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AN ARTICLE in Science, 23 November 2012, Vol. 338, discussed “biochar,” a technical term that I felt compelled to investigate. The article described biochar as “Carbon Storage with Benefits.” Specifically, it has potential payoffs of aiding the environment while simultaneously enhancing the world’s food supply. A real finesse.
In addition, this reminds me of a not unrelated story concerning Henry Ford.
Biochar is a simple form of charcoal, a solid, carbon-rich product of pyrolysis, the heating of the biomass in the absence of air. When added to the soil in large quantities, biochar can increase crop yield by as much as eightfold.
However, the benefit appears to depend profoundly on the particular makeup of the biochar and of the soil, aspects that are still being researched.
There’s excellent evidence that char enhances agriculture. Along the Amazon basin there is extremely fertile soil known as terra preta de indio (Portuguese: Indian black earth). Of human origin, the richness of this soil is thought to have originated from pre-Columbian cultures between 450 BC and 950 AD.
This soil is characterized by lots of “kitchen midden,” cooking debris, with quantities of pottery sherds, organic matter such as animal bones and plant residue and—from cooking fires—high concentrations of charcoal.
Environmental benefits of char are also recognized in the Science article. Because biochar is biomass-derived—and carbon-rich—it’s a natural medium for returning this carbon to the soil. “Sequestration” is the technical term for such carbon storage, seen as one way of mitigating the CO2 resulting from fossil fuel combustion.
Another approach to CO2 mitigation, of course, is to turn the biomass directly into biofuel—corn into ethanol, for example. However, the overall “field-to-wheel” efficacy of corn ethanol has been questioned, and there’s the conundrum of food versus fuel as well. Cellulosic ethanol, produced from non-edible feedstock, is an option that’s emerging from pilot studies.
In any case, researchers see benefits of biochar in its dual agri/environmental aspects, particularly if the heat of its pyrolysis is exploited in energy cogeneration. For more information, check out www.biochar-international.org.
One challenge is developing just the right form of char to accelerate the timeframe of agricultural benefits. No one wants to wait another millennium.
Having mentioned charcoal, I cannot resist bringing up the tale of Henry Ford, River Rouge and a fellow named Kingsford.
Ford was a believer of controlling all aspects of production, including the wood, steel and other materials going into automobile production. Begun in 1917, his giant River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, evolved into the world’s largest integrated factory upon completion in 1928.
Never a man to waste anything, Ford turned the scraps of wood from Model T production into charcoal. The charcoal was then used for energy generation—and as a side business.
Originally sold as Ford Charcoal Briquets, the name was later changed to honor a Ford relative who helped set up the business: E.G. Kingsford. Today, Kingsford Charcoal owns 80 percent of the market.
Henry Ford would be proud. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012