Biochar and Forests

Biochar Forest trees

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There is growing awareness of biochar but it has yet to take off in a big way.  The Get Real Alliance is a strong advocate of biochar with its carbon sequestration program funding significant biochar creation and application.  Biochar has multiple positive aspects.  In the massive carbon cycle if we are to stabilize or reduce carbon dioxide levels without purely focusing on very unrealistic reductions in carbon emissions then we need to sequester carbon from the air into the soil and plant life.  

Carbon is sequestered in a variety of ways that are either short term or long term or nearly permanent.  To stabilize CO2 levels or lower them we need to do all ways but long term and nearly permanent are desirable.  Plant growth sequestration is either short term or long term depending on whether it is  growthof an annual plant or added growth of a long lived plant like a tree.  Making biochar from plants at the end of their life cycle permanently sequesters a good part of the sequestered carbon in the biomass.  That alone is a big benefit to making biochar but the agronomic benefits are much greater in increased water and nutrient retention by the treated soil.  

Biochar granules serve as sinks for water soluble nutrients preventing them from leaching out of the soil and making them available for soil life and plant use.  Water is a solvent that will wash nutrients that are not tied up out of the soil profile.  Biochar is uniquely able to keep nutrients in the soil in a plant available form.  

Plants can put up to 50% of the carbon compounds they create by photosynthesis down into the soil by their root system.  What happens to these compounds which serve as food for soil life depends on mineral levels and how friendly the soil is to soil life. Biochar serves as a home with its porous microstructure for microscopic soil life.  Ideally a lot of the exuded carbohydrates from the roots are converted to long lasting compounds such as humus.  Biochar by itself has no nutrients.  It has to be charged with nutrients before it is applied or it will scavenge nutrients away from the plants in a farming situation.  It is ideal to mix biochar with compost perhaps even in the compost making process for maximum benefit.  

Biochar which is plant material that has been partially burned to leave behind only a pure carbon material that represents near permanent sequestration of some of the carbon extracted from the air by the plant with photosynthesis.  Ideally this plant material is already dead so that no living tree is cut down to make biochar but only dead trees are used which are in the process of decaying which releases some of the carbon that has been removed from the air back into the atmosphere.  Currently most efforts to make biochar harvest dead wood and burn it in oxygen limiting kilns at a temperature below the level that carbon will burn.  Trees and plants are composed of a variety of carbon compounds along with water.  Anyone who has been in the woods or forest knows that there is a lot of dead wood with much standing still. 

Many north America forests have been ravaged by disease and parasitic insects leaving much of the timber dead or dying.  A healthy forest is a carbon sink that each year removes more carbon dioxide from the air on a long term basis.  Green trees don’t burn easily even if struck by lightning  but due to all the dead and dying trees in many forests along with underbrush that is easily desiccated during dry times, forest fires are a major problem and release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the air.  We need a large scale program to remove dead trees and underbrush from the forest.  

One of the challenges to convert America’s dead trees into biochar is getting the trees to the biochar machine.  The solution maybe a new type of airship designed to lift up dead trees and use onboard equipment to chip the wood and burn it in an oxygen limiting way for power and biochar.  You can visit www.allpowerlabs.com for more information on such systems although they aren’t thinking about airborne systems yet!!  There is so much rugged land covered with dense forest where a large number of the trees are dead or dying that are far from a road.  Practically it is nearly impossible to remove dead timber from a dense forest even very near a road as travel thru the forest with wood would be a manual job of great expense.  

America has hundreds of millions of acres of forest full of dead trees that need to be removed often at very high tree density.  One of the reasons why forests are dying is that the soil is demineralized so a tree removal effort also needs to include adding biochar, nutrients and rock dust to seedling trees and the soil to produce fast growing healthy trees that resist disease and insects.  Currently America’s forest especially federally owned ones are just being left to either decompose or burn with no effort to replant badly damaged forests with trees that are resistant to disease and insect attack.  A trip by car or air in the west often finds devastated forests where most of the trees are dead.  

When most of the trees are dead or dying an acre of forest goes from sequestering substantial carbon in tree growth to actually being a net emitter of carbon dioxide just by decomposition.  In the upcoming  book, a carbon sequestration fund is proposed with funding coming from a tax on carbon emissions.  It is very likely that harvesting dead trees with an aerial system to make biochar will cost a lot more per ton of sequestered carbon that some other processes but there are long term benefits to restoring a section of forest to health and preventing the release of a huge amount of carbon dioxide either by decomposition or worse fire.  

In the case of making biochar from dead trees in a forest there are multiple benefits.  Much of the carbon in the dead tree is converted to a permanent store of carbon and removed from the carbon cycle.  If some of the biochar is added to the forest soil it increases tree growth and soil life.  As there is so much dead wood most of the biochar can be used on other land such as desert and other lands to enrich it and increase carbon sequestration there.  

There are a lot of good books on biochar available at www.acresusa.com that are recommended for those who want more detail and stay tuned to this blog for a lot more information on biochar, making it and  its benefits.  One of the things that the Get Real Alliance does is research on subjects such as biochar and we need money to fund research and advocate for change.  Please go to the donate page and help us further the cause.  

Remineralization of the Earth is the answer to both climate and hunger

Basalt rock dust

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Basalt rock dust removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in two ways.  Most researchers primarily focus on chemical reactions between elements in basalt that chemically combine with carbon dioxide producing  rock carbonates that permanently remove carbon dioxide from the world’s carbon cycle.  This is valuable but represents only a small fraction of the good that rock dust can  do.  Numerous studies show sharply greater plant growth especially on badly demineralized soils which exist in so many areas.  Here is a recent study that showed great results.

 

A research team within the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation led a study that incorporated finely crushed basalt rock dust into agricultural soils for sorghum. Their findings showed that this greatly improved crop yields and stored impressive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in the remineralized soil.

“Enhanced rock weathering” is the term utilized by climate and soil scientists like those at the Leverhulme Center for Climate Change Mitigation to refer to the remineralization of soils with an emphasis on capturing carbon to stabilize the climate.

When it comes to feeding the world’s population and keeping climate change in check, few proposed approaches are as attractive as soil remineralization. Introducing the right minerals into soils provides nutrients for plants and elements that react with carbon dioxide (CO₂), pulling it out of the air and into the ground where it could potentially be stored for centuries.

Compared to plants with untreated soil, basalt rock dust treated soils revealed a 21% crop increase. The sorghum absorbed 26% more silicon, increasing the plants’ ability to fight off fungal pathogens, resist pests, and increase their stem strength. Basalt rock dust also increased carbon capture fourfold.

In the long term, remineralized plants are naturally more resistant to insect predation, but rock dust can be used in the short term for an insect infestation. Insects have a naturally waxy protective covering, which normally keeps them from drying out. When directly sprayed on insects, the rock dust interferes with this covering, gets into the segments, and disables them. During an infestation, this can restore insect balance.

This study ultimately demonstrates that enhanced rock weathering using basalt rock dust on sorghum shows prominent results in increasing crop yields, establishing insect balance, and capturing carbon.

You can learn a lot more by visiting http://www.remineralize.org and reading the articles and  watching the videos.  Remineralizing trees is of particular benefit with improved health and growth sequestering carbon over a long period of time.  Today many forests are sick and  sometimes have more dead and dying trees than vital one so instead of sequestering carbon they are emitting it from decay and worse fire.   

There is no free lunch but we  can do amazing things by increasing photosynthesis and boosting the amazing soil life to actually make the world carbon negative while we still use oil and gas.  It will take a massive global effort but will lead to a more vital and sustainable world that can support man and the animals.  If you haven’t already signed up for our newsletter and updates please do.  Donations to the Get Real Alliance will promote research and awareness to this vital solution.

Real Solar Output History

Solar output history

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The solar industry loves to talk about nameplate power output based on a benchmark solar radiation of 1000 watts per square meter.  Yet the industry is promoting solar farms in areas that will not see anywhere near that level of solar radiation. Years back, FOI Group LLC of Dallas, Texas worked on a solar energy patent that offered a way to have more reliable power. Part of the project included measuring solar radiation minute by minute in the Dallas area for over a year.

Here is a week’s worth of data from late December:

Solar input data from 2006

Note that peak output was over 600 watts for a very short time on one day but very low on three days.  Even the best day is marred by many wild dips in solar output shown by the many vertical lines on the graph.  There is only one unblemished day in this week.  Intermittent clouds only affect a small area at a time. If solar farms or arrays were widely dispersed, the short-term fluctuations would cancel out as a cloud would only pass over one solar array at a time in an area of many.  Unfortunately, solar farms tend to be large and concentrated. In such a layout, an intermittent cloud can cause loss of power to a large percentage of total solar output in the area.  Notice on the graph that there is no power most of the time, and power output is only at a peak for a short time. Much is made of the lower prices for solar based on peak output. Yet the ideal conditions for peak output are fleeting.  The data from this winter week shows only a small fraction of peak total output with three days of almost no output.  Counting on a solar energy system as a primary source without backup would mean large power blackouts.

Here is a summer week:

Solar input data from 2007

There is clearly a much higher peak output than the winter week, but the wild fluctuations in power would be a disaster as a major or sole energy supplier for a home.  The swings would be even wider farther north or in higher rainfall areas.  FOI Group LLC’s solar thermal power system would have been equipped to deal with the wide swings, but it is difficult to size a mirror array to produce high temperatures that are needed with such wide variance.  The patent can be seen at www.fullofideas.com,  but material limitations made FOI discontinue development in conjunction with these discouraging graphs.  

It is hoped that these graphs, which are not specially selected for bad results but are representative, will make it clear that we need backup power with equal capabilities to the installed solar power.  Ideally, the backup power system would consist of natural gas power plants on standby to quickly step in when needed, along with flywheel storage to fill the short term disruptions that would make a computer crash if solar power alone were a big part of the power supply of the electric grid.  

Proponents of batteries vastly underestimate the amount of batteries and charging solar arrays needed to provide continuous power.  To meet a megawatt of load full-time would take an extra 3 megawatts of actual solar power output at the average solar radiation over a six hour period. This is a multiple of the nameplate power output that is used for cost calculations.  And this only provides power for nighttime needs.  One would need four more megawatts of solar panels to charge the batteries to provide power for a cloudy day.  The costs would be large even if there were enough raw materials to make all those batteries.  

So while the nameplate power output of a solar panel results in a competitive cost with a natural gas powerplant, the actual produced power is up to three times more expensive in winter at peak times and sharply higher over the course of a day.  Adding full-time battery backup drives the cost through the roof.

It is time to Get Real about solar energy before we mandate its use by law.  See www.getrealalliance/book .org for how to order the thorough book on climate and renewable energy.