ACS: Amazonian Indians and "biochar" – sequestering carbon the old fashioned way

This is from the American Chemical Society journal via a press release. After making a bunch of this, I’d be tempted to have a “BBQ summer”.

Unlike familiar charcoal briquettes, above, biochar is charcoal made from wood, grass and other organic matter, and has the potential to help slow climate change.

“Life cycle assessment of biochar systems: Estimating the energetic, economic, and climate change potential”

From the ancient Amazonian Indians: A modern weapon against global warming

Scientists are reporting that “biochar” — a material that the Amazonian Indians used to enhance soil fertility centuries ago — has potential in the modern world to help slow global climate change. Mass production of biochar could capture and sock away carbon that otherwise would wind up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Their report appears in ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology, a bi-weekly journal.

Kelli Roberts and colleagues note that biochar is charcoal produced by heating wood, grass, cornstalks or other organic matter in the absence of oxygen. The heat drives off gases that can be collected and burned to produce energy. It leaves behind charcoal rich in carbon. Amazonian Indians mixed a combination of charcoal and organic matter into the soil to improve soil fertility, a fact that got the scientists interested in studying biochar’s modern potential.

The study involved a “life-cycle analysis” of biochar production, a comprehensive cradle-to-grave look at its potential in fighting global climate change and all the possible consequences of using the material. It concludes that several biochar production systems have the potential for being an economically viable way of sequestering carbon — permanently storing it — while producing renewable energy and enhancing soil fertility.



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Johnny Bombenhagel
January 13, 2010 1:53 pm

“Estimating the energetic, economic, and climate change potential”
Yes, I can estimate it: Null, nada, zero
I already heard of this bizarre idea and then I calculated the amount of wood/grass whatever that you have to process to coal only to eliminate the CO2-output of the actually burned fossil coal.
I don’t have the numbers at hand anymore, put I can tell you:
This is totally hopeless

January 13, 2010 2:06 pm

I thought the Amazonian indians were, y’know, crapping in the fields to fertilize them? That would make sense, at least.

January 13, 2010 2:07 pm

Yes, but as a follow-up to the ethanol debacle, it might be a very effective way to back-door subsidize an industry that has no reason to exist aside from buying farm state votes.

January 13, 2010 2:08 pm

This is just plain silly.

January 13, 2010 2:10 pm

I’m really sorry AGW has got mixed into the Amazonian charcoal work. Makes me want to let rip a stream of expletives.
Because this Amazonian charcoal is IMO really, really important. It has the potential to rejuvenate soil, increase biomass, fertility, a quite extraordinary amount, and with only small quantities. It was the secret of the lost El Dorado civilization (they were wiped out by influenza, measles and a third complaint we think nothing of). Green the Sahara. You name it. Just leave the AGW bull**** out of it.

Krishna Gans
January 13, 2010 2:12 pm
January 13, 2010 2:12 pm

I’m thinking of writing a paper called “Polytheistic assessment of genuflectory anthropological systems: Estimating the ecumenical, sociological, economic, and climate change potential”.
I fully expect to be besieged with funding offers.

Steve in SC
January 13, 2010 2:14 pm

What the heck do they think charcoal briquettes are made of?
Same stuff. Costs energy to make charcoal. It is a net energy sink.

January 13, 2010 2:16 pm

The tribes also did not have the knowledge (or access to ) modern methods of fertilizer production ( N from natural gas, mining of phosphorus and potassium, sulfur etc. ), tilling methods, etc. Don’t give me any BS about how ancient methods of agriculture are somehow “better” than modern science. That dog don’t hunt.

David, UK
January 13, 2010 2:18 pm

@ Lucy Skywalker: Now come on Lucy – how do you expect those ‘scientists’ to get grants these days without implicating AGW in there somewhere?
And as for your mentioning “AGW bullshit” – stop that, you’ll only give them ideas.

January 13, 2010 2:19 pm

I met a local professor who had a grant to do this sort of work, i.e. pyrolize plant trimmings to sequester the carbon. We do a lot of carbon processing in my lab so I’m sort of the local expert on this. We just chatted I saw no numbers on feasibility or the procedures she was planning on testing. She was looking for ovens to run tests. I guess on a large scale you could use coke ovens or charcoal kilns to do this, but it seems kinda pointless to me. Even if the actual charcoaling process was a net positive energy producer, so no extra fuel had to be used, you would need a lot of energy for all the bulk materials handling. I also pretty sure the natives who were mixing ashes and charcoal into the soil were more interested in the minerals in the ash than the carbon.

January 13, 2010 2:20 pm

Here’s another crazy idea. What if we actually grew trees for wood that we could then use to build things? And then plant trees to replace the ones we took out? All that ‘old’ carbon is tied up in the lumber and the new growth would sequester the ‘new’ carbon.

Ed Snack
January 13, 2010 2:20 pm

Lucy has it right, although biochar could be a useful adjunct to controlling total CO2 if that is a desirable result. Biochar is seriously worth looking at, although there are indeed issues around scale. Try this link: as the blog writer is very knowledgeable about biochar amongst other things, you may have to search for biochar posts.
The Amazonian “Terra Preta” soils are a genuine phenomena although the civilization that created them is not well known or understood.

Prof Phil Jones
January 13, 2010 2:21 pm

Hmmmm. “AGW bullshit” eh? Now, I wonder: how much methane is expelled by the average pile of bullshit….?

David, UK
January 13, 2010 2:22 pm

Now you’ve done it, Lucy.

January 13, 2010 2:22 pm

Gee, I thought that using “biochar” was that bad old technique called “Slash and Burn,” or did that go through a New Think grinder as well?

January 13, 2010 2:28 pm
James Sexton
January 13, 2010 2:29 pm

Sigh… mean carbon in the fields help crop production and you can make briquettes out of it? Will wonders ever cease.

January 13, 2010 2:30 pm

Aren’t charcoal briquettes made from wood? What am I missing?

Henry chance
January 13, 2010 2:36 pm

Over the past year or two, carbon is mentioned as the enemy more than CO2. I thought it was due to sloppy conversation. Anyhow, making charcoal consumes energy. I also read some wild notion from another sight about carbon negative. I assumed carbon is a constant. How can carbon be deleted to make “carbon negative”?
I gather they meant some level of optimal efficiency in oxidation. Like a perpetual motuion machine. Making a system that burns carbon and deletes it. All kinds of vooddoo come from Romm’s site.

Gary Hladik
January 13, 2010 2:37 pm

From the abstract: “The economic viability of the pyrolysis-biochar system is largely dependent on the costs of feedstock production, pyrolysis, and the value of C offsets.”
Hey, let’s raise the value of those “C offsets” and all become charcoal tycoons!

January 13, 2010 2:38 pm

Biochar can stop Global Warming!
Exclusive report from Dr Biochar, owner of the world’s largest Biochar factory.

Kum Dollison
January 13, 2010 2:50 pm

Terra Preta is incredibly fertile soil. The Indians would, evidently, allow a patch of deforested land to lie fertile for a number of years, and then go in an cut down the small trees, bushes, etc that had grown on it. These cuttings would, then, be placed in piles, and burned. The resultant ash, and charcoal would work its way into the soil, and over the centuries they ended up with some of the best soil on earth.
Corn Plus, in Winnebago, Mn, burns the syrup from their ethanol process in a fluidized-bed reactor to provide process energy for their plant. The local farmers line for the “Ash.”
We used to burn the wheat straw. Made for a better crop the next year. All these things are proven winners. They Work.

Stephen Brown
January 13, 2010 2:52 pm

“Slash and Burn” is still the predominant agricultural process in central Africa. Thousands of hectares of bush and scrubland are burned annually, killing mature muputu trees and devastating what is called brachystegia savannah (aka forests).
It’s not the carbon in the charcoal fraction in which the farmers have any interest, it’s the mineral content of the ash which is the requisite by-product of the burning. The burned-off area has an agricultural life of two years, then it’s move on and burn some more.
Of course the burnt bush land has nothing available to support any of the wildlife which might have escaped the flames. It is very common in Zambia, where I lived for many years, to find the corpses of starved buck in areas which had been burned off a month or two before.
Slash and Burn continues at a growing rate at least in Zambia.

January 13, 2010 3:05 pm

Isn’t this the same way we used to handle trash in the City Dump before the EPA made all those absurd rules forbidding burning and requiring plastic barriers under landfills? We dug trenches, started fires, continually bulldozed new trash on top of the fires. The underpart of the fire smoldered for a long time, then became soil and stayed there.

January 13, 2010 3:05 pm

The solution that the warmists are just starting to allude to though is to tackle population growth.
My government while pushing the AGW agenda has increased the population of the UK by 3,000,000 in ten years through immigration.
The reason being that a demoghrapic trough was appearing between the amount of old and young.
Falling birth rates in the west has been identified as a problem.
Problem.I see a solution.
Many of the 3,000,000 come from Islamic countries as well.
How the hell am I meant to take seriously ‘The war on Terror’ and ‘The war on Climate change’ waged by my government with such contradictary policies.

January 13, 2010 3:14 pm

There was a programme about this stuff on British Tv a couple of years ago and I was wondering just a couple of days ago as to what had happened to it.
The main point of the programme was about the astonishing fertility of the material so perhaps readers ought to bear this in mind rather than the rather more dubious prospects of its carbon sequestration.

January 13, 2010 3:15 pm

Okay… so… English coal… is bad.
But… Amazonia charcoal is…Good?
You guys are messing with me! I know it!

January 13, 2010 3:17 pm

The problem with biochar as a method to sequester carbon in soil is that it may actually work. The last thing a government trying to grab huge carbon taxes on the false science of AGW needs is a workable mitigation scheme to spend their ill gotten gains on.

January 13, 2010 3:17 pm

There’s another old fashioned BioChar method that the UN and “scientists” such as these should consider. I find it difficult to believe that they haven’t already. Simply diverting a few moderate sized meteors or comets would do the same thing much quicker. I’ll bet they’re have difficulty raising money to pay for it.

jorge c.
January 13, 2010 3:34 pm

please read Charles C. Mann’s “1491” (please i said “CHARLES”!!) pages 306/311. there are “terra preta do indio” and “terra mulata do indio”, the last one “lighter” than the other. the amazon basin, had a lot of people before “the conquest” say the archaeologist. please see too, this link:

John S.
January 13, 2010 3:37 pm

I’d like to know who wrote the press release.
“Mass production of biochar could capture and sock away carbon that otherwise would wind up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.”
Gee, and here all along I though water vapor was the main greenhouse gas.

January 13, 2010 3:38 pm

Charcoal is not charcoal.
I learned this studying blacksmithing. Traditional charcoal, as used for heating for millenia, is plant matter reduced to a rather pure carbon form. It provides more heat and a more intense heat than BBQ “charcoal” which is a formed product.
Traditional large-scale method: Assemble large wood pile. Then surround it with a shell of dirt, leaving some openings at the bottom for incoming air, with a single hole at top for venting. Start burning the wood. When the fire is judged to have burned long enough, the holes are covered. In the past, someone, often the most junior person there, would be sent up the mound to cover the top hole. Normally the top would hold and not collapse. I do not know how that is done “these days.”
The heat “cooks” the wood, driving off the volatiles, leaving behind the carbon. After cooling, the mound is taken apart and the carbon recovered. This form of carbon is what is known as traditional charcoal.
Blacksmiths like carbon, when they’re not using gas forges. Fire tending of a traditional coal fire is a complicated thing. At the center they burn the carbon form known as coke. They surround it with low-sulfur coal, which is gradually cooked by the heat, the volatiles driven off which converts it to coke, and the new coke is moved into the center of the fire. There are also forges which burn straight coke, requiring a design that can better take the intense heat, as well as traditional charcoal.
But they do not use BBQ briquettes. That charcoal is not charcoal.

D Caldwell
January 13, 2010 3:39 pm

I’ll bet they assumed energy inputs from sources that emit no CO2 – like wind, solar, hydro, etc. to come up with their carbon balance in the production of biochar.
First rule of reviewing a feasibility study – carefully check the assumptions.
If you accept certain assumptions, anything can be proven to work.
Yet another solution looking for a problem.

January 13, 2010 3:54 pm

If CAGW keeps going as predicted by the scientists we’ll all be bio-char soon.

January 13, 2010 3:55 pm

There’s something in the fine structuring of this particular charcoal, that has to be got just right IIRC. Nothing against coal, but it is as different… as diamonds which are also… carbon. Just as water has some extraordinary anomalous properties that seem to be connected with life on earth being possible, so does carbon. Think of gas masks. That’s another curious property of carbon, its ability to absorb real pollutant gases. Burnt toast in water was an old folk remedy for absorbing pollutants out of water. And so on. You have to be open to the possibility of interesting science right under our noses, hehe.

January 13, 2010 3:56 pm

Biomass has more energy stored in it than the energy it takes to break it down by fast pyrolysis. In fact, if you use the gas part to drive the process, it does not cost you much in power.
It takes about 1000 kJ/kg to break down wood to char, bio-oil and gas. The original heating value of the wood is about 18 MJ/kg. The portion for the bio-oil recuperated is at about 17 MJ/kg. The chars don’t have much energy content and even with the ~ 1 MJ/kg from the combustible gases created by the process, it is sufficient to drive the whole plant and even dry the material witht he waste heat created.
The extra energy used is in the processing to prepare the material (chipping, drying) for fast pyrolysis, but as you can see, there are still plenty of room, even for transport.

January 13, 2010 4:03 pm

“has potential in the modern world to help slow global climate change.”
In which direction? Is is magic, and stops both warming and cooling?

Kum Dollison
January 13, 2010 4:05 pm

It is a solution to the problem of how to get more fertile land that requires less inorganic fertilizer. It’s a Very Good Solution.

January 13, 2010 4:12 pm

This carbon sequestering scam is starting to get some more press:
Deloitte Forensic calls it “the white collar crime of the future.” Kroll, a business risk subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan, the global professional services firm, calls it “a fraudster’s dream come true.”

Al Gore's Brother
January 13, 2010 4:13 pm

“Mass production of biochar could capture and sock away carbon that otherwise would wind up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.”
Ummmm…. 0.04% makes C02 the “main greenhouse gas”? I am by no means an expert but I am pretty sure water vapor is the “main greenhouse gas”…

Richard Sharpe
January 13, 2010 4:23 pm

OT, but 40M hits coming up.
End of the month seems like a likely date.

January 13, 2010 4:25 pm

What if we actually grew trees for wood that we could then use to build things? And then plant trees to replace the ones we took out?

Or use them to make phone books and then bury the phone books when we are done with them and plant more trees to make more phone book. Save the planet! Stop global warming! Throw your phone book in the trashcan!

January 13, 2010 4:25 pm

It looks like the Pennsylvania legislature is taking a pro-active approach on the Penn States Climategate scandal. Sic em boys.
Penn State at Center of Global Warming Debate

Keith Minto
January 13, 2010 4:29 pm

I am with Lucy on this. I think that there is more to it than just carbon storage.
I was impressed when our former opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull suggested Biochar as a form of storage 12mths ago. I am not interested in its use as carbon storage but more as a form of permanent soil biota capture, especially in our poor Australian soils.
Some reading here .
There may be minerals, yes, but only released when all of the carbon is oxidised. My feeling is that the physical structure of carbon with its cavernous structure and large surface area provides a stable physical space for soil biota to harbour and flourish. This form of carbon does not break down, witness its use in carbon dating in Archaeology, good for 40k years.
The images in my mind of this Terra Preta de Indio is that the charcoal is in layers well beneath the soil surface, hence its stability.

January 13, 2010 4:30 pm

“Mass production of biochar could capture and sock away carbon that otherwise would wind up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide…”
Of course, they do not explain how that GIANT leap (…wind up in the atmosphere ) is accomplished. I personaly do not understand the logic of cutting down a perfectly good tree doing what it is supposed to do (take Carbon gas & trasform it into Carbon solid) and remove most of the excess to put the remaining Carbon in the ground. I do not believe for one second that there is no gasious Carbon liberated into the atmosphere in the charcoal making process.
“…wind up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.”
As someone else above said – no, the main greenhouse gass is water vapor!!!

January 13, 2010 4:36 pm

One of the authors of the ACS paper has written extensively on Terra Preta. Even though most Amazonian soils are relatively thin and poor in nutrients (kinda like Central Florida) the natives pre-Columbus were able to support an immense and advanced civilization see
The idea of tying up carbon is silly, but the Terra Preta soil also chelates phosphorus (“the next great crisis”) and dissolves bones without sulfuric acid.
Kinda high-tech for us Norte Americanos, but we’ll get there some day.

January 13, 2010 4:41 pm

I’m confused now. I could have sworn that Charcoal briquets are made from wood. The process of making charcoal involves “cooking/burning” wood in the absence of oxygen. So, the natives in the Americas figured this out too? Did someone tell them that they have been doing it in Africa for millenia and still fight over charcoal production?

January 13, 2010 4:45 pm

To put it bluntly, this is just a re-visitation of the CoC principle. Conservation of Carbon.
Ignoring elemental transmogrifications aka radioactive mutations and extra-terrestial Comet innoculations, we’re sort of stuck with the amount of available Carbon we’ve got to play with!
Yup while those greedy echinoderms gobble away at our precious hexa-proton stocks it’s actually up to us to preserve enough to keep us carbon-based organisms to keep ticking along.
This is my proposal. We need to introduce a Carbon Release and Profit bill. It has one major plus in that it will feed the Planet.
The downside is. I can’t think of an appropriate acronym!
Any suggestions?

January 13, 2010 4:58 pm

royfomr (16:45:22),
That reminds me of the Super High Intensity Training my boss used to give me.

Keith Minto
January 13, 2010 4:58 pm

More clarity on Trerra Preta do Indios here.
It seems to have been powdered before use in the soil which would have greatly increased its surface area.

January 13, 2010 5:00 pm

Talking about barbecues and their fossilised fuels doesn’t help the giddy state of the climax-fetes.
I guess it’s just me — a bad cold, and hardly the wee, wee drams of Glen Breton.
But why does the HARRY_READ_ME.txt file get funnier every time I go through it? This time it was the falsified WMO values.
Could this stuff be (re)published? Sans exact incriminating effluence, of course.
Probably, somebody’s beat me to it — hardened copy.

January 13, 2010 5:26 pm

“From Probe International:
Who is cashing in on carbon credits? Probe International unveils its interactive carbon credit database: To help keep track of dealings and hold accountable parties that are buying and selling these carbon credits, Probe International has created an interactive Carbon Credits Database. The database provides a comprehensive list and associated documentation of all the projects around the globe that have received carbon credits through the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). ”
Backgrounder: A Roundup up of Carbon Fraud Reports

E Philipp
January 13, 2010 5:31 pm

Terra Preta is totally different from charcoal briquettes and slash and burn approaches. Slash and burn doesn’t have a lasting effect. Terra Preta actually is incredibly more fertile and deep and has remained so for hundreds of years, so far. This stuff has been dug up and exported from South America. They only recently realized that it was actually man-made and shockingly, a good thing. There are vast swaths of it around formerly settled area where, otherwise the soil is the typical poor tropical soil. They really don’t know how it was made, especially on the large scale it is found but it is unanimously ubersoil. Google it and be informed.

Keith Minto
January 13, 2010 5:54 pm

That previous link did not seem to work. It is good essay, just bypass the ‘saving the planet’ part .

January 13, 2010 6:07 pm

The landmark book on terra preta is:
William I. Woods, Wenceslau G. Teixeira, Johannes Lehmann, Christoph Steiner, Antoinette M.G.A. WinklerPrins, Lilian Rebellato (eds.) 2009. Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek’s Vision. Springer; 1st edition (December 1, 2008). 504 pages.
Amazonian dark earths are carbon-rich soils developed by ancient civilizations in what was once thought to be a pristine wilderness. Dedicated to Dutch soil scientist Wim Sombroek (1934-2003) who was the first modern investigator of terra preta, Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek’s Vision is a compilation of the latest, cutting-edge studies in this fascinating and important multi-disciplinary field.
Biochar is not the solution to global warming. The globe is not warming, CO2 is not a significant driver of global temperatures, and biochar is not made from fossil fuels. Biochar is a part of the natural, organic, carbon cycle. There will never be enough man-made biochar produced to make a detectable difference in atmospheric CO2.
Terra preta has other charms, though. The most significant finding from terra preta research is the reconstruction of human history. Historical human influences over millennia have dramatically altered the distribution, frequency and configurations of biological communities and ecological settings in Amazonia and on every continent save Antarctica.
Rather than a pristine, untrammeled, unoccupied wilderness, Amazonia has been home to people for thousands of years. The residents were agriculturalists who modified soils in order to grow corn (maize), squash, beans, fruiting palms, gourds, pineapples, cotton, arrowroot, and many other cultivated fruits, nuts, tubers, and fibers.
There is no such thing as pristine wilderness. “Wilderness” is a modern conceit, a Euro-centric myth without foundation in the real world, grounded in ignorance and cultural bigotry. Wilderness designation leads to abandonment of stewardship and the subsequent destruction of history and heritage as well as natural resources.
The wilderness myth is rooted in conquest and genocide, reinforced by nineteenth-century romanticism. The only thing wilderness designation protects is cultural delusion.
A far better approach to our heritage landscapes would be realization and study of the ancient human-environment relationships and a renewed commitment to stewardship. Instead of abandonment of our landscapes to ignorance and holocaust, perhaps we could begin to intelligently care for our forests, savannas, and prairies once again. After all, human beings have been the caretakers of this planet for thousands of years. We need to understand and accept our heritage and concomitant responsibilities.

January 13, 2010 6:14 pm

Two of the three lead authors are at Cornell, which is all fine and dandy because so much great work is done there to improve agriculture around the world. Such a shame, however, that AGW and carbon panic has infiltrated useful disciplines such as soil sciences. Of course, research always in part about following the money.
Somewhat OT: But I am not surprised. Ithaca is a veritable haven for eco-wackadoos. Cars are sin (in theory, unless it’s a 1985 Volvo and it runs on vegetable oil), and Gaia forbid a tree or shrub be pruned, let alone cut down without an emergency meeting of the city’s Communist Council and dozens of letters in protest to the newspapers. And damn if they didn’t stop Wal-Mart, at least for a few years, by suing to prevent “viewshed pollution”.
I am 100% in favor of conservation of natural resources, for clean air, water and soil. These things benefit humankind right now, in the real world. Enriching soils with natural, non-toxic substances is a Good Thing, but must everything good for Mother Gaia be done in the name of preventing the scary-tale land of CAGW?

January 13, 2010 6:23 pm

“biochar” … {groan}
So I guess that means that Pennsylvania is in line for AGW mitigation funding for converting all that evil coal in Centralia into biochar.

January 13, 2010 6:42 pm

The charcoal particles are porous so they retain water and nutrients which would otherwise run off. The carbon and such increase the soil diversity which seems to help control pathogens. Watering less often and using less fertilizer and fewer pesticides could save a lot of energy and money if it works. I don’t think that over sequestering of CO2 would be a problem as there are lots of places where carbon gets locked away over time and we seem to get by. We could always start burning much more coal if things get too icy.
It needs more study but it sounds promising.

January 13, 2010 6:54 pm

It is interesting to note that some of the first Spanish explorers of the Amazon reported a huge, rich native population. Only a few years later other explorers brought this report into doubt, as few natives could be found.
Although the Spaniards carefully lifted their horses over the ship’s sides and into the water, where they swam to shore, they just tossed the pigs overboard to fend for themselves. The pigs followed the horses, and tended to follow the explorers as they dumped trash from campsite to campsite. The pigs dumped pig manure, diseases, and were killed and eaten by the natives. In all, European diseases are credited with something in excess of an 85% kill ratio.
The Amazon replanted itself, and global warming went away. Or at least, the Little Ice Age started soon thereafter.
IF (big if) Terra Preta was the agricultural soil of preference in the Mississippi Valley -instead of drenching the soil with ammonia and DAP, it is very likely that the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico would dissipate. Then, thank you Dr Lehmann, CO2 would be adsorbed by the active gulf waters and plankton, and you would be vindicated. Cargill (Mosaic) would be pissed.

John F. Hultquist
January 13, 2010 7:06 pm

I agree with Sharon and also with Lucy. This is very interesting material. To have it spattered all over by including the global climate change connection is a shame. I hate it when that happens.

Baa Humbug
January 13, 2010 7:09 pm

I want to pump as much CO2 into the air as possible. But if you must make me go on a CO2 diet, then let me sequester tons of the stuff BY LETTING ME USE PLASTIC BAGS. Now theres lots of carbon we used to sequester. Handy little buggers too plastic bags. PET bottles come a close second.
So according to this article, we are going to sink carbon by burning this carbon first. So if we sink as much as we dig up (as coal), we should be ok? Gluck with that.

January 13, 2010 7:16 pm

We know that the Amazons were not as primitive as they are now. They traded with the Inca, made pottery and clothing. The naked savages beloved of the greens are poverty stricken survivors of plague, slavery raids and civil war. The conquest of the Inca destroyed their major trading partners cutting them of from supply’s of cotton, medicinal herbs and markets for their pottery and plant products. The Spanish intentionally cut off the trade routes to force dependency on Europe and to stop surviving Inca nobles from recruiting in the low lands.
The Amazonians seem to have refined slash and burn to produce biochar based agriculture. You can’t farm smoke. However the practice seems to have been very difficult to do under stress from war, slaver raids and economic isolation.
Green house may be a bust making biochar much less significant. However anything that enhances soil will sell and any technology that makes tropical soils leach nutrients slower will be very significant. They need to lower the cost further and make their machines mobile.
I’ve studied human ecology and biofuels. We will see a rationalisation in that field because of the demise of AGW but these industries will not disappear. There’s also peak oil to consider.

January 13, 2010 7:16 pm

The Terra Preta civilizations are not welcome in current worldviews. They imply wholesale human manipulation of the Amazon basin and lead to the conclusion that the Amazon is just an overgrown garden abandoned not long ago.

Galen Haugh
January 13, 2010 7:33 pm

I understand volcanic scoria typically makes a good source of time-release fertilizer after it has been crushed to -1/4 inch and mixed into the soil. The natural minerals it contains dissolve slowly over time, releasing critical nutrients to nearby plant. Since scoria is highly porous, maybe this beneficial form of carbon, biochar, could be injected into the pore spaces of scoria upon formation, thereby using the scoria as a binder or delivery mechanism that would give a double benefit to the soil. The biochar might even help retain critical elements in the soil as the scoria breaks down through natural weathering and root action.

January 13, 2010 7:35 pm

Several folks have puzzled over what makes charcoal different from char and from coal. It’s really pretty simple: It is part of each.
Kingsford charcoal began as part of Ford Motors, IIRC, and they take some powdered coal and some wood (sawdust) and press it together then char the whole thing.
Yup, Ford. It was a way to use up the wood scraps from making Model T’s:
Lists “mineral char” and “mineral carbon” but further down translates that part of the ingredient list to antracite coal …
Sharon (18:14:43) : Cars are sin (in theory, unless it’s a 1985 Volvo and it runs on vegetable oil),
What about my 1980 Mercedes Diesel running on vegetable oil? Does this mean that when I over rev it while floored and leave a trail of soot I’m improving the health of our soils? (I often run on bioDiesel, so it then ought to be, technically, “bioChar”… then again, oil is supposed to come from living things, so is regular Diesel soot also bioChar? The possibilities here are endless. “Save the Soil, drive a Mac Truck”. “Don’t deplete your dirt, get a new Peterbuilt!” …
FWIW, in the Central Valley of California up where Anthony lives they grow a lot of rice. For decades THE best treatement for rice stubble, by far, was to burn it off in the field (kills several diseases and pathogens and accellerated the minerals back into the soil). Then they would plow in the char and ash prior to re-planting. Then that process was banned (open burning) and they went to towing large propane burners behind tractors (less smoke / smog but a lot less char too). Don’t know what they do now. At the same time / era they would prune the peach trees and burn the trimmings in the field, then plow in the resultant char / ash. That, too, was banned due to smoke.
Hmmphf. Hundreds or thousands of year old, apparently wise, farming practices forbidden due to non-farmers not liking it. Go figure… Oh well, we can import peaches from Mexico or South America I guess…
(No, I’m not a farmer. Yes, I grew up in farm country with farmers. Yes, I am an avid gardener. And I attended an “Ag College”. No, I didn’t like the smoke much – but it did give the place “character” along with a funny smell 😉
If you want to know how to farm, grow food, improve soils, and generally run a managed ecosystem: Ask a farmer.
If you want to know how to destroy productivity and soils, damage an ecosystem, reduce food availability and raise prices: Ask a politician for help with “an environmental issue”.
Sorry, but that is what I’ve observed in over 50 years of watching farm country. (One of the nuttiest ones I ever saw was the poisoning of a lake to kill of an introduced game fish because it threatened the bass population. Said bass being itself an introduced species in California… I forget if it was White Bass or Stripped Bass, but one of them…)
I’d be burning my yard waste and adding it to my garden, but the common practice of “leaf burning” from when I was a kid now gets you a large fine and /or trip to jail. Oh, and the fireplace can only be used on… on… well, on some limited days when somebody or other decides it’s ok, maybe. Oh, fond memories of the days when Mum introduced the California neighbors to the joys of a Guy Fawkes day bonfire in the back yard. Had darned near a 4 foot high pile of wood and stuff… bigger than that around by a lot. Such fun 😉

Aynsley Kellow
January 13, 2010 7:37 pm

The post by Mike D. is most enlightening. On an historical note, the discovery of terra preta occurred by William Denevan in the 1960s and was studied in detail by archaeologist Clark Erickson in the 1970s. Erickson found evidence of Amazonian agriculture (and civilization) in the 1970s, and the reaction to his findings is another example of ‘noble cause corruption’ in science that I give in my 2007 book, Science and Public Policy: The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science (which also covers the Hockey Stick controversy and the existence of a small clique of scientists in it). Erickson’s findings did not fit the accepted mythlogy of a ‘pristine Amazon’ and was dismissed as being politically inconvenient. Some irony here, if biochar turns out to be useful for managing climate change risks!
The relevant passage (referring to those who supported the old ‘climax community’ view of ecology) is:
What is even more surprising is the extent to which their myths of nature were put forward as science, especially the view that nature consisted of a long-term, harmonious balance. Take for example, this statement by Wilson in The Diversity of Life (1992: 205-6): ‘The historical circumstance of interest is that the [tropical rain] forests have persisted over broad parts of the continents since their origins as stronghold of the flowering plants 150 million years ago.’ The persistence of tropical rainforests is an assumption for which there was little enough strong evidence at the time, but it has since been found to be mythical in nature. Rather than having been tropical rainforest for 150 million years, for example, parts of the Amazonian rainforest appear to be perhaps 1,000 years old, and to have grown over a system of raised fields, irrigation canals, fish weirs, settlement mounds, roads and causeways and other anthropogenic features constructed between about 100 BC and 1100 AD, first described in the 1960s by geographer William Denevan and studied in detail by archaeologist Clark Erickson from the 1970s (Erickson, 1988).
The conventional wisdom was that the alternating scorching sun and annual inundation in the Amazon rendered the region incapable of sustaining large civilisations, and farming is certainly difficult even with modern agricultural technology. But the past civilisation has clearly been underestimated, and used a system of mounds and canals to provide irrigation in the dry season and drainage in the wet season. Yet despite the evidence provided by Erickson and his colleagues, there was resistance to the idea of a once-populous Amazon, with environmentalists pushing the ‘pristine myth’ and natural scientists ‘literally yelling’ at him when he gives talks at the Field Museum in Chicago. Worse still for the catastrophists, it appears that the rich black soil (‘terra preta’ to locals, or terra preta de índio— anthropogenic dark soils – to soil scientists) regenerates even when mined and might be the result of deliberate human inoculation with a bacterium (though this much is speculative). What is widely accepted, however, is that the soil is anthropogenic in origin.
As is often the case with science, this view was dismissed as ‘revisionist’ by a senior established scholar, Betty J. Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution. It was slightly worrying that Meggers, relied on outdated sources in defending the old view in relation to findings by Heckengerber et al (2003) supporting Erickson. In arguing that ‘Other observers deny the possibility of intensive agriculture in the region,’ (Meggers, 2003), Meggers cited publications from 1977 and 1983, predating the revolution which has followed Erickson’s work, which was not triggered until he completed his doctoral dissertation in 1988. But Meggers provides an insight into what motivates her adhering tenaciously to her view in a paper in Latin American Antiquity, where she states that not only is the revisionist assessment in conflict with the evidence (a valid argument, though not one now widely shared), but that it ‘provides support for the unconstrained deforestation of the region’ (Meggers, 2001).

Andrew Parker
January 13, 2010 8:08 pm

Many years ago, I read a book on swithen agriculture in the upper amazon basin and the eastern woodlands of the US. The main point of the book was that these ecosystems supported many more times the current populations before european agricultural and land tenure patterns were established. The vast majority of land cleared in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s in the eastern woodlands has now reverted back to forest. The thin forest soils were quickly depleted after clearing and burning, forcing families to move West for better opportunities.
Swithen agriculture used a strictly managed rotation system that maximized the resources of the forest ecosystem, giving the native populations a sustained abundance of agricultural goods, forest products and wild game. (It is theorised that the devastating epidemics that followed the first european explorers left remaining populations unable to maintain forest management, which may explain why Hernando De Soto’s descriptions of the american south differed substantially from what later explorers and settlers found.)
I have not read much of the terra preta literature but the description of the charcoal being found in thin layers would seem to support the idea that the native inhabitants used a rotating swithen agriculture that could still be found in some areas of the amazon basin thirty years ago. Nothing magic or mysterious.
Now, I wonder if terra preta soils can be found in the eastern US?

January 13, 2010 8:13 pm

kadaka (15:38:01) : your description of making charcoal in earth pits/mounds is exactly how the Amazonian made it and the pits have been found in the Terra preta areas.
What interested me in the documentary I saw on this soil was not the charcoal. They showed a man who was taking soil from a terra preta area to the depth of 2 feet leaving 6″ of the soil above the base of normal clay soil. The soil he removed would grow anything you planted into it as he sold it to local farmers.
But he would the wait for 10 years and return to the same plot where he could remove another 2 feet of terra preta soil. In other words this soil was so alive it grew down into the plain clay soil.
That is the significance of this soil and it didn’t have this property entirely through the addition of charcoal even though it must play some role. There must be some powerful bacterial processes going on and in my opinion this charcoal in agriculture is a distraction from the actual mystery of this soil!!
Some one must have the bacterial properties of this soil but they don’t appear to have any thoughts of sharing it with us even though it could regenerate all the top soils throughout the world!! Yes – I’m suggesting there’s a conspiracy going on!

January 13, 2010 8:18 pm

As you well know by now, we are likely entering a Dalton Minimum, if not even a Maunder Minimum repeat. There will many more citrus freezes in Florida, and I am sure even Brazilian oranges will suffer. I propose we go back to grove heaters, and even the old smudge pots.
It was not unusual in the 60s to pile up old tires to dose with fuel oil and burn during freezes. The huge thermoclines of black smoke kept the groves from cooling off at night.
Cancer wasn’t a problem, because there weren’t so many people around. Maybe if we did this again it would drive a few people back out of the state!

January 13, 2010 8:20 pm

As an Engineer who has worked in Nuclear, fossil power (coal/gas) and refinery work…I’ve seen this sort of stuff OVER AND OVER AND OVER again.
I wish we could track down these people and move them all, to say, SOUTH DAKOTA and let them live there for say, 100 years.
Plenty of sun. Plenty of WIND, plenty of BIOMASS.
I’m sure, when we investigated their remains after about, say, 5 years, we’d know just how “realistic” these proposals are. Wait, stop, the plains “Indians” DID exist on these means. Ah, yes, silly me…I forgot about the remains of their “great civilization” left in the Dakotas.
Slap me silly with a dried buffalo chip!

January 13, 2010 8:28 pm

See This small $4.95 book apparently discusses the rich microbiological mix responsible for dissolving the char and the bone matter (source of phosphorus.)
I don’t know anything about these bacteria, but it is interesting that the plant acids expressed by root hairs are the strongest acids known to man, and can actually dissolve silica and quartz.

January 13, 2010 8:35 pm

thanks for that Engiiner 😉

January 13, 2010 8:47 pm

Engiiner – Amazon wouldn’t sell it me because I’m in Australia but I found it here

Steve Schaper
January 13, 2010 9:04 pm

This coking process also has a great deal of promise as a means of dealing with the massive amounts of manure from hog and chicken confinement setups. Instead of breeding plagues of flies, and presumably avian flu someday, it would become a profitable commodity for the producers, and might help reduce the drainage of the Oglalla aquifer by holding more moisture in the soil.

January 13, 2010 9:27 pm

Andrew Parker (20:08:50) :
Many years ago, I read a book on swithen agriculture in the upper amazon basin and the eastern woodlands of the US. …

It is estimated that the terra preta soils used to cover 0.1% to 1% of the Amazon area. Although that is a lot of land, it is apparent that before 1492 a much larger fraction of what is now the U.S. was under … um … (fire cultivation?) see Wikipedia’s native use of fire

Alan F
January 13, 2010 9:49 pm

The farmers here in Saskatchewan have been tossing ash from the hearth, egg shells and coffee grounds for ever into their vegetable gardens and raspberry bushes to take things up a notch with regard to yield. How’s this any different?

Keith Minto
January 13, 2010 10:14 pm

Alan F (21:49:13) :
The farmers here in Saskatchewan have been tossing ash from the hearth, egg shells and coffee grounds for ever into their vegetable gardens and raspberry bushes to take things up a notch with regard to yield. How’s this any different?
Probably time to allow bacteria to ‘inhabit’ the physical niche that charcoal provides and the process seems to work better with acid soil. Once you have the earthworms you can be pretty sure of success. I am going to grind up my charcoal into the compost bin and see what happens.
A comment in that Amazon link by Engiiner sums up the article this is scientific evidence from 1000 samplings of 25% greater bacterial species richness and increased earthworm activity in terra preta anthrosols. The A horizon of pristine forest soil was only 1 centimeter compared to the terra preta 1 meter thick A horizon.

Julian Braggins
January 13, 2010 10:21 pm

The diesel exhaust remarks in jest are not far from the mark! Some farmers in Australia are ‘drilling in’ the tractor exhaust as they plant, and results are comparable with normal fertilizing, but without the cost.
After coming across terra preta when looking to improve my non existent topsoil, I started making charcoal (retort, drum in drum) to experiment with, and am pleased with the results.

Richard G.
January 13, 2010 11:19 pm

Who would of thought that those native americans would have been ” fighting global climate change” all those years ago. How is it that they were so smart?
My favorite way of “fighting global climate change” is to smear myself with bright red ochre and dance around in a circle until I collapse from exhaustion, all the while singing “I’m saving the world, I’m saving the world, Lord all mighty I’m saving the world”.

January 13, 2010 11:39 pm

Sequestering carbon on a mass scale in this way may have some unintended consequences that might actually lead to catastrophic climate changes. “…biochar is charcoal produced by heating wood,…” Like with the biofuels saga leading to deforestation and food shortages this might lead to mass deforestation and could well lead to local species extinctions and affect the water balance in certain areas.
I’m no scientist but IMHO this would be tantamount to deliberate geoengineering.
General info here:

January 13, 2010 11:43 pm

Anyway, the greens would never approve of mass deforestation for the sake of farmers as it would lead to an increase in population.
:o) :o) :o)

BC Bill
January 14, 2010 12:49 am

Charcoal has some very good characteristics for improving soil but then so does most (all?) organic matter. Fresh organic matter supplies more energy than charcoal to the soil to sustain the community of organisms that live in the soil and decomposes to recalcitrant compounds that persist in the soil for a long time- probably as long as biochar. So fresh organic material is better for the soil than charcoal- for several reasons. We are in fact returning even less organic matter to the soil now due to diversion of “waste” organic matter for biofuel production- so what organic matter is going to be used to make biochar? If sufficient conventional organic matter was currently being returned to the soil to maintain fertility, we wouldn’t be adding polyacrylamide to soil to improve structure and moisture holding capacity- so just where is the will to add biochar going to come from? Here in Canada we continue to burn massive amounts of waste wood in association with timber harvesting because it is too much of a bother to leave it in the forest. Anybody think we are likely to convert it to charcoal and sprinkle it back into the forest? While bio-char is kind of neat, it is a solution in search of problem. We already don’t do what we know needs to be done to maintain soil productivity, so only dreamers could believe that we would be prepared to do something additional on a scale large enough to mean anything. And if the organic matter for biochar production also has the potential to become fuel at the inistence of the AGW extremists forget about it ever making it into the soil. To paraphrase The Princess Bride “Biochar is a dweam within a dweam”. But like most AGW hysteria- it can pull in research dollars.

January 14, 2010 1:06 am

The natives in the Amazon region and beyond have been using for centuries a method like this of enriching the soil which they call “Terra Preta”. This is nothing new and has nothing to do with any aspect whatsoever of changing the climate.

January 14, 2010 1:14 am

Lucy Skywalker (15:55:48) :

There’s something in the fine structuring of this particular charcoal, that has to be got just right IIRC. Nothing against coal, but it is as different… as diamonds which are also… carbon. Just as water has some extraordinary anomalous properties that seem to be connected with life on earth being possible, so does carbon. Think of gas masks. That’s another curious property of carbon, its ability to absorb real pollutant gases. Burnt toast in water was an old folk remedy for absorbing pollutants out of water. And so on. You have to be open to the possibility of interesting science right under our noses, hehe.

You are thinking about activated charcoal, aka activated carbon. It is made from carbon-bearing material which is in a very fine state, perhaps pulverized or finely ground. After processing the carbon has a structure somewhat like pumice, like a solidified foam with many tiny voids and thin walls. Thus it has great surface area. Traditional charcoal made from wood will be similar, but likely not as useful for filtering.
Blacksmiths will use bituminous coal, a relatively soft type containing a tar-like substance called bitumen. After proper heating the structure, called coke, is similar to activated carbon and traditional charcoal. Actually all three things are practically the same, purified carbon with a high surface area and great burning characteristics.
Anthracite coal is the hardest form, with a very high carbon content between 92 and 98%. At the parents’ house we used to have an anthracite automatic coal stoker furnace. Anthracite is like glass. It burns very clean, when you can get it to burn. Seriously, you could use slabs of it to build a fire pit for wood. It takes a lot of heat to get it burning, then lots of air through a good-sized pile of it to keep combustion going. Carbon in the next highest form, graphite, is used for crucibles for molten steel. While you can get a large amount of heat from anthracite, with the low surface area it is generated at a rather slow rate. It is not used for blacksmithing.
If you wanted to see if the addition of carbon by itself makes for a fertile soil, you could use crushed anthracite. That can be compared to the crushed version of the charcoal-type forms, of which activated carbon is commercially available in grades designated as powdered and granular.

January 14, 2010 1:43 am

I don’t know about anyone else here, but I personally really do not like this “green packaging.” Taking the name “charcoal,” dropping the “coal” because that is a dirty horrible Mother Earth-killing thing, then sticking “bio” on the front to stimulate the release of the sunshine and rainbows as it is now suddenly a wonderfully nature-friendly product. As opposed to the repugnant substance it formerly was.
Maybe someone could sell the greenies some toxic waste, just name it “biotoxic.” With all the foods being pushed these days that contain “pro-biotic” things, you could get some sales just on confusion with the name.
Hey, it says “bio” so it must be good!

Rhys Jaggar
January 14, 2010 3:14 am

Ah, so the great age of science still has lessons to learn from the ancients?
How come?? We’re so much more SOPHISTICATED now, aren’t we??!!

E Philipp
January 14, 2010 4:48 am

I love the idea, although very much not pc, that before Columbus, the Americas were very developed and managed. This was absolutely not virgin land. It was improved and managed but not depleted. Terraforming on a very extensive scale including animal management. Humanity isn’t the problem, just clueless Europeans who were much more barbarians. Another inconvenient reality.

Beth Cooper
January 14, 2010 4:59 am

Thanks, Keith Minto for the link to terra preta paper.
I’m relating this data about biomass growth through added charcoal, to physics professor Freeman Dyson’s discussion of carbon sequestation. Although a global warming ‘heretic,’ Professor Dyson said that we if we wanted to stop the carbon in the atmosphere growing, we need only increase the biomass in the soil of half of our global landmass by one hundredth of an inch each year. F.D. argues that if increased co2 is a problem, it is a problem of land management and not a meteorological problem. At any rate, increasing soil fertiity without slash and burn would be a bonus for poor farmers and for us all.

January 14, 2010 5:46 am

Steve Schaper (21:04:55) :
The is an India (East Indies) group that has discovered that mixing manure with finely divided phosphate rock provided a crop response more persistent than DAP (Di-Ammonium Phosphate). Look them up.
Terra Preta possibly could not be developed in Canada. Especially now that the ice sheets will be coming back.
Help me, Please: I know we have been mining the organic from our best agricultural soil for hundreds of years. No good. But I don’t understand the rational between “no-till” and plowed planting. I assume access to the soil by sun and air consumes some organic, but i would also assume that plowing the green waste under also Improves the organic content.
[Although somewhat OT, this thread in WUWT has been one of the more exciting to me in a long time. I don’t expect Terra Preta to be used to prevent the terrible nutrient loss and pollution our current farming methods cause, but you might note that there are many jurisdictions that are banning fertilizer use over certain periods just because of the lack of stay-put nutrients. By the way, how much CO2 is released during the charing process? We don’t know, but Al Gore will likely want to tax it.]

January 14, 2010 6:38 am

An untintended benefit of bio-char: we will have a large supply of high quality black pigment with which to decorate the caves we’ll be all living in, come the Cap-and-Trade Apocalypse.

Tim Clark
January 14, 2010 6:47 am

Sorry, didn’t have time to read all the posts, so this might be redundant.
First, think of activated carbon filters and how they work. This is all biochar is. It has a high level of ionic exchange sites. In soils this is quantified as CEC, or cation exchange capacity and higher levels of CEC are significantly correlated with productivity. CEC is usually associated with the amount and quality of the silt or clay fraction. As the paper states, elevated CEC levels result in improved fertilizer use efficiency which enhances crop performance and thus reduces the amount of commercial chemical fertilizers applied. This also leads to reduced nitrates in the aquifers underlying cropped acres. In addition to the reduced need for chemical fertilizers, biochar reportedly reduces N2O soil emissions that result from N fertilizer application, leaving more available for the crops. Another benefit is increased availability of cationic trace mineral nutrients, which can be helpful in soils with a greater than 7 Ph, (and retention in low Ph soils).
I will not address the economics of biochar, and could care less about carbon sequestration.

January 14, 2010 7:07 am

Tim Clark (06:47:11) :
Is is difficult to keep up with the cross-threads even withing a single thread (:
At least as far as Terra Preta is concerned, you are incorrect to equate Biochar with the high surface area effects of activated carbon. The >magic< of Terra Preta is in the microbiology-biochemistry that can actually turn metallic carbon into fulvic acid.
see et al

Galen Haugh
January 14, 2010 7:35 am

Activated carbon has been used for decades in the extraction of gold; in most cases the carbon is made from coconut shells and the carbon particles are actually put into the slurry of ground gold ore along with cyanide, hence the term Carbon in Pulp (CIP). The cyanide leaches the gold from the ore but the activated carbon steals the gold from the cyanide as it has a higher affinity for it than does the cyanide. A good reference is here:
Note the micrographs of the activated carbon shown in the link, along with a number of excellent references below. Thankfully, this description is only one page and the layman should be able to understand it.

Andrew Parker
January 14, 2010 8:03 am

Terra Preta = Soil Alchemy

January 14, 2010 8:20 am

At our integrated farm project in the Philippines we are using a soil mixture made from charcoal powder, ashes, animal manure, compost and topsoil. Whatever we are planting is growing perfectly, the use of commercial fertilizers and pestizides is just minimal. We are harvesting already commercial quantities.
I have no idea why it is working so well. I guess the key role is not the charcoal but the ashes. If it is like this, maybe the charcoal at the Amzonians was just a by-product. With the then available tools the best way to cut big trees was to carve a ring around the stem to stop the water entering the upper parts of the tree. After a while the tree will dry out and die. Then the people burn a fire around the stem and remove little by little the outside charcoal until the tree collapses. This technique is still abundand here in the Philippines at remote mountain places.
For me it does not matter to know why it is working well. Important are the results. Many of our neighbours are successfully immitating our system. The ashes and charcoal are by-products from local bakeries and grain dryers which are heating their ovens with abundant rice husks and other farm wastes.
For mor informations have a look to my website or the new farm video:

Tim Clark
January 14, 2010 8:35 am

Engiiner (05:46:50) :
Help me, Please: I know we have been mining the organic from our best agricultural soil for hundreds of years. No good. But I don’t understand the rational between “no-till” and plowed planting. I assume access to the soil by sun and air consumes some organic, but i would also assume that plowing the green waste under also Improves the organic content.

First off, in most instances the organic matter plowed is not green, but dried stover.
Secondly, the plowed material is in a wetter environment with higher microbe numbers, leading to greatly elevated degradation rates relative to minimum or no-till.
Last, I’m not mentioning the reduced tilth, infiltration, and increased erosion from plowing.

January 14, 2010 9:01 am

Tim Clark (08:35:02) :
I;m not sure I understand the negative :”increased erosion,” what with contour plowing, and, as an extreme, terracing.
Can you elaborate as to the advantages of no till?

Tim Clark
January 14, 2010 9:04 am

Engiiner (07:07:03) :
The >magic< of Terra Preta is in the microbiology-biochemistry that can actually turn metallic carbon into fulvic acid.

Its structure is best characterized as a loose assembly of aromatic organic polymers with many carboxyl groups (COOH) that release hydrogen ions, resulting in species that have electric charges at various sites on the ion. It is especially reactive with metals, forming strong complexes with Fe3+, Al3+, and Cu2+ in particular and leading to their increased solubility in natural waters. Since they have many carboxyl (COOH) and hydroxyl (COH) groups, fulvic acids are much more chemically reactive than other humic substances. They also have a cation exchange capacity that is more than double that of humic acids. [Petitt]
Same effect. Don’t be pedantic. I was summarizing the processes for non-agronomists.

January 14, 2010 9:26 am

More tax payer money down the drain on another useless “green” study.

January 14, 2010 10:00 am

I have seen articles indicating that having farmers converting left over biomass to “biochar” not only works as a carbon sink, but could provide significant improvement (one study indicated 30%) in production and soil quality. I also heard that if somewhere that if something like 10% of farmlands adopted this it would effectively offset our CO2 emissions.
The response from the CAGW lobby to this issue has been interesting to watch. When CAGW proponents have seriously raised this as a potential option they have been thrown to the wolves for it. More than any other Geo-engineering option, this one seems to get under the skin of the Greenpeace/WWF-types – I can only guess it’s because it doesn’t require us moving society backwards and/or work towards population stabilization/reduction.
One other thing to note… the more refined processes for creating Biochar also creates a byproduct they call “Bio-oil” (I think that’s what they call it) that can be used for heating oil. If you’ve ever seen a wood gasification setup, the bio-oil is a condensed form of those gas byproducts.
In short, this seems to have significant benefits beyond just being a CO2 sink, so lets make sure we look at it in its entirety and not just focus on one aspect of it.
My $0.02 at least…

January 14, 2010 10:24 am

RE: Jimbo (23:43:55) :
Anyway, the greens would never approve of mass deforestation for the sake of farmers as it would lead to an increase in population.
:o) :o) :o)

According to the GCM’s, deforestation is responsible for a net cooling forcing due to forests having a lower albedo (~10) than farmland (~20)
I do think it’s interesting that the green response to this conversation is to always imply that adoption of Biochar practices would result in massive deforestation. It would only do so if Cap and Trade paid people for turning forests into charcoal – if adopted as a farming practice using leftover biomass (stover, etc) there is the potential that it could lead to increased crop production, and a secondary income for farmers from Bio-Oil production.
That said, it remains to be seen if this could be economically feasible without subsidies of some sort… but just thinking from a US standpoint, we have plenty of farm subsidies around and if we could re-point them to soil improvement instead of the generally insane assortment of directions we have them for today (ranging from paying people not to plant on their farmland to overproducing plants like corn and cotton to the point of artificially suppressing prices), we could probably do this without Cap and Trade.

January 14, 2010 1:06 pm

What about sequestering not carbon, but water on a mass scale? It’s a major greenhouse gas after all. I mean something like a two miles high heap over Sweden, Scotland, the North & Baltic seas, part of Germany and Poland, Canada, the nothern US down to NYC perhaps. It would also alleviate sea level rise, actually dropping it by some four hundred feet, enhancing polar ice as well. Wouldn’t it be nice?
What? Is it called an Ice Age? Oh.
Remember those fine grooves in Central Park.

Keith Minto
January 14, 2010 3:00 pm

I might be turned into Terra Preta for saying this, but, isn’t this mysterious black fertile soil stuff staring to sound like Biodynamics ?

January 14, 2010 3:02 pm

Amazing. People have already posted that briquettes are different from natural charcoal, yet people keep posting “I’m confused. I thought bruiquettes were charcoal?” No wonder the AGW things poorly of the Watts Up With That crowd…
No, briquettes are different.
This is why you can’t use briquettes to, say, filter water.
I’ve seen that some gardeners have had great success in grinding up natural charcoal as a supplement. I plan to do that for my compost mix.

January 14, 2010 5:17 pm

Smokey (16:58:38) :
royfomr (16:45:22),
That reminds me of the Super High Intensity Training my boss used to give me.
The really sad thing though, Smokey, is that neither of us can still think of a suitable acronym!

January 14, 2010 7:42 pm

Steve Schaper (21:04:55) :
“Terra Preta possibly could not be developed in Canada. Especially now that the ice sheets will be coming back.
Help me, Please: I know we have been mining the organic from our best agricultural soil for hundreds of years. No good. But I don’t understand the rational between “no-till” and plowed planting. I assume access to the soil by sun and air consumes some organic, but i would also assume that plowing the green waste under also Improves the organic content.
[Although somewhat OT, this thread in WUWT has been one of the more exciting to me in a long time. I don’t expect Terra Preta to be used to prevent the terrible nutrient loss and pollution our current farming methods cause, but you might note that there are many jurisdictions that are banning fertilizer use over certain periods just because of the lack of stay-put nutrients…”
I’m trained in soil management. I’ve done three courses. Permaculture, Crop and Pasture science and a uni degree in sustainable farming. For each ecosystem and cropping system you can name there is a farming system that sustains soil. Terra Preta will help a little in Canada but there are others that work better in your area. Don’t fall for the propaganda against plough agriculture. Its correct in some places and wrong in others.
On soils that are prone to water logging and acidification due to freeze thaw packing or alluvial deposition the plow is essential. These soils are generally valley bottom land or major flood plain farming: Nile valley, Euphrates, Rhine river, Mississippi and the plough works.
On the great plans limited till is better than bare fallow or burning off stubble.
The problem is that we transpose one system from where it worked best to other landscapes or soil systems. Things go wrong.
In drought stressed continental plains system: the great plains, central china, the Australian wheat belt, and equivalent systems three systems work best.
1.Limited till with cover crops. Living mulch. Bare fallow is the problem.
2.Legume and grain rotations. Wheat and lentils, corn and soy. Natural nitrogen.
3.Perennial polyculture cropping systems.
These must be combined with long rest grazing
AGW is not a viable reason for doing these things. You have no natural contact between buyer and seller of carbon. However farm fertility and farm value adding is viable as an alternative.
The greens know this, but to make it work you must buy farms restore them and resell them. The greens being generally left wing wont do capitalism even when they have the skills to do real capital gains. They hate profits. Yet profits are needed to to buy again and repeat the process.
Farmers who value add to their products, selling brand name stuff not bulk commodities, can afford to buy expertise to make the transition to more stable systems. Most farmers still operate as basic commodities producers and rarely gain enough in a good year to invest in the soil.
One global reason why we have a problem today that did not seem to be as bad in the past is that we have blocked many rivers systems with dams and weirs. Fish swimming up stream balanced phosphate, etc draining down stream. The dams now stop the fish. At the head waters and farms the fish would be eaten with most of that phosphate spreading on the fields as predator droppings. There are many places where fish ladders should be considered not a green issue but a farmers cause.

Aynsley Kellow
January 14, 2010 8:45 pm

Keith Minto (15:00:53)
Biodynamics means ‘life force’ and (regardless of whether its techniques have any a merit – which, I would argue, should be established scientifically, rather than on faith in the mysticism of founder Rudolph Steiner). Terra preta appears to have made possible what was presumed to be impossible: agriculture under on soils cleared of tropical rainforest, where high levels of rainfall were thought to make it impossible. The secret was not just adding organic matter but preventing nutrients simply being washed out. It does appear to involve micro-organisms, and the inoculation of soils with them. Just as pre-scientific as Steiner, but perhaps more functional since it seems to have supported a substantial civilisation. Biodynamics has never been more than a fringe activity for the believers, and come to prominence (like organics) as part of the romanticism swirling about western society in the 1920s and 30s – especially in Germany. What Geoffrey Herf referred to as ‘reactionary modernism. In addition to the ‘blood and soil’ movement in Germany there was a strong antivivisection movement and, charmingly, an organic garden at Dachau.

Keith Minto
January 14, 2010 9:58 pm

Aynsley Kellow (20:45:23) :
Interesting comment, Aynsley.
Soil science does seem to have had its fair share of German researchers. The 19th century produced Justus von Leibig and Carl Sprengel,in time the ‘humus’ theory of plant nutrition was replaced by more conventional models of nutrition. Steiner seems to have revived the humus theory in the 1920’s and it does seem to have a mystical quality to it, but then as I have heard, that one gram of soil contains more organisms than people on the planet, is it any wonder that soil biological activity is mysterious?
This discussion has relevance now, because how much CO2 intake is from the soil, and how much from the atmosphere?
I have a soil scientist friend I could ask, but as he is firmly in the AGW camp, our communication on this issue is limited.

January 14, 2010 10:26 pm

The theory behind biodynamics is not valid but there are practices integrated into the method that have benefits. Its a combination of poly-culture pasture management and non laboratory artificial selection of soil micro-organisms. Manure in cow horn buried for months then mixed in aerated water and distributed on the farm. That’s putting soil bugs though hell: acid then alkali extremes, starvation, then hyper-oxygenation in water. One micro-organism in a trillion will survive. But in poor soils that bug is a soil super bug and grows to dominate the farms soil. It selects for one though bacteria or fungous. There’s also a placebo effect on farmers that cant bring them selves to go cold turkey on fertilizers. They also use rock dust, night working of the soil and biological control all of which have benefits on many farms.
Like some eastern medicine and several pharmaceuticals the cure works even though the theory behind it is all wrong.
What we really need is a science of selecting and breeding soil micro-organisms and deploying them as a cheap product. Its being done for fungi see:

January 14, 2010 10:35 pm

A good site on soil carbon is amazing carbon.
Dr Christine Jones. Yes its AGW focused occasionally but she was I the game well before CO2 was an issue and will be long after I suspect. Sustainable soil is very important.The first green revolution was about mastering soil chemistry. The next will be about mastering soil ecology.

Keith Minto
January 14, 2010 11:05 pm

wesley bruce (22:35:26) :
A good site on soil carbon is amazing carbon.
Thanks,an interesting link. A quote….
The world’s soils hold over 3 times the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere and 4 times the quantity held in vegetation. Soil represents the greatest carbon sink that we can control.
Something else for the IPCC to chew on.

Geoff Sherrington
January 15, 2010 2:09 am

This is plain drivel:
“Amazonian Indians mixed a combination of charcoal and organic matter into the soil to improve soil fertility, a fact that got the scientists interested in studying biochar’s modern potential”.
Fact? Proven how?
If the addition of carbon to the soil improved its fertility, it could do so by being degraded into eventual CO2 (as happens the world over, or our soils would have been 100% char a long time ago); or by other mechanisms such as better ion exchange of nutrients, it can increase the yield of plants containing carbon, which plants again will eventually report as CO2 in the air, through decay or burning. Otherwise the forest floor would be as deep in dead leaves and twigs as the trees themselves are tall today.
Unless soil carbon is removed from dynamic processes like oxidation, it will mostly end up back in the air as CO2. The other path is burial in such a way that new coal is formed.
Oh, the wife reminds me that the other final path is diamonds.

Geoff Sherrington
January 15, 2010 2:16 am

wesley bruce (22:26:34) :
Maybe you should try talking to the fairies you see at full Moon. No scientist of good training would touch this topic with a barge pole.

Geoff Sherrington
January 15, 2010 2:19 am

NickB. (10:00:44) :
You say ” If you’ve ever seen a wood gasification setup, the bio-oil is a condensed form of those gas byproducts.”
You should, to be scientifically honest, add “Open combustion or oxidation of this oil produces as much airborne CO2 as most fossil fuels and it cannot possibly help reduce atmospheric CO2 because it does not sequester – permanently, if at all.”

January 15, 2010 3:26 am

@ Geoff
“You should, to be scientifically honest, add “Open combustion or oxidation of this oil produces as much airborne CO2 as most fossil fuels and it cannot possibly help reduce atmospheric CO2 because it does not sequester – permanently, if at all.”
You should, in order to be scientifically honest, add “while the CO2 was sequestered from the atmosphere from the plant before while fossil fuels are adding the CO2″…

January 15, 2010 3:33 am

You should, in order to be scientifically honest, add “while the CO2 was sequestered from the atmosphere from the plant before while fossil fuels are adding the CO2″
Always remembering that the trees which formed the coal measures laid down during a highly productive biological phase in our planets history (Along with other sequestering lifeforms such as shelled sea creatures) reduced co2 levels to the point where trees were almost starving for it. How many younger giant redwoods alive today are as large as they grew 1000 years ago during the MWP? Or when the coal measures were laid down?

January 15, 2010 6:18 am

Henery Chance wrote:
“How can carbon be deleted to make a carbon negative?”
It’s pretty simple, really. You carbonize the biomass in an electric kiln. You generate the electricity without fossil fuels. Viola’ less CO2 in the atmosphere! OK, so that second part needs a little work, but that’s the idea. Plants are extremely efficient at sequestering CO2. The only problem is when they die and decay, all that sequestered CO2 goes back into the environment.
Carbonizing biomass is a really good way to remove CO2 in principle. In addition, the by-products are water and hydrogen. Does anybody know what we can do with hydrogen?
BTW, one of the reasons this idea isn’t getting more attention is it wouldn’t require draconian cuts in CO2 emissions. It does not give central governments an excuse to take over the energy industry or allow the trading of carbon credits, nor would it justify the one-world government the UN envisions. In short, carbonization doesn’t give governments the excuse to grab power- so they are not funding the research.

Tim Clark
January 15, 2010 8:11 am

regeya (15:02:29) :
Amazing. People have already posted that briquettes are different from natural charcoal, yet people keep posting “I’m confused. I thought bruiquettes were charcoal?” No wonder the AGW things poorly of the Watts Up With That crowd…

What a egocentric pompous statement. WUWT is here to inform and discuss.
To wit: Commentary on puzzling things in life, nature, science, weather, climate change, technology, and recent news by Anthony Watts.

January 15, 2010 8:51 am

“In short, carbonization doesn’t give governments the excuse to grab power- so they are not funding the research.”
The problem with the “official” research is that no 3rd World farmer will ever hear about the results. These scientist are travelling around the world from one congress to the next conferrence, talking with each other and have a nice time on taxpayers expenses.
Whenever they are publishing results of their experiments it’s either in a language no farmer can understand or it is very costly to download the scripts. In most cases both. Another problem is that many results are kept secret because the respective university or scientist wants to make big money out of it.

January 15, 2010 9:25 am

I’m basically a (Chemical) Process Engineer. I specialize in operating problems in ‘black-art’ processes where knowledge of actual process effects is limited. In the case of wet-process phosphoric acid, because the process response is a complex output of the interactions of raw material variations, process chemistry, operator technique, plant maintenance (and design factors) it is often impossible (or uneconomical) to create a working artificial intelligence to answer all exigencies.
Hence I often sit down in meetings that include (crucial) operators that did not graduate from high school at the same table as PhDs from MIT or Yunnan University. Yeash! I graduated from Lehigh University, and, as a Professional Engineer, my bent is to get the job done. Period. I focus on the important people, the operators and their supervisors, and don’t worry about educating the educated.
Hence you can see that I take many of the marvelous WUWT comments with a grain of salt, discarding the chaff from the wheat, so to speak, and try to learn from all. I have learned a lot from you guys and gals, and I thank you profusely. I don’t expect everyone posting here to be clear, polite, or on point. It just is more fun and takes less energy when you are. And your “intelligence” is a lot less important that your ability to understand, appreciate, and share.

January 15, 2010 5:54 pm

A couple of weeks ago on this blog I suggested the author look into terra preta.
Back in the days when I still believed in AGW, I was looking for ways to get rid of CO2 and came upon terra preta. My goal was to put a ton of charcoal in my yard (about .4 acre).
I never made it to a ton. Probably more like 100 pounds. But believe me the stuff makes the most fantastic soil. I have also made my own charcoal, probably 10 pounds worth. Making your own is kinda fun.
I have it in potted plants and in my vegetable garden and around my trees.
You don’t use briquettes, you use what is called lump charcoal. The briquettes are loaded with petroleum additives, which is something you definitely don’t want in the soil.
You make charcoal by starving the wood of oxygen, essentially letting the wood smolder but never ignite. When you make your own charcoal, the first smoke to come off is gray when the water vapor is coming off. Then the smoke turns yellow as the wood gas is burned and finally the smoke turns blue when the wood oils are burned. When it quits smoking, you have charcoal. There is actually lots of energy in the wood gas and oil which can be captured and used as any other gas or oil.
Charcoal, of course turns the soil black, but it also breaks up clay (the Amazonian soils are primarily a yellow clay). Mix a bit of charcoal, clay and sand and you have a great soil that requires very little soil amendment. The charcoal traps both water and minerals from the rain. Some people claim that water usage declines by 15-17 %. After a couple of years, the soil grows microorganisms in abundance. It takes two to three years for the microorganisms to reach full growth and it is these microbes that make the soil so fertile.
This summer my okra was eight feet tall and my tomatoes about five feet. No fertilizers. Just grown in about a foot of terra preta. My oaks have just done stellar, as have my roses and chrysanthemums.
You just really have to see for yourself.
Buy some lump charcoal and try it out. Its about $5 a bag and in most every grocery store now.

Steve Schaper
January 15, 2010 9:31 pm

What does it do for sandy soil?
I’m from black soil country, but the story is that it was caused by the glaciers, though the tallgrass prairie is a more likely suspect, I think.

Steve Schaper
January 15, 2010 9:49 pm

Wesley Bruce, I didn’t write what you quote as if from me.
You are a soils scientist and you don’t understand the rational behind the shift from moldboard plowing to minimum and no till? It is about preventing erosion. The government also has a powerful influence on farmers concerning what they may and may not do. As with soviet agriculture, the government thinks it knows best and makes you obey them. Even when you suspect differently.
The settlers ‘in these here parts’ said that the first crop on newly plowed sod was amazing, and went down after that. I suspect the reason is soil biota, and that was even before the modern heavy reliance on chemical application. People I know have commented that the earthworms don’t seem nearly as abundant, and that that can’t be good, even though everyone chisel plows these days (where they don’t use slit trenches, etc) instead of using moldboard (composting?) plowing. I do wonder about compaction on our heavy clarion-glencoe soils. But I haven’t heard any complaining about that, so maybe that isn’t happening. Our subsoil is mostly yellow clay with inclusions of blue clay (kaolinite?), but our topsoil has such a high carbon content that even when it isn’t peat soil, it will smoke under a magnifying glass on a sunny day.

January 15, 2010 11:09 pm

@ David
You can even improve your terra preta soil by adding large amouts of wood ashes (about 10 times the quantity as charcoal powder), animal dung and fertile topsoil (both also 10 times of the charcoal quantity).
This is what we are doing at our vegetable farm in the Philippines. We are also planting in pots to avoid stagnant water. The ashes are increasing the P and K amounts in the soil, the manure the N contents. Also all other minerals etc. are there in good amounts.
At growing stage we are adding 3 grams of urea or other N fertilizer per plant and week. We are also intercropping tomatoes with okra, no more spraying needed and both plants are generating hughe yields. Okra leaves can be permanently partially harvested and used as animal fodder after cooking or drying.
If you like have a look to our new farm video:

Regards from the tropical office, Jochen

January 16, 2010 3:31 am

Sorry Steve still getting the hang of posting here.
Steve Schaper (21:49:40) said:
“Wesley Bruce, I didn’t write what you quote as if from me.”
I quoted you in full because what you said was good. However your right the format does make it look like a post from you doesn’t it. I’m not disagreeing but pointing out that just like every other system there is a diversity of solutions. No solution will work everywhere but each has its place. If the government tried to do soil carbon building as a greenhouse policy it would be a disaster since government always tries to impose the one solution in all environments.
One of the greatest proofs that the IPCC was not seeking a viable way to sequester carbon was the low priority it placed on soil carbon and its complete rejection of open ocean iron fertilization. Both are no-regrets options, I.E. Even if AGW was proved wrong [now I believe it is] there are other benefits that result and it can be done both in the free-market and at a profit.

January 16, 2010 4:03 am

“I do wonder about compaction on our heavy clarion-glencoe soils.” Steve Schaper.
Good point steve look into control track farming. Its a technology to keep a tractor running on a specific track every time so only that soil is compacted and the soil between the wheels remains uncompacted, never driven on. It solves the problem of compaction. I searched for a site on it but its a bit obscure. Its not new technology It came out as soon as high accuracy GPS became available.
Your right about the moldboard plow on the prairies. And you analysis of the local soil history looks very good. Where soils are restored annually by flooding the tool can still be useful.
Unfortunately some in the green movement attack the plow, in all its forms, mercilessly and I tend to take the defensive.
Swales, contour plowing, grass hedges near the edge of the fields (sown but not harvested as in the bible) and in steep terrain terrace farming are all controls on erosion and fertilizer run off.

Geoff Sherrington
January 16, 2010 3:42 pm

You guys are blind to the simple observation that unless you bury carbon like coal or diamonds, most of it oxidizes and most of it ends up back in the air from whence it came as CO2.
You are not talking about a sequestration of carbon, you are takling of a merry-go-round with no permanent effect. Sheesh – talk about reason being being driven out by belief (or misbelief).
This is a science blog.

January 16, 2010 4:24 pm

Terra preta was not developed to solve a (non existant) CO2 crisis.
I doubt very many on this blog give a rat’s pitui for limiting CO2.
I think the foolishness of burning a precious raw material like hydrocarbons will soon dawn on us, and CO2 emissions will be limited economically without Maurice Strong’s help.

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