Thursday, January 03, 2008

Can charcoal save the world? I'm a bit skeptical

Someone I know keeps talking about the virtues of charcoal for sequestering carbon and reducing global warming.

Sequester is kind of an old word that's coming back into use in global warming discussion. Here, I think it means holding the carbon someplace, like in the ground. Holding it rather than releasing it in the form of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere, for instance.

Sounds good, but I'm still a bit skeptical, or at least I have some questions that need answering.

When I hear people talk about charcoal, they're always speaking of it's virtues in the garden. Benefits like "enrichment of soil," "home for friendly microbes," "water filtration" and so forth.

All good things for agriculture, but how does charcoal prevent industrialized civilization from spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for our energy needs?

Silence, so far.

Or maybe I'm just not listening at the right time.

Among a lot of environmentalists, there does seem to be a nostalgia for more agrarian times. For times when we lived on farms, had gardens. Thus, one would think of the gardening benefits of charcoal.

Well, there are more than 6 billion overpopulated people in the world. Many of us are living in cities; often above the 5th floor.

Sure, some people have charcoal filters on their water faucets, especially when they don't trust city water.

Is it still charcoal they use in those filters? I've never bought one.

With all the cars, home heating, other energy guzzling habits of both urban and rural dwellers, I'm still wondering how we get energy?

Making charcoal?

For those who might not know, charcoal is basically made by cooking things like wood. Cooking it in a low oxygen environment so it doesn't burn, but transforms into a denser fuel.

Charcoal for the backyard barbecue, for instance.

This cooking can be done in a sealed kiln, or something.

Still, creating charcoal doesn't really create energy, as far as I know.

One needs combustion for energy and there isn't combustion in that low oxygen cooker, as far as I know.

The heat for cooking the wood needs to come from another source. An outside heat source to heat the kiln. Electricity, fire, whatever.

We're back to needing energy and much of our energy comes from burning, thus releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Well, maybe there is a way to get some energy. A special kind of slow cooking of organic matter in the kiln.

My friend has mentioned something called "slow pyrolysis." He mentioned it just briefly since we're seldom in the space for slow conversation.

Slow pyrolysis. A new concept for me.

I read that there is some gas that can be cooked off and then burned to heat the kiln.

This gas heats the kiln and has some left over energy. It's a gas like natural gas.

Still releases some carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, from it's combustion. It also releases carbon monoxide.

I guess, since the gas is a hydrocarbon, it could also release water vapor from the hydrogen component of the molecule? This process would releases less carbon than just plain burning of the organic material.

Have I lost you yet?

I'm afraid I might have lost myself.

I never took a chemistry class, but I do have somewhat of a scientific mind.

I'm just thinking out loud.

Maybe there is some promise here, in the more efficient burning of bio-fuels.

Charcoal is created as a byproduct and yes it can be good in the garden. Good for folks that have access to a garden and the rest of us who eat.

Maybe this isn't the magic bullet to save our world, but it's worth learning more about.

Let us know where the energy comes from, since most of us live in the city.


Anonymous said...

Hello Robert and all other readers,
Education for positive change, networking around the world can speed up the exchange of information. Good on you for loud thinking. There is not just one thing that can do all things, logically, therefore your headline question is about "saving the world", from what one should ask here.
"Slow Pyrolysis" in contrast to "Fast Pyrolysis" is about conversion of biomass at ca. 500°C to 550°C to so called "Pyrolysis Gas", Biochar / Agrichar, and Industrial Heat.
It is about decentralised conversion of organic matter, by-products and compostable waste material like manure, weeds, sawdust, woody weeds. Please feel free to explore the situation via this website:
Holistic thinking and responsible land and water catchment management, pro-active fire prevention management, reduced herbicide chemicals along roads, proper wind break management and harvesting of wood by thinnings, all these have to do with this topic. Jobs, education, training, research, trade opportunities, health issues - all have to do with this new industry.
There are now many good discussions and research projects around the world. Just look for example via google: "Terra Preta Youtube" or "Biochar Youtube" etc.
Let me know if you become less skeptical after reading and listening to the information provided for example via the website and video linked to the BEST Energies website.
Cheers from Tasmania
Just Frank

Theslowlane Robert Ashworth said...

Thanks for your comment. The web site you mentioned is very interesting.
I found an interesting video on that site. I'm less skeptical. This is quite interesting as one of the new technologies for the future.