Carbon negative energy to reverse global warming

Tom Miles

Carbon negative energy to reverse global warming
Danny Day, EPRIDA, A posting to Energy Resources Group on Yahoo 2004

A recent symposium (EACU) at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA,
USA brought together a group representing scientists from chemistry,
archeology, physics, anthropology, microbiology, soil scientists,
agronomists, renewable energy research, and representatives from DOE,
USDA and industry. The focus was to look at the evidence for massive
historical carbon utilization, current research and how carbon
negative energy could be economically deployed today.

The ability to consider agricultural carbon applications arises from
the fact that up to one half of the carbon in our cropland soils has
been lost due to intensive agriculture and human induced degradation.

The initial phase of the meetings started with a review of the current
knowledge of man made soils called terra preta occupying an area of
the Amazon that total to twice the size of Britain. Carbon was added
to these soils in the form of a low temperature charcoal. Using low
intensity smoldering fires created these charcoals. By analysis, we
can tell that they were created 1000-2000 years ago and were part of a
soil management practice designed to take a yellow clay soil of
limited biological productivity and convert it into some of the
richest soil in the world. A thousand years after its creation it is
so well known in Brazil, that it is dug up and sold as potting soil.

Dr. Ogawa, from Kansai Environmental in Japan, a division of Kansai
Power the 2nd largest electric producer in that country, presented
their research on charcoal addition to the soil. Their work, which has
been ongoing for more than 15 years, has been studying the causes of
the charcoal effect and led to thee Japanese government approving
charcoal as an official land management practice. The impact of many
studies in Brazil to Thailand to Japan, showing increased crop yields
of 20-50% and total biomass yields increasing as much 280%, led Kansai
Electric to fund a reforestation research plantation in Australia
with Dr. Syd Shea for producing charcoal and returning it to grow more
trees and crops in the arid west of that country.

Low temperature woody charcoal (not grass or high cellulose) has an
interior layer of bio-oil condensates that microbes consume and is
equal to glucose in its effect on microbial growth (Christoph Steiner,
EACU 2004). High temp char loses this layer and does not promote soil
fertility very well. Tests by Finnish researcher Janna Pitkien, on
highly porous materials like zeolite, activated carbon and charcoal
show that microbial growth is substantially improved with charcoal
(opposite to her expectations). Evidence of terra preta's ability to
grow and sequester more carbon was undercovered by soil scientist
William Woods (U.Illinois). The work is still under investigation in
Brazil by over the last 20 years mining terra preta for potting soil
has not decreased its availability. Farmers have learned it recovers a
centimeter per year. The possibility those small fractions of char
continually migrate down, providing housing for microbes as they
process surface-cover biomass. The microbes and fungi live and die
inside the porous media increasing its carbon content. What are the
limits, we do not know but work at Cornell under the guidance of
Johannes Lehman and W. Zech, Bruno Glaser at the University of
Bayreuth (Germany) and Emprapa (Manus, Brazil) are investigating these

What we know now is that the properly prepared charcoal can increase
crop yields and sequester carbon for thousands of years (5000 years is
an estimate by Dan Gavin, charcoal dating researcher.(U. of Ill). Its
properties can allow even more carbon to be sequestered with more
biomass growth and soil carbon from microbial-fungi proliferation.

The economics of this type of carbon utilization can be very simply
viewed as the use between carbon-oxygen conversion for energy (ie
burning) or its use as a soil amendment. Our estimates using coal as
a comparison, at $1.50/MBTU, showed that at 1000lbs/acre with direct
injection would be alternately using 10MBTU of carbon in a sequestered
form or $15/acre even at double these rates a small increase in crop
yields and decreased fertilizer use produce a positive economic gain
for the farm and for future generations are topsoils are restored.
Add carbon credits and positive environmental impacts and the rewards
justify what a few of us are calling a global Manhattan project of
climate change.

But this is just half the story. In 2002 we demonstrated the
production of this charcoal from 50kg/hr of biomass while
simultaneously producing hydrogen in pilot scale equipment
( ) One of the largest uses of hydrogen today is
for food production via its conversion to ammonia. A demonstration in
October 2002 for the use of this charcoal to create a scrubbing system
exhaust for CO2, (&, SOx, NOx) (Patent US AP#20040111968 ) while
producing a nitrogen fertilizer provides a technique for producing a
off gas stream of hydrogen and CO which can be processed into
hydrogen, ammonia and diesel. The efficiency of this system is
enhanced by the combination of exothermic and endothermic processes.
The conversion of 40% of the hydrogen to ammonia for creating a
sequestering carbon value added product leaves a 2.7 moles of H2 to 1
of CO meeting the requirements for a Fischer-Tropsch biomass
conversion process to produce a carbon negative diesel. The resulting
carbon sequestration off sets the CO2 produced from the diesel by more
than two to one.

If additional biomass or microbial biomass growth is added, and/or the
replacement of some non-renewable streams, the impact is substantial.

The questions arise as to the availability of biomass and the areas
for usage of this type of soil amendment/fertilizer. On available
biomass, (there is a good diagram of this prepared by Michael
Obersteiner of the International Institute for Advanced Systems
Analysis, Austria) found in the July 7th DC luncheon presentation.
"Cutting-Edge Biomass Technologies For Mitigating Acute Climate Change"

The net is that using current biomass production (in the future we
will have much more as we restore our worlds topsoil with essential
carbon) we have the capability to go carbon negative today. As we make
the switch, it will need to be a global effort as positive feedbacks
are kicking in and will likely accelerate.

What about areas for use? Considering the 6.1 gigatons of CO2
accumulation, we would need to utilize this land and biomass
production technique on only 10% of the total of biologically
productive and human degraded lands per year to attain carbon negative
status. If we added desert lands for reclamation the number declines
further. Is is a big number, yes, but it is doable and a culture from
2000 years ago clearly understood its value then. Considering that
the majority of new emissions will come from developing countries,
what ever we choose, needs to be simple and profitable.

What can you do? Read up on terra preta (some of the published works
made a part of the above patent application), look at references in
the Eprida website or convince yourself by testing. Grow your favorite
plant in two pots, one with 1/3 wood charcoal (soak this in fertilizer
for several days), 1/3 sand and 1/3 available soil. Plant the other
with your normal method for potting plants. Fertilize and watch them
grow. Watch it for three seasons and note the differences. (Many have
noted their best results in the second year as microbial populations
increase) Alternately, use a microbe/fungi inoculation to speed the

Then tell everyone you know. Even if we can't stop avoid the climate
shift we will begun to build an awareness of a solution. If we broaden
the understanding that we can produce carbon negative fuels, scrub
fossil fuel exhaust of pollutants and C02, reverse the effect of
mining our soil, depleting soil carbon, trace minerals and losing
agricultural productivity then we will effect many generations to
come. In our lifetime, a 2000-year-old secret is being reborn and its
timeliness could never have been more appropriate. It now up to this
generation to embrace a plan to work with nature to restore lost soil
carbon and rebuild the incredible life at work in our soils. Working
together, we can achieve the possible.

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