Monday, November 23, 2009

Biocharcoal - A weird way to save the Earth

As our world has started to see the immediate effects of global warming (such as stronger hurricanes, increasing drought, higher temperatures in both land and sea, and the disappearing polar ice), we are getting more and more desperate and creative in finding measures to mitigate global warming.

One of these measures as mentioned today in CNN, is using biochar (also known as biocharcoal).

Here's the link to CNN's article.

According to CNN, biochar is right up there with the other "weird" solutions. But, unlike the other proposed solutions such as "whitening" large deserts by applying vast white tarps over them, biochar is far more practical and far more achievable. This is because it is much more cost-effective and literally very easy to produce in massive quantities.

In a nutshell, biochar can be made by burning decaying woodchips and dead leaves in a vacuum tank until the remains are just a highly porous black charcoal. So instead of letting the dead leaves and wood decay and release CO2 to the atmosphere, the carbon is locked into the charcoal. This biochar can then be broken up and added to regular soil, making it more stable as well as making it a sink for carbon to be trapped in. Every farmer can do this, and if more and more join in the biochar movement, pretty soon something seemingly insignificant can actually be a more important and "not-so weird" way of saving the Earth.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Biocharcoal + Fertilizer = AWESOME!

Funny how the ancient Amero-Indians of Brazil got it right a long time ago.  By burning wood chips and withered leaves and twigs in a covered ditch, they created biocharcoal and mixed it in with regular top soil.  The result was terra preta, a nutrient-rich, super stable dark soil.

Terra Preta soil was impregnable against soil erosion and the vegetation that spawned from it flourished in both size and abundance.  Plants grew bigger and stronger.  Farmers found their crops yielding an abundant harvest year over year without having to recondition the soil.

The secret of Terra Preta lies in the biocharcoal mix. One of biocharcoal's unique properties is that it is extremely porous, yet extremely strong in molecular structure.  The great porosity allows minerals and nutrients essential for plant growth to be retained inside the biocharcoal.  This provides time for the plant roots to extract the nutrients.  Without biocharcoal, these nutrients would normally wash away through the soil and into the bedrock after a rainfall.

And, because of biocharcoal's inherently strong physical structure, mixing it with regular soil increases the soil's strength, especially against winds and water erosion.

Now, zoom back to present times, as biocharcoal once again is catching on in modern-day farms.  Today, several farms are employing a combination of biocharcoal and natural fertilizers to enhance their soils.  Here is a link to a youtube video that shows the comparison study of 1) adding regular fertilizer to a corn field sample and 2) adding regular fertilizer + biocharcoal to a similar corn field sample.  And the results are nothing short of AWESOME.  

The findings show that the biocharcoal + fertilzer mix yielded corn plants approximately 3 times the size of corn plants from a regular fertilizer mix.

Perhaps one day, the big boys of agriculture fertilizers such as Potash and Agrium can see the tremendous potential that biocharcoal offers.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Offsetting the Man-made Carbon Loop with Biocharcoal

Sometimes the solutions to some of the world’s nagging problems lie in the simplest of things right in front of our eyes. Global warming comes to mind as an ongoing problem for all of us. And as we all know, global warming is caused by the increased concentration of greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane and nitrous oxide getting trapped in the atmosphere. So what’s the simple solution I talk about that’s staring us in the face?

It’s called offsetting the Man-made carbon loop. Nature preserves the natural carbon loop quite elegantly. Humans and animals inhale oxygen and exhale CO2. Trees and plants do the opposite by inhaling the CO2 and expelling oxygen. It is a truly symbiotic relationship. We are not as responsible as Mother Nature.

What is the Man-made carbon loop anyway? Well, its really the process of artificially emitting CO2 into the atmosphere and then taking it out of the atmosphere to complete the cycle. We are really good at doing the first part - emitting CO2 into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. It’s the second part that we’re not doing a good job of - taking back all that CO2 from the air. And hence, the loop isn’t closed. And to be honest, I’m not sure of a sure-fire answer of closing the man-made carbon loop. BUT, we can offset the man-made carbon loop by taking away more CO2 from the natural carbon loop.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to use charcoal, but not just any ordinary charcoal. It’s a special type of charcoal called bio-charcoal, and it’s made by burning organic biomass such as woodchips and garden waste in a chamber without the presence of oxygen in a process called pyrolysis. 

This type of charcoal is very high in carbon content and is very porous. But this special charcoal is nothing new. It has been around for many centuries. First employed by the Amero-Indians of Brazil, bio-charcoal was used as a soil fertilizer and enhancer to create a very dark, rich soil called terra preta.

And here’s where the CO2 offsetting happens. In the natural carbon loop, living matter such as plants die and decompose. During that decomposition, CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere. However, by burning the dead organic matter through pyrolysis, this CO2 that is normally released gets trapped into the charcoal as pure carbon. The net amount of CO2 in the atmosphere in the carbon loop is decreased.