12 September 2007

Clean Tech: EcoGeek Karl Schroeder on Investments in Environment & Technology

We like EcoGeek and their mission to publish stories about innovations in technology to help save the planet.

Heck, they even featured our buddy, Jonathon Colman of The Nature Conservancy's Digital Marketing Group as an EcoGeek of the Week back in July. So what's not to like?

This week's EcoGeek is Karl Schroeder the author of Ventus (2000) and Permanence (2002), which received a New York Times notable selection and the Aurora Award for Best Novel, respectively. He is also the author of Lady of Mazes, Sun of Suns (Book One of the Virga Cycle), and most recently, Queen of Candesce (Book Two of the Virga Cycle).

"Karl writes hard science fiction with a humanist twist, focusing not just on technology and discovery but on the human costs of technological development. His website is www.kschroeder.com. He is also a contributing blogger for World Changing Canada and maintains the philosophical blog Age of Embodiment."

Here is a snippet of their interview. The rest can be found at EcoGeek

EcoGeek: What new technologies do you think have the potential for the greatest positive impact on the environment?

Karl Schroeder: I like to play a little game called 'if I had a billion dollars' (with a nod to the Barenaked Ladies' song). If I did, I'd drop $200 million on Bussard (I'm sure he'd enjoy that); $200 million on kickstarting a vertical farming industry, the same on ocean iron-fertilization studies, another chunk on developing an agrichar infrastructure, and the rest on various projects that can't get funding because they have a low probability of success, but massive payoff if they do work. --Which is precisely where our investment should be flowing right now, because we don't have time for incremental development to solve the climate crisis. We need miracles, and those don't come from slow, safe R&D projects--such as ITER.

EcoGeek: What are some of the advantages that vertical farming would provide? Do you think that vertical farming can realistically replace current farming practice, or do you think that it would serve more as a supplement to existing farming? Does concentrating food production raise the risk of those structures being future terrorism targets? What does vertical farming provide that justifies the massive allocation of resources it would require?

Karl Schroeder: There's no new innovations required to begin vertical farming. The issues are financial and in engineering the system for maximum efficiency. One recent study found that a 47-story tall, one city-block square vertical farm could feed 50,000 people at competitive prices, while recycling most of its resources internally and producing most of its own power. From that study you can calculate that a set of vertical farms 25 blocks square could feed the entire population of Canada. What does it provide? Nothing less than the ability to "rewild" as much of the countryside as we want, by taking the burden of agricultural production out of the continental ecosystem.

(Ed. Note: You can see more about this idea in Karl's article about "Rewilding Canada" from WorldChanging.)

EcoGeek: You mention 'agrichar' in your Billion Dollars wishlist. That's not something I was very familiar with (though I think I got the gist of it after a little quick Google search). Can you tell us a little more about it (and why it's important or useful), or suggest a good website or link for more information for readers who would like to learn more about this?

Karl Schroeder: Agrichar is a modern version of "Terra Preta" which was used centuries ago in the Amazon basin to allow the nutrient-poor soils there to produce lavish crops. It's basically a burn-and-bury process that sequesters carbon, replaces commercial fertilizers, revives dying soils, and all in all is a perfect technique for long-term sustainable soil health. Simple enough that the Mayans could perfect it, with the potential to be used all over the world. It's a pretty new process so there's not too many sources of information out there about it, unfortunately. But it's precisely the sort of transformative technology we need.


(And, by the way, I've reached a milestone with this post: 300 posts since I started The Green Skeptic in November 2004. 300 posts over 3 years, is that a good measure? Thank you for reading, tagging, digging...)


Anonymous said...

Karl Schroeder , a Sci-Fi writer has seen the TP vision , although it's The Kayopo (Spelling?)of Amazonia who should be getting the credit vs. the Mayan. Months ago I nominated the Kayopo to Richard Branson for a posthumous Carbon Prize.

I thought the current news and links on Terra Preta soils and closed-loop pyrolysis would interest you.
SCIAM Article May 15 07;


After many years of reviewing solutions to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) I believe this technology can manage Carbon for the greatest collective benefit at the lowest economic price, on vast scales. It just needs to be seen by ethical globally minded companies.

Could you please consider looking for a champion for this orphaned Terra Preta Carbon Soil Technology.

The main hurtle now is to change the current perspective held by the IPCC that the soil carbon cycle is a wash, to one in which soil can be used as a massive and ubiquitous Carbon sink via Charcoal. Below are the first concrete steps in that direction;

Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.

Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions from Biomass by 2030by Ralph P. Overend, Ph.D. and Anelia Milbrandt
National Renewable Energy Laboratory


The organization 25x25 (see 25x'25 - Home) released it's (first-ever, 55-page )"Action Plan" ; see; http://www.25x25.org/storage/25x25/documents/IP%20Documents/ActionPlanFinalWEB_04-19-07.pdf
On page 29 , as one of four foci for recommended RD&D, the plan lists: "The development of biochar, animal agriculture residues and other non-fossil fuel based fertilizers, toward the end of integrating energy production with enhanced soil quality and carbon sequestration."
and on p 32, recommended as part of an expanded database aspect of infrastructure: "Information on the application of carbon as fertilizer and existing carbon credit trading systems."

I feel 25x25 is now the premier US advocacy organization for all forms of renewable energy, but way out in front on biomass topics.

There are 24 billion tons of carbon controlled by man in his agriculture , I forgot the % that is waste, but when you add all the other cellulose waste which is now dumped to rot or digested or combusted and ultimately returned to the atmosphere as GHG, the balanced number is around 24 Billion tons. So we have plenty of bio-mass.

Even with all the big corporations coming to the GHG negotiation table, like Exxon, Alcoa, .etc, we still need to keep watch as they try to influence how carbon management is legislated in the USA. Carbon must have a fair price, that fair price and the changes in the view of how the soil carbon cycle now can be used as a massive sink verses it now being viewed as a wash, will be of particular value to farmers and a global cool breath of fresh air for us all.

If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP web site I've been drafted to co-administer. http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of EPRIDA , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who's back round I don't know have joined.

Also Here is the Latest BIG Terra Preta Soil news;

The Honolulu Advertiser: “The nation's leading manufacturer of charcoal has licensed a University of Hawai'i process for turning green waste into barbecue briquets.”

About a year ago I got Clorox interested in TP soils and Dr. Antal's Plasma Carbonazation process.

See: http://www.honoluluadvertiser.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2007707280348

ConocoPhillips Establishes $22.5 Million Pyrolysis Program at Iowa State 04/10/07

Mechabolic , a pyrolysis machine built in the form of a giant worm to eat solid waste and product char & fuel at the "Burning Man" festival ; http://whatiamupto.com/mechabolic/index.html

Here is my current Terra Preta posting which condenses the most important stories and links;

Terra Preta Soils Technology 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 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 to where it belongs.

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 of carbon.

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 stable charcoal in the soil.

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 Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X FertilityToo

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 or a Carbon tax in place.

.Nature article, Aug 06: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:

Here's the Cornell page for an over view:

University of Beyreuth TP Program, Germany http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=taxonomy/term/118

This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 19,000 self-selected folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

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.

The reason TP has elicited such interest on the Agricultural/horticultural side of it's benefits is this one static:

One gram of charcoal cooked to 650 C Has a surface area of 400 m2 (for soil microbes & fungus to live on), now for conversion fun:

One ton of charcoal has a surface area of 400,000 Acres!! which is equal to 625 square miles!! Rockingham Co. VA. , where I live, is only 851 Sq. miles

Now at a middle of the road application rate of 2 lbs/sq ft (which equals 1000 sqft/ton) or 43 tons/acre yields 26,000 Sq miles of surface area per Acre. VA is 39,594 Sq miles.

What this suggest to me is a potential of sequestering virgin forest amounts of carbon just in the soil alone, without counting the forest on top.

To take just one fairly representative example, in the classic Rothampstead experiments in England where arable land was allowed to revert to deciduous temperate woodland, soil organic carbon increased 300-400% from around 20 t/ha to 60-80 t/ha (or about 20-40 tons per acre) in less than a century (Jenkinson & Rayner 1977). The rapidity with which organic carbon can build up in soils is also indicated by examples of buried steppe soils formed during short-lived interstadial phases in Russia and Ukraine. Even though such warm, relatively moist phases usually lasted only a few hundred years, and started out from the skeletal loess desert/semi-desert soils of glacial conditions (with which they are inter-leaved), these buried steppe soils have all the rich organic content of a present-day chernozem soil that has had many thousands of years to build up its carbon (E. Zelikson, Russian Academy of Sciences, pers. comm., May 1994). http://www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/carbon1.html

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

The International Agrichar Initiative (IAI) conference held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. ( http://iaiconference.org/home.html ) ( The papers from this conference are now being posted at their home page)

If pre-Columbian Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 15% 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 energy return over energy input (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

M. Simon said...

Bussard Reactor Funded by the US Navy.

We may have a chance yet.