Sunday, September 26, 2010

Biochar: is it any good?

Last March, George Monbiot has an attack on biochar.

It has just been circulated to me by email to an influential list.

George Monbiot is using the old journalistic trick of totalising the discussion, setting up an Aunt Sally.

He says it has been advanced as a "Miracle" and the "universal answer to our climate and energy problems".

Biochar is not a miracle, it is an interesting agricultural technique with carbon-storage spinoffs.

Biochar is not, suddenly or otherwise, the "universal answer to our climate and energy problems" - it is an interesting pathway of remediation that should be investigated and evaluated by gardeners and agriculturalists, alongside other changes in the way we do things.

The fact is that every day, solar energy acting on chlorophyll causes carbon dioxide and water to form sugars in leaves, some of which turn into xylem, are a store of energy and carbon. Left to itself, this store falls and rots, creating methane, thirty times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

If we can possibly divert some of this process into a long-term carbon store, while at the same time increasing food production, then it is entirely reasonable to experiment to see how this can be done in a way that helps biodiversity, helps local economies and local communities, and makes a contribution to stabilising our environment and society, alongside the radical decarbonisation of our energy

Sure, there may be un-green industrial scale plans for biochar that are ill-thought through, have adverse consequences, and should be opposed. This does not mean that I as a gardener should not experiment with adding charcoal to my soil. To be fair, George does admit of this possibility, so our disagreement is one of emphasis and approach, rather than of total difference.

We must always remember that even if it were possible by magic to stop all CO2 emissions tomorrow, we would still need to find a way to draw sequester the excess CO2 that we have already put in the atmosphere.

There is no merit in the argument "We must not try to sequester CO2 before we have fully decarbonised the economy".

We should also remember that it is possible to walk and chew gum at one and the same time.



Landfill is the answer. A well managed landfill site taking non putresible waste with a wind turbine and gas plant will help - long live landfill.

Shengar said...

Sustainable biochar 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.

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

NSF Awards $1.6 million in grants;
BREAD: Biochar Inoculants for Enabling Smallholder Agriculture

Shengar said...

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; $364K Terra Preta Program

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

DocRichard said...

Gideon Mack: Please expand or give a link. I know that landfill gas could and should be retrieved from all existent landfill, but the general presumption is that reuse/recycling/streaming is the way forward?

Shengar, thanks for all the useful links which will keep us happily occupied for hours.

I think monbiot et al. are raging against industrial sized operations which overrule local communities. Community sized operations, with smart charcoal producers that use the gas and can use all sorts of waste (brash, leaves &c) seem to be eminently sensible.

It worries me that some Greens have a black/white view, and a knee-jerk opposition to any solutions coming forward that are not hammered out on their own anvil.

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landboy09 said...

I heard about biochar a few months ago from a friend of mine. I never thought that something as simple as charcoal could do so much for the soil and the environment.

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Check it out. It was a great help in opening my mind to issues that affect us all.