October 23, 2006

Terra Preta: Black is the New Green

In August I cited an article on Terra Preta that focused on an organic method of sequestering carbon in the soil.

On the World Changing website, I recently ran across an article and a conversion technology animation involving pyrolysis and the generation of charcoal for the production of a high carbon fertilizer. Such a process would not only add to the sustainability of soil for the cultivation of healthy crops, but also provide a carbon sink alternative to geosequestration methods.

Terra Preta: Black is the New Green
by David Zaks and Chad Monfreda

Carbon sequestration faces some major hurdles. Technical geosequestration methods could pump large amounts of CO2 deep underground but are still under development. On the other hand, natural methods that store carbon in living ecosystems may be possible in the short term but require huge swathes of land and are only as stable the ecosystems themselves. An ideal solution, however, would combine the quick fix of biological methods with the absolute potential of technical ones. Terra preta may do just that, as a recent article in the journal Nature reveals.

The difference between terra preta and ordinary soils is immense. A hectare of meter-deep terra preta can contain 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes in unimproved soils from similar parent material, according to Bruno Glaser, of the University of Bayreuth, Germany. To understand what this means, the difference in the carbon between these soils matches all of the vegetation on top of them. Furthermore, there is no clear limit to just how much biochar can be added to the soil.

Claims for biochar's capacity to capture carbon sound almost audacious. Johannes Lehmann, soil scientist and author of Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties, Management, believes 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!

Biofuels are touted as 'carbon neutral', but biofuels and biochar together promise to be 'carbon negative'. Danny Day, the founder of a company called Eprida is already putting these concepts into motion with systems that turn farm waste into hydrogen, biofuel, and biochar.

The Eprida technology uses agricultural waste biomass to produce hydrogen-rich bio-fuels and a new restorative high-carbon fertilizer (ECOSS) ...In tropical or depleted soils ECOSS fertilizer sustainably improves soil fertility, water holding and plant yield far beyond what is possible with nitrogen fertilizers alone. The hydrogen produced from biomass can be used to make ethanol, or a Fischer-Tropsch gas-to-liquids diesel (BTL diesel), as well as the ammonia used to enrich the carbon to make ECOSS fertilizer.

Terra preta's full beauty appears in this closed loop. Unlike traditional sequestration rates that follow diminishing marginal returns-aquifers fill up, forests mature-practices based on terra preta see increasing returns. Terra preta doubles or even triples crop yields. More growth means more terra preta, begetting a virtuous cycle. While a global rollout of terra preta is still a ways away, it heralds yet another transformation of waste into resources.

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Anonymous said...

I think this is an excellant idea. I hope it can be used locally all over the USA. I will investigate the technology and application at the State level esp in South Alabama... thanks for the excellant information... John D

Erich J. Knight said...

Here is a post I have been sending to ALL the many disciplines doing work relevant to Terra Preta soil technology. It contains what I feel are the most important links to research and companies implementing this revolutionary and low cost CO2 sequestration system.

Please contact me if you would like further information about my contacts with many of the principles involved.


Time to Master the Carbon Cycle

Man has been controlling the carbon cycle , and there for the weather, since the invention of agriculture, all be it was as unintentional, as our current airliner contrails are in affecting global dimming. This unintentional warm stability in climate has over 10,000 years, allowed us to develop to the point that now we know what we did,............ and that now......... we are over doing it.

The prehistoric and historic records gives a logical thrust for soil carbon sequestration.
I wonder what the soil biome carbon concentration was REALLY like before the cutting and burning of the world's virgin forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till and reforestation have started to help rebuild it. It makes implementing Terra Preta soil technology like an act of penitence, a returning of the misplaced carbon.

Energy, the carbon cycle and greenhouse gas management

On the Scale of CO2 remediation:

It is my understanding that atmospheric CO2 stands at 379 PPM, to stabilize the climate we need to reduce it to 350 PPM by the removal of 230 Billion tons.

The best estimates I've found are that the total loss of forest and soil carbon (combined
pre-industrial and industrial) has been about 200-240 billion tons. Of
that, the soils are estimated to account for about 1/3, and the vegetation
the other 2/3.

Since man controls 24 billion tons in his agriculture then it seems we have plenty to work with in sequestering our fossil fuel co2 emissions as charcoal.

As Dr. Lehmann at Cornell points out, "Closed-Loop Pyrolysis systems such as Dr. Danny 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! "

Terra Preta Soils Technology: Carbon Negative Bio fuels and 3X Fertility Too

This some what orphaned new soil technology speaks to so many different interests and disciplines that it has not been embraced fully by any. I'm sure you will see both the potential of this system and the convergence needed for it's implementation.

The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil technology may
provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power
structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.

The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade in place:

Terra Preta soils I feel has great possibilities to revolutionize sustainable agriculture into a major CO2 sequestration strategy.
I thought, I first read about these soils in " Botany of Desire " or "Guns,Germs,&Steel" but I could not find reference to them. I finely found the reference in Charles Mann's "1491", but I did not realize their potential .

I have heard that National Geographic is preparing a big Terra Preta (TP) article.

Nature article: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:

Here's the Cornell page for an over view:

This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 17,000 folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

Terra Preta Discussion , central data base, and Mail list at REPP-CREST:

The most comprehensive Soil science data base by Dr. Danny Day at GIT : http://www.carbonnegative.info/home/login.html

There is an ecology going on in these soils that is not completely understood, and if replicated and applied at scale would have multiple benefits for farmers and environmentalist.

Terra Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration effort of growing plants.

Here is a great article that high lights this pyrolysis process , ( http://www.eprida.com/hydro/ ) which could use existing infrastructure to provide Charcoal sustainable Agriculture , Syn-Fuels, and a variation of this process would also work as well for H2 , Charcoal-Fertilizer, while sequestering CO2 from Coal fired plants to build soils at large scales , be sure to read the "See an initial analysis NEW" link of this technology to clean up Coal fired power plants.
Soil erosion, energy scarcity, excess greenhouse gas all answered through regenerative carbon management http://www.newfarm.org/columns/research_paul/2006/0106/charcoal.shtml

All the Bio-Char Companies and equipment manufactures I've found:

Carbon Diversion

Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns

BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis - Biomass - Clean Energy - Renewable Ene

Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy

Ensyn - Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals

Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste

Advanced BioRefinery Inc.

Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash

International K&K Enterprise Others

The upcoming International Agrichar Initiative (IAI) conference to be held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. ( http://iaiconference.org/home.html )

If pre-Columbian Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 20% of the Amazon basin it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of EROEI for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

I feel Terra Preta soil technology is the greatest of Ironies.
That is: an invention of pre-Columbian American culture, destroyed by western disease, may well be the savior of industrial western society.


Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens
E-mail: shengar@aol.com
(540) 289-9750

C. Scott Miller said...

Thanks for the insight.

Do you have a blog somewhere? Like you I have interests, links, and commentary. I wish you had a blog - then you could refer people using content links rather than having to distribute it as comments in other .

Not being a farmer, I am not qualified to judge but terra preta sounds like a low tech solution with benefits we will never get from the other sequestration methods I have heard about.

Thanks for the references.

erich said...

Here are the two sites I post everything to;

This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 17,000 folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

Terra Preta Discussion , central data base, and Mail list at REPP-CREST: