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Perhaps it is Barack Obama's townhall ... or perhaps not.

There are a lot of valuable and exciting conferences out there.

To say that the energy and environmental domains are "hot" and that you could spend your life solely running from conference to conference while only getting a taste of what's going on doesn't seem lunatic. From wave energy meetings in Sweden to water-less toilet sessions in Finland to Energy Summits hosted by Harry Reid in the Las Vegas heat, there are a lot of valuable and important choices out there.   As with looking toward better sanitation options in Finland, some potentially critical sessions are going on with little media (and thus little popular) attention. Right now, Boulder, Colorado, is hosting one such meeting: North American Biochar 2009.

Right now, humanity is engaged in a massively reckless geoengineering experiment, pumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other GHGs while continuing to pave the planet black and otherwise modify the humanity's habitat with little understanding (or regard) for the havoc that we are and could be creating.  In response to this, we have the serious movements to find paths to reduce emissions (whether through efficiency or clean energy or ...) but there are also increasing calls for looking toward geoengineering (both from the thoughtful to the inane).

When it comes to this arena, there are some basic principles that should guide on thinking on geoengineering.  In short, we should seek paths that support multiple goods (saving money, improving life conditions, helping reverse global warming) rather than costly paths that create more risks and uncertainties and whose pursuit seem to large costs with stovepiped (and uncertain) benefits.

The core principle should be: win-win-win.  A proposal that, in a systems of systems effort, provides multiple wins and does not solely address temperature.  Thus, a proposal that offers real potential for improving economy, reducing carbon, and contributing to reduced temperature (both directly, somehow, and indirectly through reduced carbon loads or carbon capture) would seem to merit greater prioritization than high-cost efforts that would solely impact "temperature" but not impact (or worsen) the carbon load equation.

Thus, $trillions to put umbrellas in space is not the item that seems sensible to be on the top of the table. In fact, applying those principles, there are two basic approaches that seem to merit being on the top of the table: one that applies directly to the built environment and the other in the agricultural sphere.

The first, when it comes to the built environment, isHigh-Albedo (White) Roofing (and other human infrastructure):  Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has brought attention to the great win-win-win potential here. Building owners would see direct financial savings, the urban heat island would cool (leading to more energy savings as the ambient temperature falls),  our cities would be more comfortable, and we would reduce global warming directly (reflecting more solar radiation to space) and indirectly (the multiplicative energy savings).  What are we waiting for? Let's get to it ... make this national building code for, at least, flat-roofed buildings: yesterday!

When it comes to the agricultural space, we turn to bio-char/agri-char and why Boulder might have the most important meeting in America.  Very simply, we have the potential for a carbon-negative fuel that will, over time, also foster improve fertility in soil.  Very simply, gasification of biomass can be combined with agricultural practices to create energy, have the waste plowed back into the soil to improve fertility (while reducing fertilizer requirements), and have some of the carbon from each of these cycles captured in the soil.

"[T]he great advantage of biochar is the fact that the technique can be applied world-wide on agricultual soils, and even by rural communities in the developing world because it is relatively low tech."

To provide a simple context, the Amazonian jungle looks to be a heavily geo-engineering environment, with "Slash and Char" agriculture, over 100s (1000s) of years having built up areas of incredibly rich soil 6+ feet deep. To provide another context, analysis of biochar potential suggest that we could be enriching the soil while sequestering more carbon than the United States currently emits. While we must drive down emissions as quickly as possible, biochar provides one of the most promising paths to not 'reduce' emissions but actually set us on a path toward reducing global CO2 concentrations. (And, it can be applied in innovative ways to help create jobs in some of the most impoverished areas of the world.)

The conference, going on right now in Boulder, pulls together many of the globe's top experts in this domain: from understanding soil dynamics to experts on biomass power generation associated with biochar to environmental historians to technologists with innovative paths forward to policy experts who work to provide pathways to make reality of biochar's promise.  

This is a highly promising arena that has gotten a little attention, but not enough and certainly not enough resources.  If Secretary of Energy Chu has become a visible spokesman for White Roofing, maybe another Administration official will do the same for bio-char:

The keynote speakers for the conference will be Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Dr. Susan Solomon, Senior Scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Tom Vilsack could do American farmers (and farmers globally) a great service while helping turn the tide on Global Warming's rising seas through strong promotion of a global agenda of large-scale research and demonstration projects, with fast-tracking of movement from 'demonstration' to large-scale deployment when working paths are proven.

Source note: Beneath the radar scope of most, there is a lot of work going on in biochar/terra preta. May links with additional information end of discussion here

Some videos, serious and seriously amusing but serious.

A backgrounder on biochar/agrichar from Australia (imagine turning much of Australia green?) (See also "The Promise of Agrichar" from Agrisonic.)

Steven Chu on White roofing

Steven Chu on The Daily Show where, among other things, he spoke of white roofing.

Originally posted to A Siegel on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 11:38 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips / Mojo: 11 Aug 09 (35+ / 0-)

    We face very, very serious challenges.

    Yet, amid them, there are real opportunities.

    And, there are real solutions.  To me, from what I have seen, biochar/terra preta is perhaps the least-well known for such a huge potential Silver BB in our aresenal for turning the tide on Global Warming's rising seas.

    And, if things go right, all of those with farms, yards, or gardens will be looking to our biochar recipes (like the one to the right) in the years to come to enrich our planting soil while removing carbon from the atmosphere.

    •  Very exciting, A Seigel (6+ / 0-)

      the part I actually like best and what makes it valuable is the fact that it is a 'low tech' solution. If I can create the original char with with some odds and ends and a little brain power, then we're on our way.

      Your note looks promising, too, but I have to ask, 'human' urine? Any problem with disease vectors doing that?


      DelicateMonster a slightly left of center reading experience

      by DelicateMonster on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 11:52:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Love the carbon positive idea, (5+ / 0-)

      but I'm having a really hard time visualizing every house in Seattle with a bucket of charred wood soaking in human urine in the back yard.  That's a hard sell for Americans.

      Additionally, though urine is generally sterile and not a major communicator of disease (compared to feces), it can contain the excreted products of whatever pharaceuticals the individual is taking.  Also, the biotech folks are looking at banning using bovine urine in medications (it is a source material)as it may be a way to pass prions.  

      Perhaps with a decent, compact, cheap filtering mechanism something like this could be made palatable to the masses.

      Is what I am doing *right now* leading to happiness?

      by jbdigriz on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 11:58:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Sigh ... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RunawayRose, Ahianne, alizard

        All you are reading the recipe closer than I did. I just bumped against the recipe in biochar flickr search and thought it an amusing thing to highlight.

        So, perhaps we need to find a 'no urine' recipe?  Part of the necessary research?

        •  Actually, urine is a great fertilizer (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RunawayRose, Ahianne, A Siegel, yaque

          It has lots of Nitrogen, and folks have been using it for years.  I know people who dillute it and dump it on the compost pile (though none of these are city dwellers).  Assuming the donor is healthy and non-medicated, the most you have to worry about is the sodium content.  

          Also, IIRC, it needs to be fresh if you're gonna dillute it and apply directly to the garden.  The urea turns to ammonia.

          Anyway, the ick factor is the major hurdle, plus a minor filter/health issue.

          Is what I am doing *right now* leading to happiness?

          by jbdigriz on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 12:20:44 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Another recipe I've seen (8+ / 0-)

          involves using compost tea instead.

          The basic idea is to soak the charcoal in a liquid that has fertilizer value; the charcoal tends to glom onto fertilizer, which is why it holds it in the soil.  If you don't pre-glom it, so to speak, it may briefly lower the fertility of the soil.

 is unfortunate that the opposition to the Democrats in this country now consists entirely of crazy people. - NNadir

          by RunawayRose on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 12:29:37 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  You answered a question I posed (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RunawayRose, Ahianne, A Siegel

            on this thread about the reason for the urine.  Thanks for the answer.

            "We need to go far, quickly." -- Al Gore

            by Neighbor2 on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 04:53:44 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  You're welcome! (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Ahianne, Neighbor2, alizard, A Siegel

              What procedure, equipment, etc did you use for your backyard charcoal manufacture? (I may not be able to do it here, my town has no-open-burning, but I am curious.)

     is unfortunate that the opposition to the Democrats in this country now consists entirely of crazy people. - NNadir

              by RunawayRose on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 06:59:04 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Not outdoors, actually. (3+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                RunawayRose, A Siegel, yaque

                I did it in a woodstove.

                I made small batches in a sealed container that I placed in the firebed of the stove.

                One problem: Not getting the container so hot that the char burned and I was left with ashes.

                One benefit: Heat from the combustion of the wood gasses, probably only a small amount.

                "We need to go far, quickly." -- Al Gore

                by Neighbor2 on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 10:54:15 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  In a woodstove? (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  RunawayRose, Neighbor2

                  That implies high efficiency. When I use mine, I have fine ash with basically zero charcoal at the end of a fire.  Thus, your problem ... how did you keep this from happening? And, need to figure out tradeoff between lost heat and those briquets for biochar.

                  •  Let me explain.... (2+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    RunawayRose, A Siegel

                    Think of this method as using the stove like a wood-fired oven in which the bio-mass is charred inside an imperfectly sealed pot that is put in the oven. In this way it is possible for there to be complete combustion in the fire chamber of the stove, which you want to heat your house, while leaving charcoal inside the pot, where there is little oxygen.

                    I have not yet gotten this method to work as reliably as I would like and I plan to refine it during the coming heating season.

                    One other thing I should tell you is that the wood stove is usually only used as a supplemental heat source, so relatively short firing is sufficient. I put the char-pot in as the fire is dying down.

                    I don't claim that this method is optimal, but it kind of works, and I have to believe that the carbon sequestered at least partially offsets the carbon in the wood burned for heat. The future benefits to the soil, if any, are another benefit.

                    I speculate that it might be possible to heat your house with a pyrolitic furnace with a built-in system for capturing the wood gasses, but I suspect it would have to be fairly large.

                    "We need to go far, quickly." -- Al Gore

                    by Neighbor2 on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 05:23:40 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

              •  To gassify, don't open burn. (5+ / 0-)

                biomass is heated in a low oxygen container. Optimally tuned, you get hydrogen and carbon monoxide as a gas, with most of the carbon remaining as charcoal. The gas can then be burnt in off the shelf natural gas equipment, such as electric generators.

                Keping the system sealed is important, to make sure all of the  highly toxic CO is eventually burned.

                I own a 1940s tech gassifier, roughly the size of a refrigerator. it's out at a pal's farm, he uses the gasses in his blacksmith forge.

                Practicing Law without a License is my 3d favorite Crime.

                by ben masel on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 12:01:15 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Yeah, that CO issue is a biggie. (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  RunawayRose, A Siegel

                  I don't know if you've seen the Discovery Channel show "The Colony", but the premise is that they built an artificial postapocalyptic wasteland and unleashed a bunch of people in it to see how well they'd do at rebuilding society (in the middle of facing attacks from outside marauders every now and then).  Their solution to get power going again was to hook up a couple alternators to a car engine they salvaged.  They made a wood gassifier and fed the wood gas into the carburetor via a loose connection (since the wood gas wouldn't be coming out at exactly the same rate the engine burned it).  

                  What they didn't mention on the show is that what this means is that their tubing was essentially dumping a hydrogen/carbon monoxide mix into their living space.  :P

                  •  Lotech safe gas storage (0+ / 0-)

                    Tube from the gassifier into a pair of steel drums. 40 gallon drum is inverted, within a 55 gallon drum part filled with water. A bubble of gas lifts it, weights on top provides pressure for delivery.

                    Medical Marijuana is Healthcare. does YOUR bill cover it?

                    by ben masel on Thu Aug 13, 2009 at 06:29:49 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

    •  This next is more farmer scale than backyard. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ahianne, alizard, A Siegel

      This is a link to an Iowa State project to turn corn stover into biochar/fertilizer. is unfortunate that the opposition to the Democrats in this country now consists entirely of crazy people. - NNadir

      by RunawayRose on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 01:30:30 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Great diary, AS. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RunawayRose, alizard, A Siegel

      I've been promoting biochar locally since last year, though I don't nearly as much about it as I need to.

      Thanks for the link to the Boulder conference!

      "We need to go far, quickly." -- Al Gore

      by Neighbor2 on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 04:56:24 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I made about 20 lbs. of biochar last year (5+ / 0-)

    and added it to my very urban vegetable garden this spring. However I did not soak it with urine, human or other. Is this step necessary, I wonder, for biochemical purposes? or is it a way of making it easier to break the commercial charcoal chunks into small enough bits to be effective?

    The feed stock I used tended to be fairly small, ranging from spruce needles and twigs to chicken bones (very beneficial), so it didn't take much "grinding" to break the char into small enough bits to add to the soil.

    I made the char in a wood stove and got a little home heat as a by-product. I'm drying feed stock this summer, so far all from my back yard, with the goal of making a 100 lbs. of char this winter.

    It seems like a great way to process urban and suburban yard waste and possibly food waste, producing some heat (or possibly electricity) as a by-product. The char could be used to improve the soil in local gardens, yards, parks, and golf courses.

    "We need to go far, quickly." -- Al Gore

    by Neighbor2 on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 04:52:01 PM PDT

  •  If only the rest of the Energy industry CEO's (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alizard, A Siegel

    had the foresight and courage to speak and think like this, there would be much more hope in our future.

    "Clean solar energy is exactly the future of Siemens," Peter Loescher, CEO of Siemens, said at a press conference in Munich last month. "Our company, and the whole economy, will be greener after the (present economic) crisis." Loescher said Siemens will "participate intensively" in Desertec.

    "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." Law of the Iroquois Confederacy

    by Unenergy on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 10:42:48 PM PDT

  •  There are commercial units available (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alizard, A Siegel

    which are fairly small scale. One is here. There are also companies already producing biochar on an industrial scale.

    Other than making it your backyard or wood stove, the commercial units can capture the gases emitted and burn them to create energy and one unit (can't find link) could produce ammonia from the pyrolytic gas products and add it to the biochar to increase soil nitrogen as well as carbon. It's also possible to produce biodiesel, ethanol, or methanol (it's pretty much how methanol - wood alcohol - was originally produced) from the gases released.

    Biochar can be made from any cellulosic material - paper, peanut shells or other nut shells, straw, corn stalks, waste wood or nearly any kind of plant fiber available in sufficient quantity.

    Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho

    by badger on Tue Aug 11, 2009 at 11:43:25 PM PDT

    •  To me ... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      badger, mrkvica, Albanius

      Biochar is the sort of thing that could head out to engaged HS science programs with a bit of Dept of Agr support. Have 500(+) High Schools running biochar programs, small stipends to staff (both teachers and maintenance) with scholarship potentials for students as they do biochar with a variety of biomass inputs, put biochar into a variety of land spaces, and test over years. (Eventually, could you imagine the fundraisers selling biochar for the garden?)

      •  Sen Reed LTE: No Child Left Inside (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        NY Times Aug 11, 2009

        To the Editor:

        "How to Lick a Slug," by Nicholas D. Kristof (column, Aug. 2), addresses a growing problem that affects us all. Too many of today’s children are missing out on once-common interactions with nature, and we as a society are paying the price.

        In addition to the physical and emotional consequences described by Mr. Kristof, the lack of outdoor education opportunities is leaving many children unprepared for the environmental challenges of tomorrow.

        That is why I introduced the No Child Left Inside Act, which will help restore environmental education in America’s classrooms and give more children opportunities for outdoor learning.

        As the National Science Foundation and others have concluded, hands-on environmental education can help boost student achievement in core subject areas, including science and math.

        The No Child Left Inside Act is a bipartisan effort supported by more than 1,400 organizations across the country that recognize environmental education is a smart investment in our children’s future and the future of our planet.

        Jack Reed
        Washington, Aug. 7, 2009

        The writer is a Democratic senator from Rhode Island

        There's no such thing as a free market!

        by Albanius on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 02:53:45 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  For electric generation, the optimal scale (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alizard, Albanius, A Siegel

    gassifier seems to be a few megawatts. Any bigger and you're using too much energy to move raw material to the facility.

    Practicing Law without a License is my 3d favorite Crime.

    by ben masel on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 12:05:35 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for the Waves and Energy conference link (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    A Siegel

    This has non-DK significance for me.


  •  A Siegel, are there any calculations (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    A Siegel
    on the net benefit of photovoltaic panels, comparing the pros (carbon free power or water heating) with their con (dark, low Albedo)?

    Of course, if you install a black solar panel on an already black roof, then there is no real net change in Albedo for the roof as a whole, a point that I regularly use to skewer the absurd rightwing taking point that solar power leads to global warming. But I digress...

    Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!

    by bigtimecynic on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 04:43:31 AM PDT

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