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December 17, 2008

The Corn Solution

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...

...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.
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.

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

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Anonymous Josh Beniston, beniston.2 at osu.edu said...

It's true agrichar is looking like a great technology for carbon sequestration and soil fertility. I work in a large lab at Ohio State whose mission is studying C dynamics in soils and many researchers are very excited about the possibilities of biochar.

It is, however, a very dangerous assumption to think that this means that we should now be removing all of the crop residues (stover, leaves, etc.) from corn fields and ship them off to be made into biochar. Those residues need to be returned to the soil in the fields where they were grown, to maintain soil quality in those fields. By removing them for any type of production purpose, we are, in effect, "robbing Peter to pay Paul". That is a key point for sustainable management of soil in large agricultural settings...residues must be returned to the soil.

The key to developing sustainable biochar and cellulose production systems will be in cultivating short rotation perennial plants, grown on land too marginal for crop production, to be made into biochar or cellulosic energy. Willows, poplars, bamboo, prairie grasses; these are good candidates to be used for biochar production. Ideally these crops, would be grown very close to production sites so that we are not using up huge amounts of energy shipping them around, which is an other issue in using crop residues for biochar production.

My advisor, Rattan Lal, has proposed a slogan: "Grains for People, Residues for Soil". So, biochar is a very hopeful new technology. We just need to be careful that in advancing biochar and other agricultural technologies, we design production systems that are energy and C efficient, as well as sustainable for the soil.

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