April 20, 2010

Sustainable Technology: Bio-charcoal

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This Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Earth Day, a result of the growing activism of the 1970s and concerns over declining fossil fuels, preaches turning off unnecessary lights and using alternative energy sources. While the day may pass you by, for some, it is an opportunity to be more conscientious around the compost bins in Trilliam.

Science often gets a bad rap for causing the whole problem in the first place via technology. While nothing can make up for daily diligent life style and conservational social changes, green technology works to fix many of our problems, while our lifestyles catch up.

One such technology, called “bio-charcoal,” may limit the effects of rising carbon emissions.

Biochar is a biomass heated at high levels in a low oxygen environment, a stable compound similar to charcoal. Through this “pyrolysis,” biochar retains most of the carbon within its substance.  It can capture and store carbon, including atmospheric carbon dioxide, in soil.

This technology can be implemented into various systems, including large industrial plantation to tiny cook-stoves.

As Thea Whitman grad, who studies soil and crop sciences in Dr. Lehmann’s lab, said, people have been interested in biochar for some time now. “Dark earth” soils, Terra Preta, found in the Amazon have drawn attention due to its fertile nature. Recently, the soil peaked interest due to the possibilities brought on by its stable carbon nature.

This soil remained very fertile in comparison to the soils around it with high carbon content, as a result of centuries of indigenous living.

“The charcoal is still very stable in carbon,” she said.

Whitman is very interested in the system dynamics of biochar. She currently researches its potential applications in a Kenyan cook-stove setting, studying the carbon-flow and the effects of green house gasses.

Biochar may serve in waste management. Instead of developing specific crops for the sole purpose of fuel, biochar allows for the practical application of common carbon sources, like residential yard waste.

Whitman personally attended the Copenhagen talks with the Canadian Youth Delegation, and says she was amazed with the anticipation and mobilization of individuals. However, just because those did not lead to concrete results, she said that fighting climate change is a sustained fight.

“It is doable, but daunting.”

“Biochar is interesting and a relatively new field. There are still many questions about it. It is on tool among many to address climate change. The number one thing we need to be doing to combat climate change is weaning off fossil fuels, and that comes number one over all other offsetting technologies,” said Whitman.

Original Author: Tajwar Mazhar