Can Modern Charcoal Help Solve Human Created CO2 Problem? 1

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  1. I really don’t think people realize the extent of the bark beetle problem, and the huge volume of timber that is being removed as a result. And, even in removing the dead timber, in my area the dying timber is outpacing the removal. All over Tehachapi, in people’s yards and fields there are massive piles of removed timber, in log lengths, because the amount of removed timber is so extensive that it is simply being given away as firewood. Just say the word, and a logging truck will show up and deposit its load wherever you point your finger. The irony is that rather providing fuel for the solution to our climate problem, as Dr. Shu’s process offers, this “harvested resource” is contributing to the problem, through being harvested by diesel machinery (and transported with the same), rendered with small gasoline combustion engines, and burnt in low efficiency fireplaces and wood burning stoves.

    1. @poa

      With any foresight and a bit of good fortune, the bark beetle wood will be used to validate and refine the supertorrefaction procss. Of course, that particular source of plant matter isn’t going to do anything measurable to reduce CO2 concentration; that will need tens of thousands of distributed efforts that turn a wide variety of plant matter into a relatively permanent carbon sink. Those efforts will have to continue until a better balance is achieved.

      1. Apparently, there’s lots of the dead trees caused by the Pine Beetle and more are on the way. That is per this National Geographic article. It also claims the problem was exacerbated by climate change.

        http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/pine-beetles/rosner-text

        Tens of millions of acres have been destroyed. There is a lot of Pine East of the Misssissippi too. This seems worse than the Dutch Elm disease that nearly decimated the American Elm or the old Chestnut blight.

    2. poa and Rod Dying or dead trees are a worldwide problem. A 2012 study published in Nature claimed that 70% of the trees of the world are on the verge of death because of drought. Rains that do not fall in some parts of the world must fall in other parts. In areas receiving enhanced precipitation, such as Southeast Asia, typhoons and flooding bring down trees by the tens of thousands per county per event. This timber clogs the waterways, which serve as collection points for the process. Using the biomass to generate electricity is an obvious economic strategy to address the ensuing hazards. Unfortunately, “green” groups argue against the practice on the ad hoc grounds that dead-tree removal harms the environment. A recently completed 38-year study by the US forestry service in Montana refutes such claims, showing that best culling practices have no long-term effects discernible from leaving the dead trees in place to decay, or worse, to go up in flames in wildfires.

      An even better environmental practice is to turn dead trees into biochar for use as a soil amendment. Here, too, “green” groups have claimed that more harm may be done than good, but a recently completed study by a group in Austria shows that, done wisely, the application of biochar to tropical and temperate soils can improve crop yields by an average of 75%. Thus, “waste” biomass can actually give negative carbon emissions, in the form of increased biomass both below and above ground.

      Thus, if we discount the ideological argument that carbon-negative strategies would detract from the large-scale deployment of carbon-neutral technologies like solar and wind, the only rational reason for farmers not to use biochar (after appropriate testing for long-term effiicacy) is the high cost of biochar production by traditional techniques. By immersing waste biomass under molten salts at 450 Celsius, the process of supertorrefaction can produce high-quality biochar in 1 minute without the emission of noxious gases or particulates (soot or fly ash). Equipment that can process from 20,000 to 660,000 tonne of biomass per year, with a yield of 30% or more of biochar, are transportable by truck to the areas of dead trees, rather than having to truck the biomass from remote forests to fixed processing sites. If other clean forms of energy could completely displace fossil fuels by 2050 without atmospheric CO2 exceeding 450 ppm, 60,000 of the larger STR machines could bring the CO2 concentration down to 350 ppm before the end of the century in 2100. For comparison, the world has about 20,000 jet airplanes operational at any time.

    3. this “harvested resource” is contributing to the problem, through being harvested by diesel machinery (and transported with the same), rendered with small gasoline combustion engines

      If Dr. Shu’s process does yield clean syngas as he says it does (it may still require some cleanup), it may be feasible to feed it to a small methanol synthesis plant; unlike Fischer-Tropsch, MeOH plants appear to be simple packages sold commercially.  On-site production of methanol for motor fuel eliminates the fossil fuel inputs to the process.  It also eliminates any long-lasting effects from fuel spills, as it is water soluble and biodegrades quickly.  Excess methanol has a myriad of uses, including as a feedstock for synthetic gasoline.

      burnt in low efficiency fireplaces and wood burning stoves.

      Displacing fossil fuel is better than leaving it to rot.

  2. Well…..if you ever see the retirement of a walnut, citrus, or almond grove, you can’t help but be astounded by the sheer volume of raw combustable material. And whats more, it is truly remarkable how quickly modern farming can plant a new grove with seedlings, and nurture that grove into production. The San Joaquin valley, huge, is a bonanza of raw combustable material produced as a result of the agriculture industry. It also suffers air pollution of a degree thats hard to imagine unless you look down upon it from cleaner air, as I do living in Tehachapi. When you are in that pollution, it is not near as evident. To those that don’t think we are having a negative effect on our climate, they should see what I see when I make my commute down into that cloud of dark brown poison. And if we give the deniers the benefit of the doubt, and concede that it has no effect on our climate, will they then deny the effect it has on our children’s lungs? Are not either scenarios reason enough to concern ourselves and race for solutions? Personally, though, I do not consider the corporate CEOs, media mouthpieces, and politicians to be “climate change deniers”. I consider them “climate change liars”. The scientific evidence is in. Irrefutably, if we are to trust in the expertise and knowledge possessed by those such as Dr. Shu. So, to deny, in my opinion, is a disingenuous strategy designed to pursue or advance a commercial agenda.

    1. poa, Rod, and Eino, Dying or dead trees are a worldwide problem. A 2012 study published in Nature claimed that 70% of the trees of the world are on the verge of death because of drought. Rains that do not fall in some parts of the world must fall in other parts. In areas receiving enhanced precipitation, such as Southeast Asia, typhoons and flooding bring down trees by the tens of thousands per county per event. This timber clogs the waterways, which serve as collection points for the process. Using the biomass to generate electricity is an obvious economic strategy to address the ensuing hazards. Unfortunately, “green” groups argue against the practice on the ad hoc grounds that dead-tree removal harms the environment. A recently completed 38-year study by the US forestry service in Montana refutes such claims, showing that best culling practices have no long-term effects discernible from leaving the dead trees in place to decay, or worse, to go up in flames in wildfires.

      An even better environmental practice is to turn dead trees into biochar for use as a soil amendment. Here, too, “green” groups have claimed that more harm may be done than good, but a recently completed study by a group in Austria shows that, done wisely, the application of biochar to tropical and temperate soils can improve crop yields by an average of 75%. Thus, “waste” biomass can actually give negative carbon emissions, in the form of increased biomass both below and above ground.

      Thus, if we discount the ideological argument that carbon-negative strategies would detract from the large-scale deployment of carbon-neutral technologies like solar and wind, the only rational reason for farmers not to use biochar (after appropriate testing for long-term efficacy) is the high cost of biochar production by traditional techniques. By immersing waste biomass under molten salts at 450 Celsius, the process of supertorrefaction can produce high-quality biochar in 1 minute without the emission of noxious gases or particulates (soot or fly ash). Equipment that can process from 20,000 to 660,000 tonne of biomass per year, with a yield of 30% or more of biochar, are transportable by truck to the areas of dead trees, rather than having to truck the biomass from remote forests to fixed processing sites. If other clean forms of energy could completely displace fossil fuels by 2050 without atmospheric CO2 exceeding 450 ppm, 60,000 of the larger STR machines could bring the CO2 concentration down to 350 ppm before the end of the century in 2100. For comparison with the scale of needed industry, the world has about 20,000 jet airplanes operational at any time.

      1. A 2012 study published in Nature claimed that 70% of the trees of the world are on the verge of death because of drought.

        If that’s true, it spells massive trouble ahead; once dead, drought conditions mean the forests cannot regrow.  But sequestering as much of their carbon as possible will help.

        Do you have any published papers on your process that interested laymen can read?

        1. Engineering Poet, the reference to wordlwide near-mortaility of trees is
          Choat et al., Global convergence in the vulnerability of forests to drought,
          Nature 491, 752–755 (29 November 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11688
          If you click on the link “complete technical discussion” highiighted in blue in the sixth paragraph of Rod’s article, you will find a position paper from Astron Solutions Corporation giving more details of the supertorrefaction technology.

          1. If you click on the link “complete technical discussion”

            Ah, missed that the first time.  Thank you.

            A few observations and thoughts:
            1.  Without detectable tar, the syngas should be suitable for methanol synthesis.  .5 wt% CO2 plus 7.4 wt% CO would produce 8.8 wt% MeOH at 100% yield.  The methane should be unreactive and the excess hydrogen should drive the reaction to near-completion.  The non-condensible fraction of the tail gases would fuel the process.  If a suitable oxidation catalyst to turn CH4 into MeOH can be added to the system, the MeOH yield would almost double.  This would leave mostly hydrogen as the non-condensible tail gas.

            Synthesis of ethylene is another possibility.  I understand that there are highly specific catalysts for it, it is easily handled as a pressurized liquid, and it can be hydrated to ethanol cheaply.  Robert Zubrin was working on such chemistry with the aim of producing rocket fuels on Mars.

            2.  Processing material at the worksite conflicts with production of electricity at the site; forests are often a substantial distance from suitable grid nodes.  The obvious solution is to separate the two parts of the process into a carbonization plant and a generation plant.  Excess heat from CFO at the carbonization plant can be avoided by filtering fines out of the salt and shipping the filtrate out along with the unwashed charcoal product.  At the generation plant, the filtrate salt is regenerated in a CFO-based preheater for a gas turbine generator, with the final heating performed by combustion of washed charcoal.  Waste heat from the generator recovers salt from the washing water and the clean salt is taken back to the carbonization plant.

            3.  Methanol and ethylene are potential motor fuels, as is compressed methane.  Hythane (20% H2, 80% CH4 by volume) is an attractive possibility to run the vehicles and process equipment; it has better flame speed than methane and works better in spark-ignition engines.

            Just my musings, hope they’re more helpful than not.

      2. “A 2012 study published in Nature claimed that 70% of the trees of the world are on the verge of death because of drought.”

        That’s kind of a misleading paraphrase of the Nature paper you cited. What the abstract says is:

        “We show that 70% of 226 forest species from 81 sites worldwide operate with narrow (<1 megapascal) hydraulic safety margins against injurious levels of drought stress and therefore potentially face long-term reductions in productivity and survival if temperature and aridity increase as predicted for many regions across the globe."

        So, 70 percent of forest species (not the same as 70 percent of trees) have hydraulic safety margins narrow enough that, if droughts increase in their environs because of global warming, they might suffer some unspecified degree of reduced growth or death.

        That's a far cry from a claim that 70 percent of trees are on the verge of death because of drought.

        1. Engineer-Poet, Thanks for the suggestions. As its name suggests, syngas is the starting point of many possible synthesis chemistry paths. The company Astron Solutions Corporation is founded mainly to provide STR equipment, maintenance & repair; worker training; salt assay, balance., & change Different customers for the equipment and service will want to tune the use of the products to their local needs and capabilities.

        2. Will Boisvert, Paraphrasing is always a delicate art; somebody will find fault no matter how one does it (including your paraphrasing). That’s why scientists supply full references, as I did when asked.

  3. You probably recognize that torrefaction is a technical-sounding name for the ancient process of producing charcoal.

    This is actually not true.  Torrefied biomass only loses about 30% of its dry weight; charcoal loses more like 50%.  The value of torrefied biomass is that it is (a) friable, so it can be crushed/shredded at a low cost in energy, (b) it retains more of its chemical energy than char (about 90%), (c) it loses most of its ability to absorb water, and (d) it retains enough of its hydrogen that it can be fast-pyrolized to a form of bio-oil, but with much lower moisture content than that made from unaltered lignocellulose (reduction to fine granules or powder makes fast pyrolysis much easier).

    Supertorrefaction appears to be indistinguishable from charring.  Torrefaction is more like toasting, and is done at temperatures of 275°C and lower.

  4. I’m not convinced. The sheer volume of labor needed to collect these dead trees, not to mention transportation, seems to defeat the purpose in the first place. But, more importantly, dead trees should *not* be harvested. They should be allowed to decay and provide carbon and fertilizer and mulch for the next generation of trees. What we have found in India with the advent of wood chip plants is that people *cut down* trees and get paid to feed them to the furnace of the plant. I think the whole idea of bio-char created this way gives me the willies in terms of the eventual consequences of such a program, even with the use of MSRs providing the energy for such a project.

    1. David Walters, Nobody advocates chopping down healthy trees to make biochar. Trees that have been killed en masse by pests or by natural catastrophes are a different matter. If they are made into biochar (which automatically destroys the pests and their larvae or spores), blended with compost or fertilizer, and put back into the ground, their capabilities for water retention and toxin removal help to restore soil health and improve the chances of survival of the remaining trees. Given the benefits documented in my response to poa, Rod, and Eino, why would you be opposed to such negative-carbon usage as opposed to letting the downed trees rot?

    2. “But, more importantly, dead trees should *not* be harvested. They should be allowed to decay and provide carbon and fertilizer and mulch for the next generation of trees.”

      Your comment illustrates that you have no idea of the scale of the problem in some environs, or the great danger these trees pose as fuel for wildfires in areas that are fairly heavily inhabited. In many of the areas razed by the bark beetle, forest regeneration is seriously hampered by drought conditions, and even were these trees allowed to decompose naturally on the forest floor, regeneration would not occur without man’s intervention in the process through planting, fertilization, and watering. Frankly, just from the standpoint of fire danger, your proposed option is untenable.

  5. Is NaOAc Sodium Acetate & KOAc Potassium Acetate?
    Slide 10 of the pdf implied a cyclic reaction that uses & regenerates the acetate ion from the biomass.

    1. Jim Baerg, Yes NaOAc = sodium acetate and KOAc = potassium acetate, which are mild salts used to flavor “salt and vinegar” potato chips. Because biomass releases acetic acid, it is indeed possible to run a cyclic reaction cycle that regenerates the acetate ion from the biomass, resulting in the net production of acetone. The dimerization and trimerization of acetone yield mesitylene and isopentane, which are the end members of Swift Fuels’ approach to replacement transportation fuels for internal combustion engines. The disadvantage to molten KOAc/NOAc being the STR salt is that the heat for it must be supplied externally, and not by internal oxidants, which would attack the acetate anions. Because of this disadvantage, for the prototype industrial application, we have adopted more robust and corrosive salts, that can perform not only supertorrefaction, but also the oxidation of charcoal fines and tars. A collateral benefit of higher operating temperatures with more reactive salts is that the time needed for biochar making decreases from 10 min to 1 min.

        1. Engineer-Poet, Thanks for the suggestion, but we have looked at more promising chloride-salt combinations, with lower melting points. We keep a notebook for experiments on many salt combinations. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, and different ones are suitable for different applications, usually requiring different containment alloys.

          1. What I wouldn’t give for a look at that notebook…. Ze-Gen was using molten copper as their heat-transfer medium, but their site seems to be gone and the news on them indicates trouble.

            I live in country that is heavily used for fruit farming, as well as crops of corn, soybeans and sunflowers.  There is a LOT of waste biomass thrown around here, including sunflower seed hulls, cherry pits and entire orchards bulldozed out at the end of their productive lives, not to mention all the wood removed in spring pruning.  This is in addition to the usual flow of stuff from storm-damaged, overgrown or pest-killed trees.

            Being able to turn this waste into salable products would be tremendous.  Being able to turn it into products with “green” cachet… good for profits.

    1. @poa

      But it sure would be good to find a source that cites reliable studies, avoids exaggeration and perhaps points to some viable actions that reduce the magnitude of the problem.

      1. One would hope that Dr. Shu has engaged himself in that endeavor. As far as “viable actions”, I’d say this thread offers one that deals with the symptoms of the blight, but unfortunately doesn’t offer a cure for the actual loss of these trees. It does, however, offer potentially curative actions to deal with another giant blight, namely global warming. If we cannot find a way to reverse the loss of these trees, surely turning their loss into a positive for mankind should be an effort on a Manhattan project scale. But turn on the news, and ask yourself if either one of these pathetic candidates are capable of providing the leadership required to launch such an effort. We are pissing away a window of opportunity that is about to slam shut. Our grand kids deserve better.

        1. @poa

          Nature has shown us the best way to deal with tree loss – plant lots of new trees.

          Blights and large scale loss isn’t a new phenomenon: most people know a little about the Dutch elm disease. I also have vivid memories of a disease called “leathal yellowing” a blight that killed nearly every coconut palm tree in South Florida when I was a teenager. My brothers and I made a bit of money cutting down and carting away the tall trucks that were left standing.

          The solution, and the reason that there are millions of coconut palms in South Florida today, was the massive replacement of many of the tree with resistant species.

          http://fshs.org/proceedings-o/1978-vol-91/99-101%20(DONSELMAN).pdf

          I agree that neither Trump nor Clinton seems capable of leading in solving the many problems that we face. That’s why I’m investing my vote and my voice in Johnson-Weld. They’re not perfect and they face huge obstacles, but they are massively superior to the other options on the menu.