SIDEBAR: The Companies and Organizations Poised to Turn Garbage into Fuel, Fertilizer and a Means of Carbon Sequestration
When Desmond Radlein heard about Richard Branson and Al Gore's Virgin Earth Challenge, a contest in which the first person who can sequester one billion tons of carbon dioxide a year wins $25 million, he got out his pencil and began figuring whether or not his company was up to the task.
Radlein is on the board of directors at Dynamotive Energy Systems, an energy solutions provider based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that is one of several companies pioneering the use of pyrolysis, a process in which biomass is burned at a high temperature in the absence of oxygen. The process yields both a charcoal by-product that can be used as a fertilizer, and bio-oil, which is a mix of oxygenated hydrocarbons that can be used to generate heat or electricity.
Because the charcoal by-product, or "agrichar," does not readily break down, it could sequester for thousands of years nearly all the carbon it contains, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Along the way, it would boost agricultural productivity through its ability to retain nutrients and moisture.
"I developed this rough back-of-the-envelope calculation of what it would require if one were to [attempt the Virgin Earth Challenge] with the agrichar concept," Radlein explains. "One would need about 7,000 plants each processing 500 tons of biomass per day, which is a large number, but it's not outside the bounds of possibility." Such facilities would produce four parts bio-oil to one part carbon sequestered, so it would rake in money as well as carbon.
An International Movement
Radlein is not alone in his belief in this technology—last week in Terrigal, New South Wales, Australia, the newly formed International Agrichar Initiative held its first ever conference, which included 135 attendees from every corner of the globe. According to Debbie Reed, an environmental policy expert who organized the conference, keynote speaker Mike Mason of the carbon offset company Climate Care urged attendees to unify in an effort to apply for the Virgin Earth Challenge. He also encouraged them to submit their method to the United Nations's Clean Development Mechanism program, which is designed to transfer clean technology from the developed to the developing world.
Although no officials from the U.S. government attended the conference, there is a nascent stateside movement pushing for adoption of agrichar. "[Democratic Senator] Ken Salazar of Colorado is drafting a stand-alone bill on this, and he may also promote it as part of the Farm Bill," notes Reed. The Farm Bill, whose terms are decided every year, determines what agricultural initiatives can be funded by the U.S. government. Inclusion in the Farm Bill would virtually guarantee subsidies for research and application of the agrichar process.
A Technology with a (Potentially) Huge Upside
In 2100, if pyrolysis met the entire projected demand for renewable fuels, the process would sequester enough carbon (9.5 billion tons a year) to offset current fossil fuel emissions, which stand at 5.4 billion tons a year, and then some. "Even if only a third of the bioenergy in 2100 uses pyrolysis, we still would make a huge splash with this technology," remarks Johannes Lehmann, a soil biogeochemist at Cornell University and one of the organizers of the agrichar conference.
There are other perks: Increasing production of bio-oil could decrease a country's dependence on foreign oil. In the tropics, boosting soil productivity increases the number of growing seasons per year, which could help alleviate the pressure to deforest biodiversity hot spots. The new markets for agricultural crops, which would in effect become sources of fuel, could boost rural economies worldwide, just as the demand for ethanol has bolstered the price of corn.