Agri-char aka bio-char is the key ingredient in soil scientists' holy grail, terra preta nova (my previous mention). Initial reports from participants at the first meeting of the International Agrichar Initiative indicate continued hope that agrichar amended soils could contribute significantly to our planet's health and productivity.
Kelpie Wilson, Truthout's environment editor, writes:
Charcoal's pores also make excellent habitat for a variety of soil microorganisms and fungi. Think of a coral reef that provides structure and habitat for a bewildering variety of marine species. Charcoal is like a reef on a micro-scale.
Over at the Sydney Peak Oil forum, attendee burko writes:
It would be very easy to become enthusiastic about the future of these integrated technologies. However, there is one overriding impression of this field to keep in mind – it is brand, spanking new. So new that even the choice of name Agrichar is being debated. There are no books; there are few years of experience even amongst the researchers; the debates about the benefits to AGW are only just beginning.
In short, being a part of the conference could be compared to hearing an orchestra tuning up. There are skillful cellists and masterful tuba players preparing next to each other. The idea is potential for beautiful music, rather than cacophony. We aren't really sure who the conductor is yet – plenty of skillful people are taking part of that role. There is cooperation and the desire to share experience at all points – but this is a new kind of orchestra.
While the soil biology alone is a staggering subject, we should be as interested in the methods of producing the black carbon. Burko writes on pyrolysis:
The gas produced is referred to as syn gas, called producer gas sometimes.From the reports, it is clear that the number of players, and their diversity, is growing exponentially. One reason for this diversity is that the process of making terra preta nova appears to be as adaptable to a wide range of soils and climates as it is scalable. You can have regional collection and distribution approaches coexisting with processes adapted to individual enterprises. The plan at Fourth Corner Nurseries (mentioned previously) near Bellingham, WA is a great example of both points. The operation already amends the soil with char. Observed better root growth confirms what we already sense, that black carbon can have a positive effect on a wide range of soils. The nursery plan to use surplus biomass from their willow coppice field to power the nursery and to produce char is easier said than done, but is brimming with promise.
My formative understanding of the process says something like this – if you want to produce non-activated chars, temperatures need to be constrained below the levels that gasification requires in order to make the reaction sufficiently exothermic to be self sustaining.
Of course, there is more to it than that – I did find that combustion engineers found it difficult to provide a simpler explanation.
I did get one useful figure from Dr Robert Brown, from Iowa State University – if you're burning wood in an open fire, you're probably only getting a third of the heat energy that should be possible from gasification – a pretty compelling reason to try and understand this stuff. It's been said that up to a third of the worlds deforestation happens in the name of inefficient cooking fires.
Image: Scanning electron micrograph of a conductive carbon sticky tab. (Flickr - St Stev)