December 29, 2008

The Trojan Terra Preta?

I received a very long reply to my post Inadvertent Biochar from Erich who is clearly very impressed with the promise of biochar "the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!" Wow, all that? How about one more: a sugar coating to a bitter pill; its kinship to bioprocessing fuel from agricultural "wastes" (wastes here referring to the carbonous materials that are worked back into the soil to build microbial communities, biomass/tilth and fertility).

"Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration,10X Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.
Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration, Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle." The report does go on to note however that the fuels are required for the supplying of energy of what is the point? Organic farming systems are carbon negative and a much less wasteful virtuosity. Probably the real motive for coupling biochar and biofuel can be seen in the funding breakdown of the U.S. Farm bill :The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007; A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:
Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

# Bioenergy Program/Feedstock Residue Management Program: (pg. 7 of S.1884) Provides assistance to cellulosic biorefineries in the form of transition payments in preparation for bioenergy operations; requires that land conversions for such operations ensure the protection and enhancement of soil quality and the prevention of soil erosion and nutrient leaching, and other impacts. Provides a total of $1.458 billion over the 5-year period FY 2008-2012.
# Biochar Demonstration Projects: (pg. 18 of S.1884) Provides that demonstration projects on a farm and cooperative scale be carried out to demonstrate the advantages of using biochar production systems to improve renewable energy production and protect and enhance soil quality; and for demonstration projects that demonstrate the manner in which biochar may be used to generate agricultural credits for carbon trading within greenhouse gas emissions reduction programs. Promotes high-priority biochar research and demonstration projects in three areas: biochar production and commercialization; biochar’s behavior in the environment; and economic and life-cycle analyses of biochar systems. Provides upwards of $100 million for the section, by authorizing “not less than” $20 million for each of FY2008-2012.
Sorry to be cynical, but follow the money. While I'll fish out the charcoal from my early morning stove and add it to my beautiful compost and even marvel at ancient Amazonian farmer's ingenuity in creating these durable and fertile soils, coupling modern biochar and the synthetic biology driven cellulosic fuel industry sets off some red flags.


Bishops Homegrown said...

I agree 100% and have done several posts on this over the past couple of months. People just don't seem to get it at all. Once again big-ag and corporations sink their hands into the peoples wallets via their hearts! The only way to make terra preta/bio-char is the way you and I are doing it. Leftover coals in a wood stove! Keep up the good word friend!

Ottawa Gardener said...

I am so happy to read something balanced about Terra Preta. The first time I read about it, my 'this is too good to be true' sense perked up. I started googling, 'biochar, critique' and 'biochar, negatives' but NOTHING. It was apparently the method of the angels. At any rate, I hold similar and now more educated (thaks to you) concerns about the use in the hands of big agri (and more generally).

Joel said...

We have integrated the high BTU syngas produced by slow pyrolysis with an internal combustion engine driving a generator set. The hot exhaust is then routed back to the pyrolysis reactor vessel jacket to maintain the heat of the thermochemical process. In doing so, we have balanced the input and output energies so that other than at start up, no outside energy use is needed.

anne said...


I guess I don't understand the motivation then Joel. What is the feedstock? See the Rodale ecperiments (link in this post) for an excellent description of how plant residues are an essential component for a carbon negative food production system.

Jim thomas said...

For those looking for a critique of biochar I highly recommend the new report from Biofuelwatch in the UK
. there is a link to it from their homepage . It's called something like biogeoengineering with carbon neutral bioenergy but is very critical (sorry I don't have the exact title/link - I'm writing this on my phone.)

anne said...

There is an active discussion about this going on the post inadvertent biochar