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Biochar: sustainable carbon sequestration

by Ben Courtice

As many who follow the science news would realise, there is a large current of opinion that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already too high and poses an unacceptable risk of runaway climate change. Given that greenhouse gases typically take 20 years after emission to have their effect on climate, we would be best off if we could reduce the amount of these gases before their effects manifest.

Much government and industry spin has surrounded the hypothetical technology for geosequestration of gases by liquefying them and pumping them under layers of rock deep beneath the earth. However, a much easier, proven technique called variously "biochar", "agrichar" or "terra preta" has gained some attention. Greens and lefts ought to pay special attention to biochar.

Climate change is a complex problem with many facets. In the words of Barry Commoner, "It is also important to keep in mind the several aims of the transformation in production technologies, for improperly satisfying one of them may ricochet into another problem area" and "If these goals are approached piecemeal, there is a danger that the method used to reach one of them will interfere with the others".

Biochar has the promise of being (part of) a solution to greenhouse gases that helps to solve other attendant problems, rather than increasing them. Essentially, the technique involves turning left-over crop residue (stalks etc) into charcoal and ploughing this into the earth, where it is found to increase the soil's retention of nutrients and water, and to promote the growth of beneficial micro-organisms. As well as benefiting agriculture, charcoal is a stable form of carbon and may last in the soil for thousands of years. Thus it is possible, as part of a shift to organic farming practices, to use biochar to turn agriculture from a net emitter of carbon to a tool for drawing carbon back out of the atmosphere.

The International Agrichar Initiative (now the International Biochar Initiative) held a conference on April 30 - May 2 2007 in New South Wales, Australia. Kelpie Wilson wrote on May 3 at www.truthout.org, "As delegates met in Bangkok this week to debate climate change solutions contained in the IPCC's latest report, one technology not mentioned in the draft report was being closely examined at a conference in Australia in the beach town of Terrigal, just north of Sydney. The first meeting of the International Agrichar Initiative convened about 100 scientists, policymakers, farmers and investors with the goal of birthing an entire new industry to produce a biofuel that goes beyond carbon neutral and is actually carbon negative. The industry could provide a "wedge" of carbon reduction amounting to a minimum of ten percent of world emissions and possibly much more. " The conference was also covered by the ABC's Catalyst program.

It's not just carbon emissions that are affected. According to Wilson, "Nitrous oxide is 270 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas and it lasts for 150 years in the atmosphere. Use of nitrogen fertilizers is a major source of the gas, and a difficult one to mitigate. But agrichar applied to fields seems to have a significant damping effect on nitrous oxide emissions. Lukas Van Zwieten, a researcher at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, looking at preliminary results of his field trials measuring nitrous oxide emissions from agrichar amended soils, said "the more I look into this, the more excited I get." "

The obvious potential of biochar to be used as a carbon credit or offset in carbon trading schemes will probably help to profile the technology. At least it is a more stable form of sequestration than simply planting trees, one of the best known greenwashing offset schemes.

More importantly, biochar production and use is easily adopted by small poor farmers in third world countries. The main cost is a kiln for pyrolisis of the wood or crop residue. This could conceivable be combined with cooking or other domestic needs. To quote again from Wilson, "About half the world's population relies on charcoal for cooking fuel, and the production of charcoal drives deforestation in Africa and other places... An effort to replace these [inefficient] kilns with modern, efficient pyrolysis units would relieve the pressure on forests by reducing waste and adding the ability to use any source of biomass, including agricultural waste products such as rice hulls. The ultimate objective is to produce enough charcoal to have some left over to bury and increase soil fertility, leading to a bootstrapping effect where increased yields provide both more food and more biomass for energy."

3 Com:

cchange | January 28, 2008

Lets give it a name
I say Global Carbon March
Inter our exhaust

charlie | January 28, 2008

Lets give it a name
I say Global Carbon March
Inter our exhaust

erich | January 28, 2008

the current news and links on Terra Preta (TP)soils and closed-loop pyrolysis of Biomass, this integrated virtuous cycle could sequester 100s of Billions of tons of carbon to the soils.

Terra Preta Soils Technology To Master the Carbon Cycle

This technology represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.Terra Preta Soils a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.
UN Climate Change Conference: Biochar present at the Bali Conference


SCIAM Article May 15 07;


After many years of reviewing solutions to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) I believe this technology can manage Carbon for the greatest collective benefit at the lowest economic price, on vast scales. It just needs to be seen by ethical globally minded companies.

Could you please consider looking for a champion for this orphaned Terra Preta Carbon Soil Technology.

The main hurtle now is to change the current perspective held by the IPCC that the soil carbon cycle is a wash, to one in which soil can be used as a massive and ubiquitous Carbon sink via Charcoal. Below are the first concrete steps in that direction;

S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:

Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

for the 2007 Farm Bill


Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.

Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions from Biomass by 2030by Ralph P. Overend, Ph.D. and Anelia Milbrandt
National Renewable Energy Laboratory


The organization 25x25 (see 25x'25 - Home) released it's (first-ever, 55-page )"Action Plan" ; see; http://www.25x25.org/storage/25x25/documents/IP%20Documents/ActionPlanFinalWEB_04-19-07.pdf
On page 29 , as one of four foci for recommended RD&D, the plan lists: "The development of biochar, animal agriculture residues and other non-fossil fuel based fertilizers, toward the end of integrating energy production with enhanced soil quality and carbon sequestration."
and on p 32, recommended as part of an expanded database aspect of infrastructure: "Information on the application of carbon as fertilizer and existing carbon credit trading systems."

I feel 25x25 is now the premier US advocacy organization for all forms of renewable energy, but way out in front on biomass topics.

There are 24 billion tons of carbon controlled by man in his agriculture and waste stream, all that farm & cellulose waste which is now dumped to rot or digested or combusted and ultimately returned to the atmosphere as GHG should be returned to the Soil.

Even with all the big corporations coming to the GHG negotiation table, like Exxon, Alcoa, .etc, we still need to keep watch as they try to influence how carbon management is legislated in the USA. Carbon must have a fair price, that fair price and the changes in the view of how the soil carbon cycle now can be used as a massive sink verses it now being viewed as a wash, will be of particular value to farmers and a global cool breath of fresh air for us all.

If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP web site I've been drafted to co-administer. http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of EPRIDA , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who's back round I don't know have joined.

Also Here is the Latest BIG Terra Preta Soil news;

The Honolulu Advertiser: "The nation's leading manufacturer of charcoal has licensed a University of Hawai'i process for turning green waste into barbecue briquets."

See: http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/antalkingsford

Dynamotive to build fully commercial fast-pyrolysis biofuel plant in Missouri

ConocoPhillips Establishes $22.5 Million Pyrolysis Program at Iowa State


Glomalin, the recently discovered soil protien, may be the secret to to TP soils productivity;


Here is my current Terra Preta posting which condenses the most important stories and links;

Terra Preta Soils Technology To Master the Carbon Cycle

Man has been controlling the carbon cycle , and there for the weather, since the invention of agriculture, all be it was as unintentional, as our current airliner contrails are in affecting global dimming. This unintentional warm stability in climate has over 10,000 years, allowed us to develop to the point that now we know what we did,............ and that now......... we are over doing it.

The prehistoric and historic records gives a logical thrust for soil carbon sequestration.
I wonder what the soil biome carbon concentration was REALLY like before the cutting and burning of the world's forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till and reforestation have started to help rebuild it. It makes implementing Terra Preta soil technology like an act of penitence, a returning of the misplaced carbon to where it belongs.

On the Scale of CO2 remediation:

It is my understanding that atmospheric CO2 stands at 379 PPM, to stabilize the climate we need to reduce it to 350 PPM by the removal of 230 Billion tons of carbon.

The best estimates I've found are that the total loss of forest and soil carbon (combined
pre-industrial and industrial) has been about 200-240 billion tons. Of
that, the soils are estimated to account for about 1/3, and the vegetation
the other 2/3.

Since man controls 24 billion tons in his agriculture then it seems we have plenty to work with in sequestering our fossil fuel CO2 emissions as stable charcoal in the soil.

Energy, the carbon cycle and greenhouse gas management; http://www.computare.org/Support%20documents/Fora%20Input/CCC2006/Energy%20Paper%2006_05.htm

As Dr. Lehmann at Cornell points out, "Closed-Loop Pyrolysis systems such as Dr. Danny Day's are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative". and that " a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! "

Terra Preta Soils Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X FertilityToo

This some what orphaned new soil technology speaks to so many different interests and disciplines that it has not been embraced fully by any. I'm sure you will see both the potential of this system and the convergence needed for it's implementation.

The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil technology may
provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power
structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.

The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade or a Carbon tax in place.

.Nature article, Aug 06: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:

Here's the Cornell page for an over view:

University of Beyreuth TP Program, Germany http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=taxonomy/term/118

This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 19,000 self-selected folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

There is an ecology going on in these soils that is not completely understood, and if replicated and applied at scale would have multiple benefits for farmers and environmentalist.

Terra Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration effort of growing plants.

The reason TP has elicited such interest on the Agricultural/horticultural side of it's benefits is this one static:

One gram of charcoal cooked to 650 C Has a surface area of 400 m2 (for soil microbes & fungus to live on), now for conversion fun:

One ton of charcoal has a surface area of 400,000 Acres!! which is equal to 625 square miles!! Rockingham Co. VA. , where I live, is only 851 Sq. miles

Now at a middle of the road application rate of 2 lbs/sq ft (which equals 1000 sqft/ton) or 43 tons/acre yields 26,000 Sq miles of surface area per Acre. VA is 39,594 Sq miles.

What this suggest to me is a potential of sequestering virgin forest amounts of carbon just in the soil alone, without counting the forest on top.

To take just one fairly representative example, in the classic Rothampstead experiments in England where arable land was allowed to revert to deciduous temperate woodland, soil organic carbon increased 300-400% from around 20 t/ha to 60-80 t/ha (or about 20-40 tons per acre) in less than a century (Jenkinson & Rayner 1977). The rapidity with which organic carbon can build up in soils is also indicated by examples of buried steppe soils formed during short-lived interstadial phases in Russia and Ukraine. Even though such warm, relatively moist phases usually lasted only a few hundred years, and started out from the skeletal loess desert/semi-desert soils of glacial conditions (with which they are inter-leaved), these buried steppe soils have all the rich organic content of a present-day chernozem soil that has had many thousands of years to build up its carbon (E. Zelikson, Russian Academy of Sciences, pers. comm., May 1994). http://www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/carbon1.html

All the Bio-Char Companies and equipment manufactures I've found:

Carbon Diversion

Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns

BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis - Biomass - Clean Energy - Renewable Ene

Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy

Ensyn - Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals

Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste

Advanced BioRefinery Inc.

Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash

3R Environmental Technologies Ltd. (Edward Someus)
WEB: http://www.terrenum.net/

The company has Swedish origin and developing/designing medium and large scale carbonization units. The company is the licensor and technology provider to NviroClean Tech Ltd British American organization WEB: http://www.nvirocleantech.com and VERTUS Ltd.

Genesis Industries, as the current licensee of Eprida technology, provides you with a carbon negative Eprida energy machine at the same cost as going direct to Eprida. Through our technical support staff we also provide you with the information to obtain the best utilization of the biocharcoal that is produced by the machine. Recent research has shown that Eprida charcoal can increase plant productivity as it sequesters carbon in the soil, thus helping reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.


Mycorrhizae Inoculent;


The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) conference held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. The papers from this conference are posted at their home page; http://www.biochar-international.org/home.html

If pre-Columbian Kayopo Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 15% of the Amazon basin using "Slash & CHAR" verses "Slash & Burn", it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of energy return over energy input (EROEI) for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens
1047 Dave Berry Rd.
McGaheysville, VA. 22840
(540) 289-9750

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