Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sombroek's Challenge - Terra Preta Nova

The Godfather of Terra Preta, soil scientist Wim Sombroek (1934 - 2003) enjoyed a lifelong fascination with enhanced soil. The importance of plaggen soil in his native Netherlands impressed him at an early age, and early in the 1960's, he recognized in the Amazonian Dark Earths something familiar and precious. Before his passing, he assembled specific soil scientists, challenging them to discover the process for making and sustaining a modern equivalent of the bio-char enhanced terra preta, what he termed terra preta nova.

A great opportunity in answering Sombroek's challenge lies is surmounting the opacity of mutualistic rhizospheric species to traditional analytical approaches: only 1% of rhizospheric species are cultureable ala petri dish. We don't have a robust body of culture-independent studies against which to compare Terra Preta, so we are doubly challenged to reverse-engineer the phenomenon.

Considering Wim Somboek's many noteworthy accomplishments, the perspective of his international leadership, and the late-in-life timing of his challenge, one senses he is pointing us to a mystery fundamental to understanding soil in new and exciting ways. This happens at a time when the soil science profession is in dynamic transition and sorely in need of a unifying vision. Wim Sombroek has given soil scientists a most welcome and worthy quest.


Erich J. Knight said...

Danny Day's Eprida work at GIT, is a social purpose firm, designing equipment and a business model that will not cost the farmer anything out of pocket and create a many fold increase in rural high pay employment.

And now this commercial , larger industrial scale effort of a similar closed-loop pyrolysis system is now on the market. This is the first I've seen of a process like Dr. Danny Day's Eprida on the market:

BEST Pyrolysis, Inc.

In E. O. Wilson's "The Future of Life" he opens the book with a letter to Thoreau updating him on our current understanding of the nature of the ecology of the soils at Walden Pond.

" These arthropods are the giants of the microcosm (if you will allow me to continue what has turned into a short lecture). Creatures their size are present in dozens-hundreds, if an ant or termite colony is presents. But these are comparatively trivial numbers. If you focus down by a power of ten in size, enough to pick out animals barely visible to the naked eye, the numbers jump to thousands. Nematode and enchytraied pot worms, mites, springtails, pauropods, diplurans, symphylans, and tardigrades seethe in the underground. Scattered out on a white ground cloth, each crawling speck becomes a full-blown animal. Together they are far more striking and divers in appearance than snakes, mice, sparrows, and all the other vertebrates hereabouts combined. Their home is a labyrinth of miniature caves and walls of rotting vegetable debris cross-strung with ten yards of fungal threads. And they are just the surface of the fauna and flora at our feet. Keep going, keep magnifying until the eye penetrates microscopic water films on grains of sand, and there you will find ten billion bacteria in a thimbleful of soil and frass. You will have reached the energy base of the decomposer world as we understand it 150 years after you sojourn in Walden Woods."

Certainly there remains much work to just characterize all the estimated 1000 species of microbes found in a pinch of soil, and Wilson concludes at the end of the prolog that
"Now it is up to us to summon a more encompassing wisdom."

I wonder what the soil biome was REALLY like before the cutting and charcoaling of the virgin east coast forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till have helped to rebuild it.

I think I found this link in this forum some where:
First-ever estimate of total bacteria on earth

Given that, as Lehmann at Cornell points out, "systems such as Day's are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative". and that " a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! "

we need to implement a grand convergence for this technology to be brought front and center?:

In academia; among Engineers, agronomist, soil geologist,anthropologist, bio-chemist, mycologist, andzoologist ..............................?

In the Public sector; among waste managers, Extension agents, Environmental engineers, and Energy Policy makers,........................................?

In the private Sector; among corporate farms, fossil fuel producers, fossil fuel power generators, small farmers, and the few charcoal makers left.........................?

Anonymous said...

G'Day again Erich - The link with plaggen soils confirms my suspicions that rhizospheric bacteria is what makes terra preta - well terra peta and not the novas...

Do you know of anyone who has tried to replicate terra preta by using charcoal as a bedding for animals - say alpacas or catttle - innocualting it with soil from the black earths etc...



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