Are You Ready for the Unintended Consequences of GeoEngineering?
GeoEngineering is a set of approaches that involve intentional, large scale modifications of the earth’s environment to avert crises driven by global warming. While we at SymSoil celebrate every person focused on changing the trajectory of greenhouse gasses that humanity has created, those words, “Large Scale Modification of the Climate” terrify us. So often has humanity’s arrogant confidence in machines, chemistry and technology led to damage and unforeseen challenges, that we are now in a new age; The Anthropocene.
If you are not familiar with the two primary strategies of GeoEngineering (Solar Radiation Management and Greenhouse Gas Removal), I recommend you read What is GeoEngineering? from CB Insights. Their article offers an excellent overview of the emerging technologies (from the perspective of startups and investment opportunities). This article is a response.
The article What is GeoEngineering?, while acknowledging biochar as a low risk form of GeoEngineering, is a tad dismissive of biochar. Properly conditioned, biochar creates soil fertilizer, stores carbon, and the manufacturing produces energy. SymSoil and the Local Carbon Network have published numerous articles about biochar and soil biology.
Biochar is woody material which has been turned into a charcoal-like substance through heating without sufficient oxygen to burn, a process known as pyrolysis. It has been described as soil’s Swiss Army Knife: biochar can hold water in the soil (reducing irrigation needs), stimulate nutrient cycling (reducing fertilizer needs), condition soil (changing the tilth and reducing clay), speed up composting and, with the right soil biology, can sequester more than 10 tons of Carbon per acre per year. (Lots of information is available through the Internet with #Biochar, through the US Biochar Initiative, and on Medium.com, tag Local Carbon Network).
As we think about GeoEngineering, and intended and unintended consequences, we can take comfort that biochar has been at work in the Amazon Region for centuries. Unlike new technologies whose long term effects are awaiting discovery, Terra Preta de Indio (“dark earth of the Indians” in Portuguese) is many hundreds of years old.
They have been actively studied by researchers since Wim Sombroek published Amazon Soils in 1966. This inert form of carbon has a half- life of over 1,000 years, so materials created by indigenous peoples hundreds of years ago continue to impact the land. These soils have remained remarkably fertile despite tropical rainfall, which accelerates the weathering of soil and the leaching of water soluble nutrients.
Johannes Lehman of Cornell University has shown that biochar made from the local carbonshed (“sustainably obtained biomass”) could offset 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Local Carbon Network estimates that if 1% of American households used biochar to make compost, they could sequester 3 million tons of C02, per year, or, as much as removing nearly 400 million cars
Of course, there are many biochar manufacturers, and their products very in quality greatly. SymSoil has very strong opinions about suppliers, as some of the “biochar” products on the market contain toxic chemicals. (The CB Insights article highlights some of these risks.) But a few bad apples should not dissuade you from learning more about this material that exists near the mid-point between activated charcoal and industrial graphite.
As a active buyer of biochar, SymSoil distinguishes between low value biochar, commodity biochar and high value biochar made at high temperatures. For agricultural purposes, SymSoil will only use the higher quality products: premium, high temperature, SkyCarbon biochar, or the high end of the commodity biochars, such as manufactured by Rogue Biochar.
The Irvine Company was SymSoil’s first customer for a biochar product. Arborists at the Irvine Company were exploring solutions to improve the health of trees in an urban desert environment: Parking lots in Orange County, California. The focus was soil and plant health in a challenging environment with heat and alkaline reclaimed water. Carbon sequestration was the unintended consequence.
Conditioning and Co-Composting with Biochar
Biochar surprises people — as wonderful as conditioned biochar is for the soil, biochar will starve plants by binding nutrients if it is not conditioned before being used. On a farm it might take a year or more for biochar to naturally condition or become “activated” and a resource to plants and soil biology. SymSoil has several products, available for farmer, arborists and home gardeners that are infused with fungal foods and spores, and ready for immediate use.
The single best way to condition biochar is to add it to the composting process, known as co-composting. The Local Carbon Network offers households an easy way to create great compost from kitchen scraps, using biochar and biology.
LCN or Local Carbon Network is a social impact enterprise and a collaboration between All Power Labs and SymSoil. It has existed in Berkeley California since 2018, and is now expanding geographically.
Co-Composting, or composting with biochar, speeds up the process in of decomposing the material, while coating the biochar with the same bacterial “glue” which improves the texture of dirt, as it turns into living soil. The composting process recommended by the Local Carbon Network, using biochar, biological inoculants and an insulated composter to maintain temperature, can create great compost in one month. One year’s worth of compost made from food scraps from a typical household sequester as much as 1.3 acres of forest land per household. (Learn more by using the Local Carbon Network tag or clicking here.)
Compost and Carbon Sequestration
It is well documented that compost, of any type, will sequester some carbon. The numbers vary depending upon the quality of the compost. The Rodale Institute, for example, found biologically active compost can sequester 2.5 tons of carbon per acre/year. David Johnson, of CSU Chico’s School of Regenerative Agriculture, focusing on conditioned biochar, infused with fungi, proved sequestration at over 10 tons of CO2 per acre/year.
We find the easiest way to visualize the GeoEngineering impact of biochar is with colors:
Black — Biochar is inert carbon, so putting it into the ground traps carbon that would otherwise decompose back into CO2.
Green — Plants remove CO2 from the air through photosynthesis. A significant portion (40% to 70%) of the sugars and complex carbohydrates created by the plant are extruded by the roots. From the carbon sequestration perspective, roots are carbon sinks which remain in the soil, and continue to grow with the plant. Biochar improves the nutrient cycling enhancing plant growth.
Brown — the extrudates feed the soil microfauna in living soil. It is estimated that one acre of healthy soil has about 10,000 pounds of biology in it. (The equivalent of two full grown elephants standing above the land.) As will all life, these participants in the soil microbe biome are primarily the element carbon. Under a microscope, biochar looks a bit like a coral reef and provides homes for microbes that vary in size by two orders of magnitude.
White — One component of the soil biology that sequesters the largest amount of carbon is fungi. The hyphae can extend great distances, and some contribute to the reduction in the plant’s irrigation needs. Biochar increases the ease of fungal and microbial growth, through electron transfer properties.
Before we, as a society, embark on a large scale modification of the global climate, based on an emerging technology, let’s maximize what we know and understand. We know that biochar is inert, degrades over centuries and dramatically increases carbon sequestration, while improving the quality and quantity of produce and reducing irrigation needs for farmers.
Large industrial farms, individual households and community gardens can all participate in the benefits of biochar. Again, the key is proper preparation, which means conditioning the surface of every biochar article, providing the right biology (both fungal spores, fungal food and sufficient amounts of the rest of the soil microbe biome.)
If the staggering large amounts of CO2 that are able to be sequestered by “simple” charred wood, intrigue you, we encourage you to learn more by following these links or to join a Local Carbon Network.
Local Carbon Network (LCN) is committed to local sourcing of woody material and improving the quantity and quality of food from community gardens. Individual households are encouraged to convert food and waste paper into high quality compost for gardens and houseplants. The Local Carbon Network is a social impact enterprise and a collaboration between All Power Labs and SymSoil.
All Power Labs is the global leader in small-scale gasification and manufactures biomass gasifier generators (Power Pallet and Powertainer) that serve real-world distributed-energy needs. These generators also manufacture high temperature, high quality biochar.
SymSoil Inc. is a soil health company with products and services for regenerative agriculture, based on the complete soil microbe biome. Among these products are SymSoil FIB and SymSoil V50, a conditioned biochar, infused with fungal foods and fungal spores, to maximize reduced irrigation needs, soil conditioning and carbon sequestration.