The carbon negative economy

Robert C. Brown of Iowa State

“Let’s not simply reduce the CO2 emissions going up into the atmosphere. Let’s draw them down.”

So says Robert Brown, a professor of engineering at Iowa State University and a leader of the university’s Initiative for a Carbon Negative Economy and its Bioeconomy Institute. Those are interdisciplinary campus efforts to develop ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by growing plants or algae, making them into fuels and burying their carbon residues in soil–and make money doing it.

The notion that we can generate wealth and remove CO2 from the air is obviously appealing. As atmospheric concentrations of CO2 rise and climate risks grow, so does the need for carbon-negative technologies that pull CO2 from the air, as plants do, and then store it  underground or deep in the ocean.

But is this practical, or a pipe dream? That’s what Brown and his colleagues at Iowa State and its Bioeconomy Institute want to find out, as they explained this week at a two-day workshop on  biochar  — that’s the term used for the charcoal created when biomass is decomposed at high heat, in a process called pyrolysis. The workshop was part of the Carbon War Room‘s Creating Climate Wealth Summit in Washington, D.C..

The Carbon War Room, as you may know, is a nonprofit created by Richard Branson of Virgin fame to unlock gigaton-scale, market-driven solutions to climate change. Its new president will be Jose Maria Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica. The group is also tackling projects around energy efficiency, renewable jet fuel, low-carbon ocean shipping and sustainable livestock.

Biochar has been around for a long time, but it’s getting new attention from government and business. The Iowa State researchers last fall were awarded a $25 million research grant  from USDA to see if they can find ways to use  marginal farmlands to grow perennial grasses and turn them into biofuels and biochar. Local firms like ADM, the agribusiness giant, have expressed support. [click to continue...]

Biochar: Too good to be true?

Agricultural residents and converted biochar

Would you like to curb or even reverse global warming? Help feed the world? Generate renewable energy?

Biochar is the answer, say its most fervent advocates.

If only life were so simple.

Biochar, alas, isn’t ready yet to be a meaningful solution to the climate crisis, or a way to enhance agricultural productivity at scale. But it’s an intriguing substance that has been around for thousands of years, and the production of biochar may prove to be one of the  technologies that governments and business deploy to deal with the threat of climate change. As, potentially, a carbon negative technology, it’s worth a look.

Biochar, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a charcoal-like substance that is created today by pyrolysis of biomass. In layman’s terms, biochar is made by taking organic material, like agricultural waste, heating it to very high temperatures, and allowing it to decompose in the absence of oxygen.

Jonah Levine

To learn about biochar, I met recently in Boulder, Colorado, with Jonah Levine, who is a co-owner of his own small biochar business and, until recently, was an executive with a startup called Biochar Engineering.   Jonah, who is 30 and lives near Boulder, got involved with biochar when a friend asked him to organize a conference on the technology in 2009 at the University of Colorado. A passionate environmentalist, he had previously worked as a wildlife biologist and as an engineer advising utilities on how to incorporate renewable energy into the grid.

Now he’s bullish on biochar.

“I feel like like I’m watching the beginning of an industry,” Jonah says. “Within a  decade, I feel this will be a functional business space.” [click to continue...]