Posts Tagged Biochar

Are You Done Yet?

Numerous of our family and friends have ask about my progress and when they get to call me Dr. or when I can afford to take my wife out to dinner. So here is the latest update:

The last six months have been full of set backs, rescheduled dates, and experimental reruns which ultimately shattered any hope of a December 2010 graduation.  I am currently in the writing process submitting drafts to my committee chair and then rewriting, rewriting, rewriting….you get the picture.  In a research based PhD publications are the key and required by the department at WSU (at least 1).  They are how your committee and chair get a return on their investment of time and money.  In most cases a graduate student finishes their dissertation and then publishes the outcome after graduation or a combination.  My committee chair however wants everything that can be published already submitted prior to my defense.  The difference between dissertation and publication ready are VAST, as I have found out in the last 4 months.

My PhD dissertation encompasses 4 major chapters (it was 3 until Friday afternoon).

1)      Literature Review

2)      “Influence of Biochar on Soil pH, Water Holding Capacity, Nitrogen and Carbon Dynamics. ”

3)      Characterization of Biochar made from dairy manure fiber and its ability to sequester phosphorus from dairy lagoons

4)      The impact of phosphorus recovered from dairy manure using biochar on soil characteristics and crop yield.

Progress: Chapter 1 – 80% complete but will be in revision until defense

Chapter 2 – DONE Accepted to SSSJA

Chapter 3 and 4 – Writing and rewriting

 

So it boils down to this – we are not setting any dates for my defense BUT it must happen before April 1, 2011 and I will walk in May.

Thanks for the prayers!

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A Little Self Promotion – Front Page Tri Cities Herald

Scientists see biochar as promising fuel source

By Kevin McCullen, Herald staff writer

Scientists in Eastern Washington are at the forefront of research into an ancient practice that shows promise as a clean fuel source, a way to improve soil condition and to capture carbon that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere.

Researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the federal Department of Agriculture’s research station in Prosser and Washington State University have been integral figures in studies of biochar and its potential uses.

Biochar, a charcoal-like material, is produced when biomass — including wood, plant and animal waste — is burned in the absence of or under low oxygen conditions so the material doesn’t combust.

This process, called pyrolysis, thermally decomposes the waste into biochar, bio-oil and syngas. Biochar and bio-oil show commercial promise and syngas offers a power source that can run a pyrolyzer.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service has estimated that if the United States were to pyrolyze 1.3 billion tons of various forms of biomass annually, it could replace 1.9 billion barrels of imported oil with bio-oil. That would represent about 25 percent of the annual oil consumption in this country. In addition, USDA estimates the country could sequester 153 million tons of carbon annually by adding biochar to soils.

Although widespread research on biochar began less than a decade ago, debate already is brewing on whether its prevailing commercial use will be for fuel or for soil and carbon sequestration.

In January, UOP, a subsidiary of the Honeywell Corp., announced it had been awarded a $25 million grant from the federal Department of Energy to build a demonstration plant in Hawaii to take waste feedstocks of wood, agricultural products and algae residue to produce bio-oil. The oil then will be refined into aviation and diesel fuel with technology developed in part by PNNL, a junior partner in the project.

Biofuels, including bio-oil from char, “can’t replace all petroleum,” said Doug Elliott, staff scientist with PNNL’s Chemical and Biological Process Development unit. He has been researching biofuels for three decades.

“But U.S. production of biofuels could replace one-third of our total petroleum products annually and on a continuing basis,” he said.

Could create jobs

Or the use of smaller portable pyrolyzer units one day could be deployed in forests to clean up wood waste piles, produce lower-grade fuel, generate power and create jobs in rural communities. The Forest Service is funding research of a small demonstration project in a small Northeastern Oregon community.

“There’s all kinds of things that are potentially usable as a fuel source. You can make this work on a whole lot of things that don’t have a value and actively have a cost,” said Eric Twombly of BioChar Products, who is conducting the forest fuels project in Halfway, Ore.

Twombly fired up his mobile plant in December at an old lumber mill site about eight miles from the Idaho border. He hopes to produce at least 500 tons of biochar and at least 300 gallons of bio-oil using chipped wood waste.

A farmer already is buying some of the oil to use in his orchard heaters, and Twombly uses the syngas to power the plant. It now employs three people, but Twombly envisions one day creating at least a dozen full-time, family-wage jobs.

And ongoing research by soil scientist Hal Collins and his team at the USDA’s vegetable and forage crop research unit in Prosser is looking at how dairy waste could be transformed on-site into a product that could be added to the soil, used as an energy source and to eliminate the environmental concerns of waste ponds.

Jim Amonette, a soil chemist at PNNL who has extensively studied biochar, and others say it isn’t a panacea that will resolve the nation’s energy and environmental challenges. But he says its potential use in storing carbon and as a soil amendment is promising.

“You are basically taking a biomass that would be back in the atmosphere in five to 10 years and converting it into biochar that will be in the soil for hundreds to thousands of years,” said Amonette, who contributed a chapter to Biochar for Environmental Management, considered one of the definitive reference works on the topic.

“It is one of the few ways you can pull carbon out of the air and generate energy at the same time,” he said.

Different products

The process isn’t new. Researchers have found areas in the Amazon basin where people centuries ago deposited charcoal, leaving behind areas with rich soils and lush plant growth. Scientists aren’t certain how they created the charcoal, said David Granatstein, a sustainable agriculture specialist at Washington State University and a co-principal investigator of a study published last year.

Scientists subsequently have found that different methods of pyrolysis — fast and slow, which are distinguished primarily by the rate of temperature increase in the pyrolyzing unit — produced different amounts of finished product.

Fast pyrolysis takes place in seconds, with temperatures that can reach up to 1,000 degrees. WSU researchers and Collins found in their study, released in 2009, that higher heating produced more bio-oil and less biochar from the same amount of biomass, while slow pyrolysis with slow heating rates yielded more char and less oil.

Amonette said research of the two methods in general has shown that a ton of biomass subjected to slow pyrolysis can produce up to 750 pounds of biochar, while the fast process yields 300 pounds of char.

Pressure to produce bio-oil could grow as oil prices continue climbing. UOP has said it expects to start fuel production in Hawaii no later than 2014. The company estimates it could produce gasoline and diesel for about $2.50 a gallon, Elliott said.

Others, however, tout the potential value of biochar for use in soils and in controlling greenhouse gases. Production of biochar locks up carbon from the biomass that would otherwise rot or be burned, and therefore decreases the amount of carbon dioxide returned to the atmosphere, according to researchers.

“By finding ways to keep this carbon out of the atmosphere for longer periods, we’re making better use of the service provided by plants when they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis,” Amonette said.

Soil scientists also have found biochar is good for storing carbon because it takes a long time to decompose, Collins said. It also has shown promise in retaining phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium — helping prevent them from leaching into lakes and streams — and retains moisture because it is porous.

But research by soil scientists thus far suggests biochar isn’t a magic elixir for all types of soil. It may work best in tropical and highly weathered soils — such as in the southern U.S. — where minerals have leached out of soil.

“It’s not a nutrient. It imparts some characteristics that improve soil conditions,” Collins said.

His team in Prosser now is looking at transforming dairy wastes into a fuel source and reducing environmental issues with the waste. The researchers are taking manure run through a digester at an Outlook dairy, running it through a pelletizer to change it to pellet form, and then subjecting it to slow pyrolysis to produce bio-gas or bio-oil.

Biochar produced in the process is being applied to dairy waste water to remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus, which could be sold as a fertilizer.

“We think it shows a lot of promise,” Collins said.

Research will yield more clues into potential applications of biochar and bio-oil. Economics also will play a key role in how the technology is developed, said Jim Bartis, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. who specializes in energy.

“We know we can implement (the technology) now on a small scale,” Amonette said. “We can’t wait 50 years to get all the bugs out.”

* Kevin McCullen: 509-582-1535; kmccullen@tricityherald.com

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BioChar What is It – What is BioChar?

I have had a lot of questions about my posts related to Biochar over the last few months, so I thought I would post this piece from the Economist from University of Florida.  I could talk for a few hours on the subject about the truth, lies, snake oil effect and real research that is going on… but this article gives a good overview.  Again – not my own article – but I do have the largest supply of biochar from anaerobically digested dairy manure fiber currently in the world.  A large portion of my PhD is dealing with the use of biochar as a nutrient recovery tool

The Economics of Biochar

Before the industrial revolution, whole forests disappeared to provide the carbon that ironmakers need to reduce their ore to metal.  Then, an English ironmaker called Abraham Darby discovered how to do the job with coke.  From that point onward, the charcoal-burners’days were numbered.  The rise of coal, from which coke is produced, began, and so did the modern rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Ironically, the latest fashion for dealing with global warming is to bring back charcoal.  It has to be rebranded for modern consumers, of course, so it is now referred to as “biochar.”  There are individuals who think biochar may give humanity a new tool to attack the problem of global warming, by providing a convenient way of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, burying it and improving the quality of the soil on the way.  Many people with an interest in biochar got together recently at the University of Colorado, to discuss the matter at the North American Biochar Conference.  They looked at various ways of making biochar, the virtues of different raw materials and how big the benefits really would be.

charcoal

The first inkling that putting charcoal in the ground might improve soil quality came over a century ago, when an explorer named Herbert Smith noticed that there were patches of unusually rich soils in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.  Most of the forest’s soil is heavily weathered and of poor quality.  But the so- called “terra preta,” or “black earth,” is much more fertile.  This soil is found at the sites of ancient settlements, but it does not appear to be an accidental consequence of settlement.  Rather, it looks as though the remains of burned plants have been mixed into it deliberately.  And recently, some modern farmers – inspired by Wim Sombroek, a Dutch soil researcher who died in 2003 – have begun to do likewise.

According to Julie Major, of the International Biochar Initiative, a lobby group based in Maine, infusing savannah in Colombia with biochar made from corn stover (the waste left over when maize is harvested) caused crops there to tower over their char-less counterparts.  Christoph Steiner, of the University of Georgia, reported that biochar produced from chicken litter could do the same in the sandy soil of Tifton in that state.  And David Laird, of the USDA, showed that biochar even helped the rich soil of America’s Midwest by reducing the leaching from it of a number of nutrients, including nitrate, phosphate and potassium.  However, it is the idea of using biochar to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a semi-permanent basis that has caused people outside the field of agriculture to take notice of the stuff.  Sombroek wrote about the possibility in 1992, but only now is it being taken seriously.

In the natural carbon cycle, plants absorb CO2 as they grow.  When they die and decompose, this returns to the atmosphere.  If, however, they are subjected instead to pyrolysis – a process of controlled burning in a low-oxygen atmosphere – the result is char, a substance that is mostly elemental carbon.  Although life is, in essence, a complicated form of carbon chemistry, living creatures cannot process carbon in its elemental form.  Charcoal, therefore, does not decay very fast.  Bury it in the soil, and it will stay there.  Some of the terra preta is thousands of years old.

Moreover, soil containing biochar releases less methane and less nitrous oxide than its untreated counterparts, probably because the charcoal acts as a catalyst for the destruction of these gases.  Since both of these chemicals are more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, this effect, too, should help combat global warming.  And the process of making biochar also creates beneficial by-products.  These include heat from the partial combustion, a gaseous mixture called syngas that can be burned as fuel, and a heavy oil.

The benefits of the soil should be enough to persuade some farmers to make and bury biochar. Others, though, may need more incentives – probably in the form of carbon “offsets”that compensate for emissions elsewhere.  In the developing carbon-trading economy, CO2-emitting industries could pay farmers to buy stoves to char and sequester farm waste.  Farmers in poor countries could get in on the act too, through the Clean Development Mechanism, a United Nations’ program that allows emitters to buy offsets in the global market.  (The Economist, 8/27/09).

I retrieved Thursday November 19 at 6:30am from http://pested.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2009-10/biochar.htm

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