For those of you terrified by Obama's comment at yesterday's press conference that "the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home," allow me to sum up the biofuel future in one word: Agrichar. Okay, two words because it's sometimes called biochar.
I just wish someone would say it to our President-elect, since, though he's clearly outside the "Iraq bubble," he appears to still be in the "ethanol bubble." Perhaps Time Magazine's Person of the Year might like to peruse the April 2008 issue of said mag in which Michael Grunwald popped that bubble so effectively for the rest of us. Said he:
...Several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it's dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous. Even cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline.Time Magazine. Last April. It's nice that Obama reads the NYT Sunday Magazine but he needs to broaden his horizons a bit. I think it's pretty clear that Obama wants to move away from corn ethanol - he said as much yesterday and, as previously noted, incoming DOE head Steven Chu is quite hostile to it as well. But switching from corn to cellulose as the source 1) will take too long 2) probably won't work and 3) if Grunwald is to be believed, is misguided anyway.
At a minimum, the much discussed five-to-ten year window to get cellulosic ethanol up to scale is five to ten years' worth of money and effort that we waste on the corn ethanol program or, as Ezra Klein calls it, "Agribusiness's get-rich-quick scheme masquerading as an energy policy." Even the "promising" alternative that Vilsack appears to support of importing our ethanol from Brazil isn't really worth much optimism. Brazil may be good at making ethanol from sugar but, according to Grunwald, the process is causing "the destruction of the world's greatest ecological jewel" - the Amazon rain forest. But wait, there's less:
Brazil now ranks fourth in the world in carbon emissions, and most of its emissions come from deforestation...Pass the sugar ethanol? No way. Which brings us back to that funny word at the top of the post that points to a solution that can keep US corn farmers (relatively) happy and that doesn't involve ethanol at all. And, via Scientific American, it's all based on a fancy-pants way to make charcoal.
...This land rush is being accelerated by an unlikely source: biofuels. An explosion in demand for farm-grown fuels has raised global crop prices to record highs, which is spurring a dramatic expansion of Brazilian agriculture, which is invading the Amazon at an increasingly alarming rate.
By using a special kiln, you can take agricultural wastes such as - are you listening, Iowa? - corn leaves and stalks, burn it in the absence of oxygen and then use the gas byproducts to create electricity. You also get large nuggets of pure carbon (okay, charcoal). The charcoal can then be plowed back into the soil and, according to the latest research, will nourish the soil and stay there possibly forever. The upshot is that a good chunk of the carbon "fixed" by the plant matter is now permanently sequestered in the soil. And there's even some indication that the burning and "gasification" process itself may be carbon negative. Zowie.
Interestingly, there's an especially hopeful cameo buried in the Scientific American article on agrichar. Who should turn out to be a big supporter of agrichar research? No, not Tom Vilsack. Rather, Ken Salazar, the newly minted Interior Secretary who has many environmentalists up in arms. And none of this is news to the USDA, which already funds agrichar research. Perhaps Ken, Tom and Steve could have a little sit-down and hash all this stuff out? In the Bush administration, having three cabinet secretaries sit down together would generally lead to a war, the destruction of an inconvenient personal liberty or a tasty giveaway to some favored industry. But this troika has it within its power to revolutionize agriculture and energy. If, that is, they're willing to pop that darn bubble.
Photo by SantiMB used under CC license