Friday, November 6, 2009

Battling Climate Change with Agricultural Waste

Climate change has triggered the creation of a variety of social enterprises in the past couple of years. Jason Aramburu’s re:char -- a fledgling renewable energy technology company that’s working out of a warehouse in a shared artist’s loft in Brooklyn, New York – is among the most innovative. “Right now, the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere is at about 387 parts per million,” Aramburu, 24, told Justmeans in a recent interview. “Leading scientists like James Hansen [the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies] say that if we don’t get below 350 ppm in the next two or three decades, we’re going to see some of the really catastrophic effects of climate change – things like drought, flood, and famine.”

So which existing energy technologies can get us below 350? That’s a question Aramburu, a 2009 PopTech Fellow, asked himself when he was working in the clean coal tech lab at Princeton a few years ago. “I realized that clean coal is an oxymoron,” he said. “Just getting it out of the ground is dirty.” Nuclear, he says, is expensive and wind and other renewables won’t do anything to take carbon out of the air. “So I thought to myself, why don’t we take these technologies and apply them to a cleaner fuel like biomass and make energy – while sequestering carbon?”

After a couple of years of research, Aramburu and his team developed biochar -- a highly porous charcoal that Aramburu says is just like the carbon charcoal you find in your barbecue grill except that it’s made from organic waste, like woodchips, corn husks, peanut shells, or even chicken manure.

“In the traditional agricultural carbon cycle, plants take in CO2,” Aramburu says. “You harvest those plants for food and we’re left with biomass; farmers take that biomass and mulch it or compost it and eventually, the CO2 that those plants took in gets back into the atmosphere by decomposing. But if we really want to fight climate change, we have to short out the system. We take those plants, turn them into biochar and then bury that biochar in the soil, the soil from which it came.”

To test the idea, Aramburu and his team went to Brazil to research the Amazon basin. Some 1,500 years ago, indigenous farmers there would take their agricultural wastes, turn them into charcoal and bury the charcoal in the ground. “You can go to those sites now and see that carbon they took out of the atmosphere is still in the ground, 1500 years later,” he says. “To me, that was proof that this works.”

The indigenous farmers didn’t bury their charcoal wastes because they knew about climate change, Aramburu said. They did it to fertilize the rainforest’s nutrient-poor soil. Biochar contains high levels of nutrients vital for plant growth, like nitrogen, phosphate, and calcium. “We’re finding that in the developing world today, in a trial we just did in Cameroon involving maize plants, that adding biochar to the soil actually improves crop yields by 200 to 250 percent,” he says. Biochar also locks carbon dioxide away, possibly for thousands of years.

How does it work? Aramburu and his team built a biomass processor for about $15,000. The unit, in a process called pyrolysis, can produce about 25 kilowatts of energy just from waste, enough to power a village in Africa. It also can produce about 120 tons of biochar per year and sequester 430 tons of CO2 annually. The pyrolysis process yields hydrocarbons, which can be made into fuel.

Aramburu and team just completed a pilot demonstration in Cameroon proving the technology. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Michigan are working with re-char to test a prototype based on Aramburu’s design, and a working prototype on a small farm in Norfolk, Connecticut processes waste wood from trees that were destroyed in an ice storm last winter. ARamburu says the Brooklyn location gets several requests per week from farmers, ranchers and vineyard owners from across the United States, as well as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Canada.

Aramburu’s next goal is to roll out his re:char on three continents. “We want to show this technology is applicable in Africa, Latin America and places like the Midwest of the United States,” says Arumburu. “Our current goal is to get 100,000 tons of CO2 out of the air. From there, we want to roll it out across the globe. If we can get 2 billion tons of CO2 out per year, we can roll back emissions to pre-1982 levels in just 10 years. I was born in 1985, so for young people like me, if we can scale this, we can see a world that we’ve never experienced.”

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1 comment:

  1. Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.
    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.
    As one microbiologist said on the Biochar list; "Microbes like to sit down when they eat".
    By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.

    One aspect of Biochar systems are Cheap, clean biomass stoves that produce biochar and no respiratory disease. At scale, the health benefits are greater than ending Malaria.

    Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, NASA's Dr. James Hansen
    Charles Mann ("1491") in the Sept. National Geographic
    Dr. James Lovelock; " Mankinds only Hope"
    Tony Blair, Malcomb Turnbull, Richard Branson
    Dozens of USDA-ARS Researchers

    Soil Carbon Sequestration Standards Committee. Hosted by Monsanto, this group of diverse interests has been hammering out issues of definition, validation and protocol. The past week, this group have been pressing soil sequestration's roll for climate legislation to congress.

    Along these lines internationally, the work of the IBI fostering the application by 13 countries for UN recognition of soil carbon as a sink with biochar as a clean development mechanism will open the door for programs across the globe.

    This new Congressional Research Service report (by analyst Kelsi Bracmort) is the best short summary I have seen so far - both technical and policy oriented. .

    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

    All political persuasions agree, building soil carbon is GOOD.
    To Hard bitten Farmers, wary of carbon regulations that only increase their costs, Building soil carbon is a savory bone, to do well while doing good.

    Biochar provides the tool powerful enough to cover Farming's carbon foot print while lowering cost simultaneously.

    Another significant aspect of bichar is removal of BC aerosols by low cost ($3) Biomass cook stoves that produce char but no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing "Three Stone" stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria. and village level systems
    The Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF).recently funded The Biochar Fund $300K for these systems citing these priorities;
    (1) Hunger amongst the world's poorest people, the subsistence farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa,
    (2) Deforestation resulting from a reliance on slash-and-burn farming,
    (3) Energy poverty and a lack of access to clean, renewable energy, and
    (4) Climate change.

    The Biochar Fund :
    Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon

    The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that , and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )