Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Biochar Economy

The Biochar Economy offers a sustainable alternative to economic systems that fail to sufficiently take into account care for the environment and concerns for global warming.

Biochar is one of the products of pyrolysis, an oxygen-starved method of heating up biomass to (also) produce renewable energy.

The Australian Government plans to award carbon credits for the application of biochar to soil, for biochar's ability to abate greenhouse gases. As part of the Carbon Farming Initiative $AU2 million will be provided for a Biochar Capacity Building Program. This in addition to $AU1.4 million that is already being invested in the National Biochar Initiative as part of the Climate Change Research Program.

Carbon credits constitute just one way to support biochar. Ultimately, carbon credits are typically paid from profits on fossil fuel, which are scheduled to decrease over time. To develop more lasting support for biochar, alternatively policies should be considered.
The Biochar Economy

The idea behind the "Biochar Economy" is to try to embed biochar production into as many processes as possible, as pictured on above image, from open source ecology.

In carbon-negative 'Biochar Economies', biochar is proposed to also act as a kind of local 'gold standard' for local currency supply. Biochar-based currency could strengthen local economies and shield them not only from the volatility of global currency fluctuations, but also from the danger of global warming causing the entire global financial system to collapse, as discussed back in 2007.

Biochar-based local currencies go well together with three types of local feebates: 
  • Energy fees, imposed on polluting fuel and the equipment and appliances used to burn the fuel, to fund rebates on local clean energy programs.
  • Fees on polluting cement, livestock products and nitrogen fertilizers, made payable in local currency, funding rebates on locally-produced biochar and olivine added to local soils.
  • Local rates that incorporate feebates, i.e. higher fees the lower the soil's carbon content, with rebates for soils with the highest carbon content.
Since pyrolysis of surplus biomass can produce renewable energy, it can benefit from local energy feebates as pictured below. 

In addition, soil supplements that include biochar can benefit from feebates as pictured below. 

These policies will avoid emissions and effectively take greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. 

These policies will also create local employment and investment opportunities without having to borrow money elsewhere, and will increase local standards of living and health, as well as increase the quality and value of the land. 

All this can be achieved though mechanisms that work in parallel and are often complementary, e.g. pyrolysis of forest waste can stimulate forest growth, avoid termite infections and reduce the risk of wildfires; furthermore, when pyrolysis provides power that replaces the practice of burning firewood and fossil fuel to power lighting and cooking, this will also reduce the risk of lung infections.

To increase demand for the local currency, rebates on local clean energy programs and soil supplements could be paid out in local currency. Furthermore, a community can call for local rates and fees on products such as fuel, polluting cement, livestock products and nitrogen fertilizers to be paid in local currency.

Much crop is now used to grow feed for livestock ― less livestock could free up land that could be used to produce food & wood, and the associated organic waste. Furthermore, such feebates can avoid soil erosion and deforestation, and instead result in more vegetation, thus further increasing the amount of biomass available for pyrolysis.

Below are some further ways pyrolysis can be integrated in the local economy:

  • Pyrolysis of biomass is an excellent way of handling organic waste, while producing useful products such as biochar, biooils and gases such as hydrogen. Biooil and hydrogen can be used to power aviation and shipping.  
  • Bioasphalt® is a type of asphalt made from bio-oil. According to its manufacturer, it can save energy and money, since it can be mixed and paved at lower temperatures than conventional asphalt. 
  • Apart from burial of biochar to enhance soil fertility, biochar can also be used to manufacture a range of products, including vehicle bodies made of carbon fiber and capacitors. 

    A team at Stevens Institute of Technology has designed, fabricated, and tested a prototype supercapacitor electrode made from biochar. The team demonstrated biochar's feasibility as an alternative to activated carbon for supercapacitor electrodes. Currently, supercapacitors use activated carbon. The team estimates that biochar costs almost half as much as activated carbon, apart from being more sustainable. 

    Supercapacitors can be used to power electric buses. Ultracapacitor buses by Sinautecus have been operational in the Greater Shanghai area since August 2006, as mentioned under this post on electric bus systems.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Carbon-negative technologies

The image below, adapted from Negative Emissions Technologies report by Duncan McLaren (version 2, 2011), pictures a number of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods. 

For further discussion of biomass use, see the post Biomass; for further discussion of policy issues, see The way back to 280 ppm and Towards a Sustainable Economy

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Runaway Warming

Thermal expansion

As mentioned in Ten dangers of Global Warming, one of the biggest dangers is that, without dramatic action, the atmosphere will reach certain tipping points beyond which sudden dramatic and catastrophic changes will take place. 

As Earth warms up, tectonic plates will expand and some areas will come under increasing pressure, especially along fault lines where tectonic plates collide. As described in this comment and this post, this could lead to earthquakes. Thermal expansion of land and water could put more stress on areas prone to seismic activity, triggering earthquakes that can make the greenhouse effect much worse. The danger is that such seismic activity will cause slope failure in regions with methane hydrates that are already unstable and vulnerable due to global warming.   

Ice and glaciers melting away

Links between climate change and geological and geomorphological phenomena were the theme of this 2009 conference. Several speakers addressed the danger that, as ice and glaciers in the mountains melt away, a substantial weight is disappearing, changing pressures that act on the Earth's crust and contribute to seismic activity. This link was confirmed in several scientific studies, such as this one dating back to 2003

Hydrates disturbed by drilling and fracking

There is also an indirect risk. Melting of Arctic sea ice may open up sea routes to hydrates. Drilling and fracking in these hydrates could trigger earthquakes, especially if they're already under extra stress, resulting in the release of huge amounts of methane. This is particularly worrying in the Arctic, where waters can be very shallow, leaving less opportunity for methane to be broken down in the water.

Deep Ocean Warming

The ocean conveyor belt transports water--and heat--around the globe, as shown on the image left, from a NSF press release describing recent research by scientists at NCAR and the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia, which found that deep oceans can warm by 18% to 19% more during a period corresponding with a La NiƱa event. 

Global warming is likely to cause thermal expansion of the oceanic crust, putting stress on areas where tectonic plates meet. Such a warming peak deep in the ocean could put enough extra stress on these areas to trigger earthquakes that in turn disturb hydrates, resulting in huge amounts of methane to be released. The NOAA image below shows how the Mid-Atlantic Ridge continues into the Arctic Ocean. 

Gakkel Ridge

One place to watch is Gakkel Ridge, the boundary between the North American Plate and the Eurasian PlateEarthquake activity along Gakkel Ridge has been rising since 1970. Earthquakes in the Gakkel Ridge area could send shockwaves into the shallows of the Arctic Ocean

Between 1999 and 2000 alone, there was an anomalously large number of earthquakes along the Arctic Gakkel Ridge (more than 250). In addition, two very unusual and extremely violent submarine pyroclastic eruptions occured in the central Gakkel Ridge region. 

Of the earthquakes measured on the Arctic Gakkel Ridge between March 19th 1980 and the 31st December 2010, most (94%) were strong enough to cause widespread collapse of the methane hydrates and release of methane plumes into the water column and atmosphere. [source:]

Runaway Warming

In conclusion, global warming can accelerate in a number of ways, including thermal expansion of tectonic plates, causing landslides and shocks from earthquakes, while extra stress can be added due to deep ocean warming peaks and a change in weight as ice retreats on land. This could be ameliorated by drilling and fracking activities.

The danger is that this will put increasing stress on hydrates that can contain huge amounts of methane. If such hydrates are disturbed, huge plumes of methane can be released, causing supersaturation of waters with methane. As a result, further methane releases will enter the atmosphere without being oxidized in the water. The risk is that such methane releases lead to runaway global warming

This risk is unacceptable, making it imperative to reduce emissions and bring atmospheric carbon dioxide down, which is best achieved by means of feebates and requires a number of geoengineering techniques, as discussed in Sustainable Economy. In Geoengineering the climate (Royal Society, 2009) various geoengineering methods are compared. These methods may differ in timescale, cost-effectiveness and wider impact (see e.g. this posts on Biomass), but the urgency to act on global warming is such that we may well need all of them to avoid runaway global warming.  

[adapted from NOAA image - click to enlarge]

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Geoengineering field testing


A team of British academics will in October 2011 start conducting field-tests, pumping water into the air from a balloon at a height of 1km. Ultimately, they aim to test pumping sulphates into the stratosphere from a balloon at 20 km height.

The balloon could also be used to test "cloud whitening", i.e. pumping up fine sea salt crystals and spraying them into the air to increase the number of droplets and the reflectivity in clouds.

Source: Giant pipe and balloon to pump water into the sky in climate experiment
Also see: Space Hose
Press Release: The SPICE project: a geoengineering feasibility study (September 14, 2011)

Editor's note: The test, part of the UK-based Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project that receives £1.6m support from UK research councils, has meanwhile been put on hold, following the councils' advisory panel's recommendation to delay the project.

Source: Climate fix technical test put on hold (BBC News, September 30, 2011)
Also see: Political backlash to geoengineering begins (New Scientist, October 3, 2011)