Friday, September 12, 2008

Biochar.... to save the Planet?

I have just attended the International Biochar conference in Newcastle ( Newcastle is a lovely city with a real buzz to it and very friendly people even if you have to listen a bit carefully to understand what they're saying. But it is a really great place. I last visited Newcastle some nine years ago to be interviewed for a Professorship in Physical Chemistry. I didn't get it, but I met the guy who did a few years later and apparently three months after they appointed him, they closed the chemistry department, such is the age of restructuring among Britain's universities.

Back to biochar: which is a kind of charcoal with several appealing qualities. Number one is that if the hypothesis that global warming is causing the world climate to change is correct, in consequence of humans pushing CO2 into the atmosphere, then by growing trees and other forms of biomass which absorb CO2 via photosynthesis, if this is then pyrolysed (heated to cause chemical decomposition) there remains a solid carbonaceous residue which can improve the growing properties of some soils if it is integrated into the top layers. Put another way, carbon is pulled down from the atmosphere and dumped in solid form into the earth. Improving the fertility of soils might also save on the amount of chemical fertilizers that need to be applied to soil to obtain adequate crop-yields, and result in some curbing of our demand upon a declining world resource of phosphate rock which peaked in production twenty years ago. In truth we will have to redesign the way we live, not only to rely far less on personal transportation, but to recycle nitrogenous and phosphate components from human and animal waste, in order to grow food, let alone a crop for biochar. Ideally those two practices can be integrated, so for example, the proverbial chaff from wheat might be converted into a stable form of carbon-rich material that persists in soil for thousands of years, or at least hundreds, actually drawing-down carbon from the atmosphere and cooling the earth, according to the greenhouse effect hypothesis.

There is scarcely doubt that it is the greenhouse effect that keeps the earth warm; a theory advanced by Professor Svente Arrhenius more than 100 years ago. Arrhenius also has his name attached to the pre-exponential or frequency factor in the rate equations of physical chemistry, known colloquially as Arrhenius Equations, that allow us to quantify chemical reactions and other dynamic processes involving molecules. He also proposed an unconventional though now known to be correct theory about ions in solution. For his transgression of prevailing thinking, the Swedish scientific establishment vigorously opposed his being awarded a professorship, although he went on to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1903. A truly brilliant man. The mean global temperature is reckoned at 15 degrees centigrade, and without its influence, it would be nearer minus 15 degrees. Throughout measured geological history, mostly as may be gauged from ice-core samples, every one hundred thousand years the earth experiences an ice-age and then warms into an interglacial period, such as we have now. I have occasionally ruminated that there may have been equally albeit differently advanced civilizations formed on the earth in previous warm times, which were then wiped-away and all evidence of them so, by the following catalogue of ice and glacial grinding. Who knows?

Also as the earth warms the level of CO2 follows the warming, with a lag of roughly 800 years. The present global-warming movement presumes that the current levels of atmospheric CO2 are causing the Earth to warm, and will do so yet more spectacularly in the forthcoming decades. Since these concentrations are unprecedented over 3 million years, this may be true. It is also the case that the mass-balance (as I have written on here before) corresponds closely between the amount of fossil carbon we have burned into CO2 into the atmosphere and its current quantity. The evidence that the atmospheric CO2 is becoming increasingly richer in the lighter 12-C isotope also supports the conclusion that the significant increase in this gas since 1950 is indeed derived from fossil fuels. What, nonetheless is not certain is that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is warming the Earth. There are credible theories created in very credible minds, that the warming of the Earth has alternative origins. We simply don't know, and it is debatable whether it is imperative or justified to turn over all of civilization to carbon-capture strategies.

However, all roads lead to Rome. Since we are threatened by the depleting resource of fossil fuels, most immediately oil, cutting back on our rate of burning them is the single option to take the edge off this imperative; to buy us some more time to regroup. If the greenhouse-gas theory is true then we shall save ourselves and our offspring generations much suffering. The actions in either case are the same. The best way to capture solar energy is through photosynthesis and thus we may grow our way to hope in terms of food production, energy provision, soil fertility and the remediation of our carbon excess. Socially and spiritually such cooperative and concerted actions may be our saving grace.

"Growing Our Way to Hope" is the title of a forthcoming novel by Chris Rhodes.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

More grounds for optimism?

"...Recently, algae biomass created via photosynthetic microbial
bioproduction techniques has gained attention as a feedstock for
biofuels production because its conversion to fuel requires less energy and does not compete with food crops..."

POS Pilot Plant is a confidential contract research, toll processing, and analytical services organization located in Saskatoon, Canada.
Sustain_ably yours,

Anonymous said...

Peak Phosphorus
Sustainable Phosphorus Futures

Unlike oil, which is lost once used, phosphates can be recovered and recycled. However, phosphorus
cannot be replaced once resources begin to be depleted: there is no substitute. At present, 80% of
phosphate mined is lost in fertiliser production, field application, food processing, and does not reach the
food we consume. Worldwide, mankind emits 3 million tonnes of phosphorus annually in faeces and
urine, with even more in animal manures. Human emissions represent more than 10% of phosphate rock production. Recovery and recycling of
phosphorus offer an important opportunity to reduce dependency on mined phosphates and make food production more sustainable.
Quoted from SCOPE Newsletter#71.

CEEP, a Sector Group of CEFIC is the joint research association of the European detergent and industrial polyphosphates industry, sponsors research into phosphates and the environment and into phosphate recycling, and publishes the SCOPE Newsletter.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi George,

yes, I am open to all grounds for optimism, although I still think the road ahead is rocky. Although I can envisage a lower-energy society, getting there seems like a white water-ride!

So, both these articles and many others you have sent that reinforce biomass and recycling, in a local context are I think part of the solution.

Phosphorus is the key element.

Sustainably yours - we hope!