Energy and Global Warming News for September 30: How biochar production could help climate change fight; 80% of global water supplies at risk

How biochar production could help climate change fight

Win-win solutions can be hard to come by. But if Cornell University soil scientist Johannes Lehmann is right, there may be a way to lower our emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, save millions of people’s lives, and significantly boost the productivity of the world’s farms””all at the same time. And, most remarkably, his strategy is based on a deceptively simple technology invented 8,000 years ago.

Lehmann’s idea starts with organic leftovers that people normally burn or leave to rot””forest brush, corn husks, nutshells, and even chicken manure. When this stuff decays or goes up in smoke, it releases vast amounts of heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere. Lehmann’s plan is to short-circuit this carbon cycle by creating a material called biochar. Making biochar involves heating this organic matter without oxygen in a process called pyrolysis. It can be carried out in a small household stove, or it can be an industrial operation. Either way, the pyrolysis doesn’t produce carbon dioxide as ordinary, oxygen-fueled fire does. Instead, the carbon gets locked up in black chunks of charcoal-like matter.

Take that biochar and bury it in farm fields, and it acts like a giant carbon sponge holding in moisture and nutrients that boost crop yields. In 2003, Lehmann and his colleagues treated farm fields in Colombia with biochar and found they yielded up to 140 percent more corn per acre compared to biochar-free fields.


What’s more, the buried biochar turns out to be remarkably stable, locking up carbon for hundreds or even thousands of years. Lehmann’s calculations suggest that transforming the crop waste from 120 million hectares of U.S. farmland alone could sequester ten percent of the nation’s annual carbon emissions. Play that out on a global scale, and you can make a serious dent in climate change….

To provide a sense of scale potential, Lehmann has made some preliminary calculations using U.S. land figures. Pyrolysis of forest residues from 200 hectares of timberland, pyrolysis of crop residues from 120 million hectares of farmland, and pyrolysis of fast-growing vegetation from another 30 million hectares of idle cropland could each sequester about ten percent of U.S. annual fossil-fuel emissions.

But Lehmann believes that biochar production can also work on much smaller scales in the developing world to save lives and reduce carbon emissions. In many parts of the world, people are wiping out forests to make charcoal for fuel. When they cook with charcoal, they often use poorly designed indoor stoves that fill their houses with a deadly cloud of pollutants. (Indoor air pollution kills 1.6 million people every year.) Moreover, when wood burns in an ordinary stove, it releases soot and carbon dioxide, both of which can trap heat in the atmosphere.

Biochar stoves could potentially knock out both threats with one proverbial stone. Several inventors are designing cheap, efficient models that allow people to cook without generating a lot of smoke. Instead of heating wood, these stoves use other plant material””even run-of-the-mill farm refuse. “Rather than women having to trudge into the forest and bring out a big log, they can use brush or corn husks,” says Lehmann. They simply load the stove with fresh organic matter and light a conventional fire just long enough to get the material hot enough to release gases, which the stove can then burn to release even more heat.

80 Percent of Global Water Supplies at Risk

River biodiversity and our water security are in serious trouble, according to a comprehensive survey of waterways released yesterday. At risk are the water supplies of nearly 80 percent of humanity, and two-thirds of the world’s river habitats.


Hotspots of concern include nearly the whole of Europe, the Indian subcontinent, eastern China, southern Mexico, and the United States east of the Rockies.

But experts say there may be hope for restoring rivers and securing future water needs for cities, farms, energy production, industry””and for ecosystems””by “working with nature.”

“We, as a global society, are taking very poor care of water resources,” said survey co-leader Peter McIntyre, a zoologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (See the UW website about the report.)

Rivers, wetlands, lakes, and the life that relies on them, are at risk around the world because of a variety of stresses, including overuse of water, pollution, introduction of exotic species, and overfishing, according to the new study, published today in the journal Nature.

Climate Change Is “A Serious Public Health Issue”

Calling climate change a “public health issue” over a 100 leading health advocates went to Washington to ask for the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, the Hill reported.


Eighteen national public health organizations including the American College of Preventive Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Lung Association and the American Medical Association, 66 state-based groups and several individual medical professionals asked policymakers to support measures that will reduce the health risks due to climate change.

“In order to prepare for changes already under way, it is essential to strengthen our public health system so it is able to protect our communities from the health effects of heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, infectious diseases, and other events,” the advocates wrote Tuesday to House, Senate and White House policymakers. “But we must also address the root of the problem, which means reducing the emissions that contribute to climate change.”

The group asked Washington lawmakers to allow the EPA to regulate emissions in an attempt to fight West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller’s (D.) bill which aims to delay emissions standards for power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities for two years.

A High-Risk Fossil Fuel Boom Sweeps Across North America

Energy companies are rushing to develop unconventional sources of oil and gas trapped in carbon-rich shales and sands throughout the western United States and Canada. So far, government officials have shown little concern for the environmental consequences of this new fossil fuel development boom.

The most direct path to America’s newest big oil and gas fields is U.S. Highway 12, two lanes of blacktop that unfold from Grays Harbor in Washington State and head east across the top of the country to Detroit.

The 2,500-mile route has quickly become an essential supply line for the energy industry. With astonishing speed, U.S. oil companies, Canadian pipeline builders, and investors from all over the globe are spending huge sums in an economically promising and ecologically risky race to open the next era of hydrocarbon development. As domestic U.S. pools of conventional oil and gas dwindle, energy companies are increasingly turning to “unconventional” fossil fuel reserves contained in the carbon rich-sands and deep shales of Canada, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountain West.

Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming hold oil shale reserves estimated to contain 1.2 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, half of which the department says is recoverable. Eastern Utah alone holds tar sands oil reserves estimated at 12 billion to 19 billion barrels. The star sands region of northern Alberta, Canada contains recoverable oil reserves conservatively estimated at 175 billion barrels, and with new technology could reach 400 billion barrels. Deep gas-bearing shales of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain West, Great Lakes, Northeast, and Gulf Coast contain countless trillions of feet of natural gas. If current projections turn out to be accurate, there would be enough oil and gas to power the United States for at least another century.

First forestry credits issued under Voluntary Carbon Standard

An “historic milestone” in the forestry carbon market was reached this week as the first carbon credits from a land-use project were verified and issued under the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS).

Credits from the Uchindile-Mapanda reforestation project in Tanzania were issued on the VCS registry system hosted by APX in a move that experts predict will further stimulate growing investor interest in forestry protection projects.

Jonathan Shopley, managing director of The CarbonNeutral Company, which is currently the only carbon offset firm to make the credits available, said the new VCS-approved credits would bolster the credibility of forestry-related carbon credits.

“Businesses that are committing to significant carbon reductions can now achieve this by purchasing and retiring high-quality, verified VCS Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) carbon credits,” he said. “This credible, permanent offsetting development is a historic milestone for us, for our clients, for the carbon marketplace and for forestry.”

The Uchindile-Mapanda project takes degraded grassland and converts it into sustainably harvested forests that sequester carbon emissions from the atmosphere and generate carbon credits. Some 40 per cent of the credits have been set aside — a world first — to mitigate against the risk of “ non-permanence”, such as the forest burning down.

China leading the world in clean energy investment

As weary visitors wait to enter the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion at Expo 2010, a sprinkler system using recycled rainwater and powered through a solar thermal system cools them off with periodic misting. Once they enter the exhibit at the world’s largest fair, tourists learn about high-speed trains and other energy-efficient inventions that have begun to proliferate in China.

“Shanghai has developed so fast, its natural resources have disappeared,” reads one placard at the expo. Several yards away, a film presentation plays in which the narrator asks, “What’s the future of Shanghai?”

It is a question that is far from decided. But China’s emphasis on developing clean energy sources has rattled some of its economic competitors and could transform the global energy marketplace.

In 2009, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, China surpassed the United States and other members of the G-20 for the first time as the leader in clean energy investment. Last year clean energy investment in China totaled $34.6 billion, compared with $18.6 billion in the United States. Last month, Chinese officials announced they will spend $75 billion a year on clean energy.

Growing Nanowires Horizontally Yields New Benefit: ‘Nano-LEDs’

While refining their novel method for making nanoscale wires, chemists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) discovered an unexpected bonus — a new way to create nanowires that produce light similar to that from light-emitting diodes (LEDs). These “nano-LEDs” may one day have their light-emission abilities put to work serving miniature devices such as nanogenerators or lab-on-a-chip systems.

Nanowires typically are “grown” by the controlled deposition of molecules — zinc oxide, for example — from a gas onto a base material, a process called chemical vapor deposition (CVD). Most CVD techniques form nanowires that rise vertically from the surface like brush bristles. Because the wire only contacts the substrate at one end, it tends not to share characteristics with the substrate material — a less-than-preferred trait because the exact composition of the nanowire will then be hard to define. Vertical growth also produces a dense forest of nanowires, making it difficult to find and re-position individual wires of superior quality. To remedy these shortcomings, NIST chemists Babak Nikoobakht and Andrew Herzing developed a “surface-directed” method for growing nanowires horizontally across the substrate.