One of the RSS feeds I follow comes from the website SustainableBusiness.com, their news feed being the best layman’s source I’ve found for following developments in environmental technology and green business. In a time when news from the climate science community seems to get progressively gloomier, it’s reassuring to get news that some of our best minds are thinking about viable solutions. And occasionally, we get word of a potential breakthrough like the potential of “biochar” as both fuel source and carbon sink—this news courtesy of the good folks at my beloved University of Georgia. Money quote in the article, from UGA’s Christoph Steiner: “The potential of biochar lies in its ability to sequester—capture and store—huge amounts of carbon while also displacing fossil fuel energy, effectively doubling its carbon impact.”
Now I’m nowhere near qualified to scrutinize his research or portend the implications, but the premise is simple enough.
The appeal of bioenergy is that it is theoretically carbon neutral—burning biofuel simply returns to the atmosphere much of the same carbon dioxide that growth of the plant stock had pulled out (as opposed to liberating carbon from fossil fuels pulled from deep within the earth). The problems have been (as I understand them) that 1) some types of biofuel (read ethanol) actually generate a sizeable carbon footprint because processing is energy intensive, 2) competition for plant stock (corn) between food and energy production has resulted in serious global food shortages, and 3) repeated production and removal of biomass from agricultural land causes soil depletion (you just can’t escape the basic ecology of nutrient cycles) that itself requires energy and carbon intensive measures to rectify (I didn’t realize until recently that much industrial fertilizer essentially comes from processed natural gas).
Evidently the biochar process 1) not only produces renewable, non-fossil fuel bioenergy but can potentially sequester billions of tons of carbon for hundreds if not thousands of years, 2) does not compete with food production, and 3) actually recycles nutrients back to the soil. Perfect. I don’t know that this or any other scientific breakthrough will be the single silver bullet to get us out of the mess we’re in, but I sleep better knowing that we have an ever-growing field of partial solutions at hand. We just need to muster the political will to reach for them (maybe a good cap-and-trade regulatory system might lead Georgia Power to tear down the dirty coal plant across the river from my neighborhood and replace it with a sustainable power plant that runs off of peanut shells or chicken poop).
We’ll see. At least come January 20 we won’t have myopic paranoids like this guy essentially setting our nation’s energy (non)policy any more.