We can bury our problems and do the planet a favour
Biochar is being hailed as a global warming solution that may also help jobs and farming.
WHAT unites Malcolm Turnbull, Tim Flannery and James Lovelock? Enthusiasm for biochar, one of the most intriguing solutions to global warming and a possible boon for investors.
Biochar, the charcoal-like residue when biomass (such as agricultural or council waste) undergoes pyrolysis (combustion at 400-550 degrees, without oxygen), has the potential to pull large amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
There is no commercial biochar production in Australia yet, but there is palpable excitement. About 200 people attended a biochar conference on the Gold Coast last week. Others were turned away.
According to Philip Sutton and David Spratt's Climate Code Red, when Joe Herbertson of sustainability consultancy Crucible Carbon first read about biochar technology "the hairs went up on the back of my neck. This is the best news on climate change I've ever heard."
Crucible Carbon is the unlisted, private company Malcolm Turnbull championed this year when launching his Green Carbon Initiative, saying biochar was a "win-win" for jobs, the environment and agriculture given its potential to absorb 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, or a fifth of the country's total.
Crucible Carbon is chaired and co-owned by Herbertson, a former head of BHP Billiton's corporate research labs. Crucible is developing its own pyrolysis unit and is focusing on the potential to create renewable, baseload energy for regional towns as well as saleable renewable-energy certificates from the biogas, a byproduct of the process.
The company has received more than $300,000 in grants since it was founded in 2007 and is exploring opportunities to raise up to $12 million in early stage capital. A combination of debt and equity is most likely from individuals and trade partners.
If successful, the money raised will fund development of a commercial-scale pyrolysis unit to generate about three megawatts of electricity from 24,000 dry tonnes of biomass as well as 8000 tonnes of biochar — and a three-year payback for investors.
Crucible is also technology partner in the Rainbow Bee Eater project in Western Australia's wheat belt, backed by a prominent farmer, Ian Stanley, and the WA Agriculture Department. The project aims to convert agricultural residues and woody crops into biochar and renewable energy.
About $1.5 million has been invested in the project over the past 18 months, by, among others, listed miner Alumina, which is interested in offsetting its own emissions using biochar. Alumina believes 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year could be stored using biochar by 2020. In January, its chief executive, John Bevan, said he was "not aware of any other potential large-scale mitigation option that could commence capturing and storing carbon in this way within several years".
Stanley says field trials applying biochar to wheat crops are already showing agricultural benefits. It is just one example. Lukas van Zwieten, of the NSW Department of Primary Industries and Energy, helped organise last week's biochar conference and presented a paper showing the greatest potential market for biochar was as a soil amendment valued between $100 and $1000 a tonne.
That's a big range, which just shows it is early days. The char can be used to improve the efficiency of fertilisers and can also be a physical amendment to the soil. Its value depends heavily on the type of application — the type of biomass used as feedstock, the soil it is applied to, the crop being grown and so on.
The department extrapolated from a one-tenth scale trial to conclude that a pyrolysis unit processing four dry tonnes an hour of waste from a chicken facility (mainly manure and sawdust) could yield 2.3 megawatts an hour of electricity, saleable to the grid for $750,000 a year (assuming a price of $40 a megawatt hour). Renewable energy certificates could be sold for another $1 million (at $55 a megawatt hour).
The unit would also produce 12,000 tonnes of biochar a year worth up to $6.4 million, based on the extra sweet corn and fava beans yielded after the application of biochar in the department's trial. The productivity increase was substantial, almost double in some cases.
The trial used a pyrolysis unit made by BEST Energies. BEST is also raising money to build an $8 million-$10 million commercial-scale plant with backers including Transfield Services. The plant will turn green waste from Sydney councils into electricity and biochar.
BEST director Adriana Downie said the most exciting potential for biochar was to be "carbon negative", but the emissions trading schemes proposed in Australia were skewing the application of the technology towards renewable energy generation, because there was no recognition of the carbon sequestered using biochar.
In Canberra last week, Downie pushed for recognition of carbon offsets using biochar under the draft Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, and in the position Australia's climate negotiators will take to next week's pre-Copenhagen meeting in Bonn.
The International Biochar Initiative is lobbying for the same thing globally. In an open letter to the initiative last year, Tim Flannery, the environmental campaigner and former Australian of the Year, said biochar "may represent the single most important initiative for humanity's environmental future".
In a recent New Scientist interview, British scientist and conservationist James Lovelock, after summarily dismissing the efficacy of carbon trading initiatives, renewable energy and carbon sequestration, was effusive: "There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal.
"The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so.
"What we can do is (get) farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little carbon dioxide is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won't do it."
But maybe they will.