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Please begin with an informative title:

So called "renewable energy," as represented by the combustion of biomass, is a major health problem on this planet, responsible for a considerable fraction of the 3.3 million deaths associated with air pollution each year, roughly half of which occur in children under the age of 5.

(I repeat myself often on this point, but I refuse to stop stating this truth, um, because it is, um, true and is, um, somewhat disturbing - at least to me, if not to all the people who are melting down over the terrible radioactive tuna fish.)

I'm catching up on my reading this weekend, having not had a chance to do so for some time, and I came across a recent paper about a panic in China that took place in June of this year that is related to biomass/biofuel deaths, although strictly put, it does not involve so called "renewable" energy per se.   Predictably, the panic over the mattered, which almost certainly involved several thousand deaths, garnered nowhere near the attention of the incident at Fukushima, where nuclear reactors were struck by a 9.0 earthquake and a 15 meter tsunami, resulting thus far, more than a year after the incident in zero radiation related deaths and roughly 20,000 deaths not related to radiation, the latter being deaths no one cares about.

The paper from the primary scientific literature I will discuss here is Environ. Sci. Technol. 2012, 46, 7934−7936, an the title of the paper, a "viewpoint" piece, is "Controlling Air Pollution from Straw Burning in China Calls for Efficient Recycling."

This diary will be very brief:  I keep telling myself not to waste much time here.  I will do some quick "Back of the Envelope" (B.O.E) calculations connected with a piece of data in the paper - the purpose of which is to demonstrate how much carbon is available in Chinese straw - and get outta here.    If you're interested, I'll see you below.


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

Some brief excerpts from the paper:

Air pollution is one aspect of the broader topic of environmental issues in China. In the past decade, it has been of concern due to rapid economic development.   According to Dr. Nanshan Zhong, the president of the China Medical Association, air pollution could become the greatest threat to health of people in China. At the end of 2011, a debate, focusing on PM2.5 (aerodynamic diameter of particle matter ≤2.5 μm), which poses greater danger to humans compared with the coarse PM, occurred among government regulators, experts in academia, the media, and public.1 In response to public concerns, for the first time, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection decided to set new air quality standards, which include guidelines for PM2.5 and implement a national PM2.5 monitoring program.
Yeah.  Yeah.  Yeah.  Like we care...
Since June of 2012, farmers burned straw in fields after harvesting. Consequently, lingering haze caused by burning of straw shrouded a vast portion of central China, including Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, Jiangxi, and Jiangsu provinces. The air in numerous cities was characterized by concentrations of fine particulate matter, including PM2.5 that were greater than during other seasons. Due to more burning of straw and adverse weather conditions, quality of air declined continually, and reached a maximum on the 10th of June (Figure 1). Monitoring of the air quality in mega city of Nanjing showed that concentrations of PM2.5 rose to 194 μg/m3, which was 3-fold greater than normal. Moreover, this concentration exceeded the nation’s maximum allowable daily average concentration of 75 μg PM2.5/m3. Data on quality of air collected in real-time showed that at 11:00 p.m., concentrations of PM2.5 in the city of Huaian reached a maximum of 818 μg/m3, which was much greater than the stated criterion and was the greatest concentration of PM2.5 reported nationwide since the monitoring program began. The intense pollution of air over a short period of time triggered public panic. Sustained exposure to PM2.5 can cause pulmonary disease, systemic oxidative stress, inflammation, and adverse changes in cardiac autonomic function.3 Therefore, at the time of maximum burning of straw, local residents were advised to stay indoors or wear protective masks when outdoors. Poor visibility caused by the combination of air pollution and fog led to congestion of vehicular traffic and a concomitant increase in the number of traffic accidents, as well as serious impact on navigation safety in central China. However, regardless of the adverse effects on human health and the economy, straw burning is still repeated year after year.
Note:   This event  - in which the concentration of PM2.5 exceeded the unenforced and unenforceable "clean air standards" of China by more than 1000% - did kill people, since every such event kills people, as many retrospective analyses of the multitude of similar events shows.

But "Yeah.  Yeah.  Yeah.  Like you care..."

Anyway, the author claims that something should be done, and that "something" would involve finding a better way to use the straw.    By the way, straw is used in China as fuel for "renewable" bioenergy already, but the emergency herein described took place in the burning of straw in the fields.

Happily, of course, the ashes of this burning - the minor episode of killing thousands of people notwithstanding - offered a wonderful instance of that magical "solution" to climate change, so called "biochar amendments" to the soil, also referred to as terra preta.    You may read about the wonders of terra preta all over the internet and even in the scientific literature, for instance in the very same issue of Environ. Sci. Tech from which the above paper referenced comes:

Pyrolysis for Biochar Purposes: A Review to Establish Current Knowledge Gaps and Research Needs

Despite this wonderful biochar terra preta event in China this past June, June 2012 (from June 2011) was the eighth worst ever recorded for annual increases ever recorded at the Mauna Loa Carbon Dioxide observatory.

Don't worry.  Be happy.

Now the B.O.E. calculation.   In the paper, we are referred to a reference that claims that the amount of straw grown in China each year is 600 million tons.  The empirical formula of cellulose, a polymer of glucose sugars, is C6H10O5.   It follows that the carbon content of cellulose is 44.4% carbon.    It also follows that the total carbon content of all the straw in China is roughly 267 million metric tons.

The last time I was wasting here writing diaries, I wrote a diary in which I did a B.O.E calculation how much gasoline could be made by hydrogenating the dangerous fossil fuel waste released by the Belchatow coal plant in Bełchatów, Łódź Voivodeship, Poland.  

Here's that diary:  How Much Gasoline Could Hydrogenation of ONE Coal Plant's Waste Produce?

In the diary, I used C7H16 isomeric compounds as "model" constituents of gasoline, just to get ball park figures.

Following the spirit of that calculation, assuming 100% recovery of all the carbon is all the straw in China, and 100% of it converted via "renewable" Fischer Tropsch synthesis of gasoline from biomass I calculate that all the straw in China could be used to synthesize 317 million tons of gasoline.   This is the equivalent of about 2.2 billion barrels of gasoline.    World consumption of petroleum now stands - the highest ever recorded - at roughly 90 million barrels a day.   Thus it follows that all the straw in China could provide the carbon to match a little less than a month's worth of gasoline.

Of course the logistical, energy, water and economic costs of converting all the straw in China to gasoline would be enormous - and there is no political or moral will to do any such thing, never mind superior things - but this B.O.E. calculation give a feel for scale.

As always, it's been a pleasure to chat.

Have a nice week.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to NNadir on Sun Oct 21, 2012 at 01:29 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.



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