazing agricultural practices of ancient natives.

Their secret was charcoal buried deep in the soil, hence the name Terra preta, in Portuguese. The appearance of porous charcoal, also called biochar, helps retain nutrients, water and microorganisms. These features facilitate the growth of plants and reduce the need for fertilizer while reducing more than 50% the emission of nitrous oxide, a gas 300 times more potent for global warming than CO2.

To produce biochar, one uses a process of thermal decomposition of biomass called pyrolysis, which involves heating wood or crop residues in an enclosure with scarce oxygen environment. Combustible gases are then released containing, among other things, hydrogen and methane, which are partly used to produce the heat required by the process. A bio-oil is also formed after processing and cooling, that can used in heating furnaces. You can also turn this bio-oil into biofuels more suitable for transport, such as diesel and synthetic gasoline or ethanol with proper thermo-catalytic processes. One obtains then second-generation biofuels.

Now, when we bury biochar, in addition to fertilize the land we also sequester in the ground some CO2 from the atmosphere which had been absorbed by plants. It helps to remove greenhouse gases, a bonus specifically sought these days!
The combination of buried biochar and biofuel production, therefore makes these biofuels carbon negative, which is still better than carbon neutral biofuels. Professor Lehmann of Cornell University estimates that implementing these practices on a large scale, could both produce biofuels and withdraw annually 9.5 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by 2100. That is more than what we send in the atmosphere today in the world by burning fossil fuels!

For more information, please visit Terra preta site and the site of The International Biochar Initiative (IBI), where we find the illustration of the pyrolysis process shown above. In addition, the following video is an excellent documentary on the subject.

Terre preta - biochar

1 comment:

  1. 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; TP-REPP

    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.

    Low Tech Clean Biochar;