“These calculations show that biochar can play a significant role in the solution for the planet’s climate change challenge,” said study co-author Jim Amonette, a soil chemist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Biochar offers one of the few ways we can create power while decreasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And it improves food production in the world’s poorest regions by increasing soil fertility. It’s an amazing tool.”
The study is the most thorough and comprehensive analysis to date on the global potential of biochar. The carbon-packed substance was first suggested as a way to counteract climate change in 1993. Scientists and policymakers have given it increasing attention in the past few years. The study was conducted by Dominic Woolf and Alayne Street-Perrott of Swansea University in Wales, U.K., Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and Stephen Joseph of the University of New South Wales, Australia, and Amonette.
Biochar is made by decomposing biomass like plants, wood and other organic materials at high temperature in a process called slow pyrolysis. Normally, biomass breaks down and releases its carbon into the atmosphere within a decade or two. But biochar is more stable and can hold onto its carbon for hundreds or even thousands of years, keeping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide out of the air longer. Other biochar benefits include: improving soils by increasing their ability to retain water and nutrients; decreasing nitrous oxide and methane emissions from the soil into which it is tilled; and, during the slow pyrolysis process, producing some bio-based gas and oil that can offset emissions from fossil fuels.
Making biochar sustainably requires heating mostly residual biomass with modern technologies that recover energy created during biochar’s production and eliminate the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, the study also noted.
Crunching numbers and biomass
For their study, the researchers looked to the world’s sources of biomass that aren’t already being used by humans as food. For example, they considered the world’s supply of corn leaves and stalks, rice husks, livestock manure and yard trimmings, to name a few. The researchers then calculated the carbon content of that biomass and how much of each source could realistically be used for biochar production.
With this information, they developed a mathematical model that could account for three possible scenarios. In one, the maximum possible amount of biochar was made by using all sustainably available biomass. Another scenario involved a minimal amount of biomass being converted into biochar, while the third offered a middle course. The maximum scenario required significant changes to the way the entire planet manages biomass, while the minimal scenario limited biochar production to using biomass residues and wastes that are readily available with few changes to current practices.Amonette and his colleagues found that the maximum scenario could offset up to the equivalent of 1.8 petagrams – or 1.8 billion metric tons - of carbon emissions annually and a total of 130 billion metric tons throughout in the first 100 years. Avoided emissions include the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The estimated annual maximum offset is 12 percent of the 15.4 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions that human activity adds to the atmosphere each year. Researchers also calculated that the minimal scenario could sequester just under 1 billion metric tons annually and 65 billion metric tons during the same period.
But to achieve any of these offsets is no small task, Amonette noted.
“This can’t be accomplished with half-hearted measures,” Amonette said. “Using biochar to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at these levels is an ambitious project that requires significant commitments from the general public and government. We will need to change the way we value the carbon in biomass.”
Experiencing the full benefits of biochar will take time. The researchers’ model shows it will take several decades to ramp up biochar production to its maximum possible level. Greenhouse gas offsets would continue past the century mark, but Amonette and colleagues just calculated for the first 100 years.
Biochar and bioenergy work together
Instead of making biochar, biomass can also be burned to produce bioenergy from heat. Researchers found that burning the same amount of biomass used in their maximum biochar scenario would offset 107 billion metric tons of carbon emissions during the first century. The bioenergy offset, while substantial, was 23 metric tons less than the offset from biochar. Researchers attributed this difference to a positive feedback from the addition of biochar to soils. By improving soil conditions, biochar increases plant growth and therefore creates more biomass for biochar productions. Adding biochar to soils can also decrease nitrous oxide and methane emissions that are naturally released from soil.
However, Amonette and his co-authors wrote that a flexible approach including the production of biochar in some areas and bioenergy in others would create optimal greenhouse gas offsets. Their study showed that biochar would be most beneficial if it were tilled into the planet’s poorest soils, such as those in the tropics and the Southeastern United States.
Those soils, which have lost their ability to hold onto nutrients during thousands of years of weathering, would become more fertile with the extra water and nutrients the biochar would help retain. Richer soils would increase the crop and biomass growth – and future biochar sources – in those areas. Adding biochar to the most infertile cropland would offset greenhouse gases by 60 percent more than if bioenergy were made using the same amount of biomass from that location, the researchers found.
On the other hand, the authors wrote that bioenergy production could be better suited for areas that already have rich soils - such as the Midwest - and that also rely on coal for energy. Their analysis showed that bioenergy production on fertile soils would offset the greenhouse gas emissions of coal-fired power plants by 16 to 22 percent more than biochar in the same situation.
Plantations need not apply
The study also shows how sustainable practices can make the biochar that creates these offsets.
“The scientific community has been split on biochar,” Amonette acknowledged. “Some think it’ll ruin biodiversity and require large biomass plantations. But our research shows that won’t be the case if the right approach is taken.”
The authors’ estimates of avoided emissions were developed by assuming no agricultural or previously unmanaged lands will be converted for biomass crop production. Other sustainability criteria included leaving enough biomass residue on the soil to prevent erosion, not using crop residues currently eaten by livestock, not adding biochar made from treated building materials to agricultural soils and requiring that only modern pyrolysis technologies – those that fully recover energy released during the process and eliminate soot, methane and nitrous oxide emissions – be used for biochar production.
“Roughly half of biochar’s climate-mitigation potential is due to its carbon storage abilities,” Amonette said. “The rest depends on the efficient recovery of the energy created during pyrolysis and the positive feedback achieved when biochar is added to soil. All of these are needed for biochar to reach its full sustainable potential.”
The study was funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy, the Cooperative State Research Service of the Department of Agriculture, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and VenEarth Group LLC.
REFERENCE: Dominic Woolf, James E. Amonette, F. Alayne Street-Perrott, Johannes Lehmann, Stephen Joseph. “Sustainable biochar to mitigate global climate change,” Nature Communications, Aug. 10, 2010. http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v1/n4/full/ncomms1053.html.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is a Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory where interdisciplinary teams advance science and technology and deliver solutions to America's most intractable problems in energy, the environment and national security. PNNL employs 4,700 staff, has an annual budget of nearly $1.1 billion, and has been managed by Ohio-based Battelle since the lab's inception in 1965. Follow PNNL on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Franny White | Newswise Science News
Further reports about: > Heat Blanket > Nature Immunology > PNNL > Street-Perrott > Wales > bioenergy production > carbon dioxide > carbon emissions > coal-fired power plant > energy production > gas emission > greenhouse gas > greenhouse gas emission > methane emissions > nitrous oxide > organic material > power plant
The personality factor: How to foster the sharing of research data
06.09.2017 | ZBW – Leibniz-Informationszentrum Wirtschaft
Europe’s Demographic Future. Where the Regions Are Heading after a Decade of Crises
10.08.2017 | Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung
Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.
A warming planet
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
22.09.2017 | Life Sciences
22.09.2017 | Life Sciences
21.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy