Monday, August 23, 2010

The new Black Gold - charcoal - improving soil quality and locking down carbon

Interesting story (The Economist, August 27, 2009) about charcoal / biochar improving soil quality and locking up carbon for long periods of time ... perhaps just the ticket for a hothouse world ... excerpts follow ..
It is a sweet irony, therefore, that the latest fashion for dealing with global warming is to bring back charcoal. It has to be rebranded for modern consumers, of course, so it is now referred to as “biochar”. But there are those who think biochar may give humanity a new tool to attack the problem of global warming, by providing a convenient way of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, burying it and improving the quality of the soil on the way.


And if sequestration by biochar is deemed sensible, there remains the question of how, exactly, to go about it. Making the charcoal is not a problem. Pyrolising stoves are easy to construct and available models range from the portable to industrial-scale machines costing tens of thousands of dollars. Moreover, Jock Gill of Pellet Futures, a company based in Vermont that makes grass and wood pellets for use as fuel, told the meeting that a teenage protégé of his has invented a stove that can be fed continuously, rather than processing batches of raw material. If that proves successful, it would be a breakthrough of the sort that has enabled other industries (not least ironmaking) to take off in the past.



  1. To me, in the long run, the final arbiter / accountancy / measure of sustainability will be soil carbon content. Once this royal road is constructed, traffic cops ( Carbon Board ) in place, the truth of land-management and Biochar systems will be self-evident.

    A dream I've had for years is to base the coming carbon economy firmly on the foundation of top soils. My read of the agronomic history of civilization shows that the Kayopo Amazon Indians and the Egyptians were the only ones to maintain fertility for the long haul, millennium scales. Egypt has now forsaken their geologic advantage by building the Aswan dam, and are stuck, with the rest of us, in the soil C mining, NPK rat race to the bottom. The meta-analysis of Syn-N and soil Carbon content show our dilemma;

    The Ag Soil Carbon standard is in final review by the AMS branch at USDA. Read over the work so far;

    In my efforts to have Biochar's potential included, I have recruited several to join the list, briefed the entire committee about char when issues concerning N2O & CH4 soil GHG emissions were raised, fully briefed a couple of the 100 members when they replied individually to my "Reply all" briefs. The members cover the full spectrum of Ag interest.

    Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent. 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.

    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.

    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 with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar. Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come. Microbes like to sit down when they eat. By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life. (These oxidised surface charges; carbonyl. hydroxyl, carboxylic acids, and lactones or quinones, have as well a role as signaling substances towards bacteria, fungi and plants.)

    This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it. Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web. The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet. Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure we need to build out.

    NASA?s Space Archaeology terra preta Program;

    WorldStoves in Haiti ; and The Biochar Fund deserves your attention and support. Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon

    NSF Awards $600K to BREAD: Biochar Inoculants for Enabling Smallholder Agriculture

    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 theUSA

  2. Well said Erich, well said...

    Thanks for coming on by ... if you liked the site, please pass the address onto your friends. There be more regular postings - climate change in the forefront - written with an edge.