Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why you should read The Biochar Solution

First, you should know that I have an allergy to anything that smacks of geoengineering. And the use of biochar--charred organic matter that can improve soil fertility--to address climate change by interring carbon in farmland on a mass scale strikes me as one of the largest geoengineering projects ever conceived. I always ask, "What will the unintended consequences be? Can we be sure that those consequences won't simply present a new set of problems, possibly catastrophic ones?"

Fortunately, Albert Bates, author of The Biochar Solution, takes these questions seriously and offers a measured endorsement of biochar as one of an array of strategies for responding to climate change. Even in the forward Vandana Shiva warns that "[b]y shifting our concern from growing the green mantle of the earth to making charcoal, biochar solutions risk repeating the mistakes of industrial agriculture."

With this kind of qualified endorsement, why should we read further? The answer is straightforward: Because intelligently and broadly applied and ethically managed, the production of biochar and its incorporation in the soil has the potential to lower carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, not on a millennial time line, but within a few decades. We have the possibility of reversing climate change. It's worth exploring this possibility because some of the most prominent climate scientists in the world believe we have already passed beyond the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that will, if not reduced, move the world into new and much warmer climate.

So, what might one of those unintended and possibly catastrophic consequences be? Bates summarizes an unexpected answer from a prominent soil scientist as follows:
Biochar is too powerful, she told me. Once the industrial complex with its credit markets, government incentives, and subsidies to farmers gets up and running, biochar could become a juggernaut, pushing the soil-atmosphere carbon balance into an overcorrection and ushering in a rapid-onset ice age.

When was the last time you heard someone who is firmly convinced that climate change is a critical issue say that a proposed solution would not simply fail, but could push us into an ice age? If biochar was that potent, I wanted to know more.

And, this leads to a second reason why you should read The Biochar Solution. The book begins with the engaging story of how biochar was discovered but not really understood (by Europeans, that is), forgotten, rediscovered, and finally understood by scientists. The story reads like a combined action/adventure tale and detective novel and shows Bates to be an accomplished storyteller. We are treated to a trip down the Amazon at the time of the conquistadors; to visits to plantations run by expatriate Confederate plantation owners who emigrated to Brazil after The Civil War; and finally to the findings of modern archeologists who uncover the truth about seemingly fantastical historical descriptions of great cities on the Amazon at the dawn of Spanish settlement in the New World.

The remainder of book is something of a handbook on biochar and carbon farming, showing how it might be done and who might do it. Bates introduces us to innovators who think broadly and creatively about how the soil might again become the rich, dense, living provider of fertility it once was. Readers will learn that the side effects may actually turn out to be side benefits: revitalized soils, verdant cities, higher long-term agricultural productivity, increased biodiversity and the reclaiming of desert landscapes. The author also discusses the prospects for agroforestry, an approach to forests that could make them both sustainable and productive for human purposes.

Along the way Bates relates several astounding claims that will keep you reading. Two such claims are as follows: 1) The Amazon rainforest is actually the product of human actions, and 2) the world's cooking stoves--the kind that burn wood and other biomass in most poor countries and currently add to global climate change woes--could be transformed into tools for climate recovery.

Could little pieces of charred organic matter really do all that Bates suggests? He recommends that we give biochar a widespread trial, but in conjunction with deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. These cuts, he says, are absolutely essential.

While such cuts seem by far the more difficult task, biochar will involve its own difficulties. First, as Bates admits, the production of biochar will have to be regulated to ensure that it is done ethically and sustainably. He gives an example in the book of unregulated production and its potential to do much harm. But, in a world now gripped by the laissez-faire model of economics, it's hard to see how broad-reaching international regulation of biochar production could be achieved.

And yet, if the unfolding climate catastrophe produces a vivid and pivotal moment--say, a sudden collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet--the will to do something as dramatic as seeding a large portion of the Earth's soils with biochar and doing it in an ethical way may actually become politically feasible.


Erich J. Knight said...

For those looking for an overview of biochar and its benefits, These authors have done a very nice job of distilling a great deal of information about biochar and applying it to the US context:

US Focused Biochar report: Assessment of Biochar's Benefits for the USA

Sustainable bio char to mitigate global climate change

Not talked about in this otherwise comprehensive study are the climate and whole ecological implications of new , higher value, applications of chars.

the in situ remediation of a vast variety of toxic agents in soils and sediments.
Biochar Sorption of Contaminants;

Dr. Lima's work; Specialized Characterization Methods for Biochar
And at USDA;
The Ultimate Trash To Treasure: *ARS Research Turns Poultry Waste into Toxin-grabbing Char

the uses as a feed ration for livestock to reduce GHG emissions and increase disease resistance.

Recent work by C. Steiner showing a 52% reduction of NH3 loss when char is used as a composting accelerator. This will have profound value added consequences for the commercial composting industry by reduction of their GHG emissions and the sale of compost as a nitrogen fertilizer.

Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left.
Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

Thanks for your efforts.

Erich J. Knight
Chairman; Markets and Business Committee
2010 US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University

EcoTechnologies Group Technical Adviser
Shenandoah Gardens (Owner)
1047 Dave Barry Rd.
McGaheysville, VA. 22840
540 289 9750
Co-Administrator, Biochar Data base & Discussion list TP-REPP





Dave Kimble said...

Biochar will only make a significant contribution to the global warming problem if it is done on a grand scale.

The problem is how to tackle this project so that its CO2 budget makes sense.

If you consider a 100 hectare block of land with biomass on it, the harvester is maybe 3 metres wide, so it will need to travel 333 Km to cover it all. The biomass then has to be loaded into a truck and transported to the char factory. The char then has to be taken to a receiving field and loaded into a spreader, which will need to travel a large distance (maybe not as much as 333 Km) to spread it over the field.

If the quantity of biomass is too big for the harvester's storage bin, then you will also need a support vehicle to empty the bin and ferry the contents to the truck. This is standard practice in the sugarcane industry in Australia.

If you then scale the example up, all the distances will get bigger, and the amount of fossil fuel burnt will get bigger, until the project becomes a net carbon source instead of a sink. This will happen all the quicker if the quantity of dry biomass per hectare is low - as it will be if it is not fertilised cropping land.

So before we start on any large scale project, these calculations need to be done carefully, or we will be making matters worse.

Then add Peak Oil into the equation, and redesign all the machinery to run on electric motors and batteries, with all the consumption of energy and metals to build the machinery and batteries, and all the consumption of energy to dig up, smelt and refine the metals. Not to mention all the fuel that is needed to recharge to batteries.

I look forward to the advocates of biochar producing these numbers, but my allergy to geo-engineering solutions has already made my eyes start to water.

Erich J. Knight said...

The Rainbow Bee Eater project in the Oz wheat belt

They have been doing broad field trials for 4 years now, banding application of char at 10-20 T/Ha, with 10-25% increased wheat yields at 1/2 standard fertilizer rates.

They state the Life Cycle;
Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

Just look at the range of all the char projects down under;

As for Peak oil, meet the future autonomous hybrid tractor;

And tank ready biofuel;

The production of fossil fuel free fertilizer from corn cobs, producing ammonia & char by SynGest, at a lower price than Ng feedstocks,
and the 52% conservation of NH3 in composting with chars, are just the newest pathways for the highest value use of the fractionation of biomass.

Dennis Peterson said...

I was a winner in MIT's recent contest for global warming solutions. I proposed an economic framework to motivate biochar and other methods for absorbing CO2 from atmosphere. There proposal is here. Winning meant I got to present the idea to congressional staffers and the U.N. Secretary General's personal advisor on climate issues.

The basic idea is for emitters to pay for absorption. Ramp up to carbon neutrality...if, overall, 100 tons are being emitted for every ton absorbed, then require each emitter to pay for one ton absorption for every 100 tons they emit. Charge at the major sources (coal plants, oil companies, etc). Issue emission permits to absorbers (biochar farmers, etc) and let them sell to the highest bidder.

By increasing the price of fossil fuels, we motivate emission reductions just like a carbon tax would, while also absorbing lots of CO2, and building the infrastructure to actually reduce CO2 levels later on.

Dave Kimble: it's not necessary to do all those calculations, once a 1:1 ratio is reached. If a biochar infrastructure will cause more emissions than it will absorb, the increased fuel prices will make it unprofitable to absorb with that system. But prior to 1:1 it could be a problem. I need to put some more thought into that.

The MIT project is continuing, and anyone who'd like to submit ideas can do so here.

Dave Kimble said...

If the project is marginally better than 1:1 (sink to source) then it will make an improvement. But you can't stop there - if the ratio is 1.1:1 then you are making 10 units of CO2 for every 11 you save, and so the good you are doing is very limited.

This is exactly the situation with making ethanol from corn in the US. Indeed California did the calculations and came to the conclusion that ethanol was marginally WORSE than gasoline, (and plenty of scientists agree) and was about to refuse it a 'green' certificate, until the ethanol lobby nobbled them via their Washington connections.

That is why I say it is really important to do the calculations carefully. Sure the biochar process can produce bio-fuels, but can it produce enough to run the harvester and all the other transport stages when the project is being done on a grand scale ?

Erich J. Knight said...

More than marginally better.
Depending on the destiny of the feedstocks not used for pyrolysis the sink to Source ratio is 1: o.66.
But you can't stop there, depending on soil type, reduced GHG soil emissions must be added. If integrated with composting and nutrient management, then nitrogen & phosphorous and NH3 efficiency adds to overall accounting.
I speculate that the on going, out years, full accounting will bring the ratio to at the very least 1:0.5

Pangolin said...

Yeah, yeah all those great global benefits are wonderful but......

Why did Amazon natives with stone tools and ceramics make ton after ton of biochar for thousands of years? Tilth.

Biochar enhanced soils are easy to dig, easy to level and they hold water instead of allowing it to puddle or wash through.

Weeds come right out. I mean that I can pull an oak seedling out with a bare hand and get a foot of root. Mallows pop right out.

When gardeners and small farmers finally get a hold of small biochar retorts that don't smoke this stuff is going to take off. It's the most important agricultural discovery since saving seeds.