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Bio-Energy in the Black

Bio-Energy in the Black

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Published by KarenNHunter

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Published by: KarenNHunter on May 04, 2010
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01/06/2014

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381
© The Ecological Society of America
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T
he energy demands of modern societies are steadilyincreasing. Today, much of this demand is satisfiedby fossil fuels, such as gas, oil, and coal, energy resourcesthat are not renewable, and which will eventually beexhausted. The first glimpse of the energy crisis to comehas been the price increases at the gas station. Additionalconcerns include the dependence on regionally concen-trated supplies and related international conflicts, andthe emission of greenhouse gases associated with the useof fossil fuels (IPCC 2001). There is ample evidence toshow that the Earth is warming due to anthropogenicemissions of greenhouse gases, with climatic conse-quences including desertification, a rise in ocean levels,and increased numbers of hurricanes (IPCC 2001).In addition to urgently needed energy conservation,alternative forms of energy are required to decreasedependence on fossil fuel reserves and to avoid or decreaseCO
2
emissions. Wind and solar energy, hydropower, geo-thermal energy, and bio-energy can all help society toreach these goals (Turner 1999). However, none of thesetechnologies will be able to reverse climate change.A variant of bio-energy may not only be carbon-neutral,but carbon-negative. Use of this type of energy would notonly avoid contributing to climate change, but may actu-ally draw CO
2
from the atmosphere, thereby reducingglobal warming. Using pyrolysis in combination with aland application of a biochar residue, carbon sequestra-tion, and renewable energy, are not alternatives to oneanother (Turner 1999), but may become a joint strategy.
The basic concept of biochar bio-energy
Pyrolysis is one of many technologies to produce energyfrom biomass (Bridgwater 2003). What distinguishespyrolysis from alternative ways of converting biomass toenergy is that pyrolysis produces a carbon-rich, solid by-product, biochar(Figure 1). Under complete or partialexclusion of oxygen, biomass is heated to moderate tem-peratures, between about 400 and 500˚C (giving theprocess the name “low-temperature pyrolysis”), using avariety of different reactor configurations. At these tem-peratures, biomass undergoes exothermic processes andreleases a multitude of gaseous components in addition toheat (Czernik and Bridgwater 2004). Both heat and gasescan be captured to produce energy carriers such as elec-tricity, bio-oil, or hydrogen for household use or poweringcars. In addition to energy, certain valuable co-products
CONCEPTSANDQUESTIONS
Bio-energy in the black 
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At best, common renewable energy strategies can only offset fossil fuel emissions of CO
2
– they cannotreverse climate change. One promising approach to lowering CO
2
in the atmosphere while producing energy is biochar bio-energy, based on low-temperature pyrolysis. This technology relies on capturing theoff-gases from thermal decomposition of wood or grasses to produce heat, electricity, or biofuels. Biochar isa major by-product of this pyrolysis, and has remarkable environmental properties. In soil, biochar wasshown to persist longer and to retain cations better than other forms of soil organic matter. The precise half-life of biochar is still disputed, however, and this will have important implications for the value of the tech-nology, particularly in carbon trading. Furthermore, the cation retention of fresh biochar is relatively lowcompared to aged biochar in soil, and it is not clear under what conditions, and over what period of time,biochar develops its adsorbing properties. Research is still needed to maximize the favorable attributes of biochar and to fully evaluate environmental risks, but this technology has the potential to provide animportant carbon sink and to reduce environmental pollution by fertilizers.
Front Ecol Environ
2007; 5(7): 381–387
Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, College of Agriculture andLife Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853 (CL273@cornell.edu)
In a nutshell:
Current plans to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy mayreduce emissions, but will not reverse climate changeA new strategy obtains energy from gases produced by ther-mally degrading trees, shrubs, grasses, or organic wastes – verysimilar to charcoal production – in a process called pyrolysis,with charcoal, or “bio-char”, as the end productThe proposed approach of combining pyrolysis for energy pro-duction with bio-char additions to soil takes advantage of bio-char’s proven longevity and ability to retain cations, activelydraw CO
2
from the atmosphere, regenerate degraded lands, andreduce environmental pollutionTo evaluate the economic and environmental benefits of bio-char, precise knowledge of its longevity, and of the time andconditions needed to develop its adsorptive properties, isneededA full environmental risk assessment should be conducted toshow the level of emissions and the impacts on soil associatedwith this technology
 
Biochar bio-energyJ Lehmann
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can be obtained, including wood preservative, meatbrowning, food flavoring, adhesives, or specific chemicalcompounds (Czernik and Bridgwater 2004). Both slowand fast pyrolysis can be used. High-temperature pyrolysis(typically above 700˚C), which is more commonly calledgasification, is less appropriate in this context, as it yieldsmuch lower amounts of biochar, or none at all.Biochar is the residue of pyrolysis and is often used topre-dry biomass feedstock or is sold as charcoal briquettes.A novel approach is to explore the value of this by-prod-uct when added to soil. Two aspects of biochar make itvaluable for this purpose: (1) its high stability againstdecay and (2) its superior ability to retain nutrients ascompared to other forms of soil organic matter. Threeenvironmental benefits arise from these properties: (1)mitigation of climate change, (2) improvement of soils,and (3) reduction of environmental pollution. These ben-efits, and the specific properties of biochar that yieldthem, are described below. Important constraints includethe long time periods and specific conditions required forthe biochar to become an efficient adsorber; these are dis-cussed below. Future research needs are also identified.
Biochar properties
Stability 
Biochar has long been used to date archaeologicaldeposits by quantifying its carbon-14 decay (Arnold andLibby 1951), since biocharand other, more aromaticblack carbons persist in the environment longer than anyother form of organic carbon. Finely divided biocharhaseven remained in soils in humid tropical climates, such asthe Amazon, for thousands of years (Sombroek
et al
.2003), resisting the rapid rates of mineralization commonto organic matter in these environments and producing adistinct black color (Figure 2). Such biocharis typicallyolder than any other form of carbon insoils (Pessenda
et al
. 2001).Despite this high level of resistance,we know that biochar will ultimately bemineralized to CO
2
; otherwise, soilorganic matter would be dominated bybiochar accumulated over geologicaltime scales (Goldberg 1985). Very littleis known about the half-life of biocharfor two reasons: first, the recalcitranceof biochar greatly depends on a multi-tude of factors, including the type of biomass used for pyrolysis, the produc-tion conditions, soil properties, and cli-mate (Lehmann
et al
. 2006). Somebiochars may decompose relativelyrapidly in soils, while others persist formillennia, so that more information isneeded about the behavior of biocharsin soil. Secondly, quantification of long-term stability requires long-term observations, exceedingthe periods feasible in traditional experiments.Extrapolations from short-term incubation or field experi-ments are hampered by:
The heterogeneous chemical nature of biochar.
Charredbiomass consists not only of recalcitrant aromatic ringstructures, but also of more easily degradable aliphaticand oxidized carbon structures (Schmidt and Noack2000). The range of carbon forms within a biocharpar-ticle may depend on the carbon properties of the plantcell structure, on the charring conditions, and on theformation process (by either condensation of volatilesor by direct charring of plant cells). The consequenceof this heterogeneity is that some portions of biocharmay indeed be mineralized very rapidly, as are aliphaticcarbon forms (Cheng
et al
. 2006). An extrapolationfrom relatively easily mineralizable carbon forms to theentire biocharmay therefore lead to erroneous projec-tions.
The particulate form of biochar
(Figure 3). Because biocharexists as particulates, biotic or abiotic decay must be ini-tiated on its surface. Such surface oxidation may be initi-ated quite rapidly (ie within a few months; Cheng
et al
.2006), but is restricted to the outer areas of a particle,even after several hundred years in soils (Lehmann
et al
.2005b). Quantification of the decomposition of freshbiocharby short-term experiments may therefore lead toan overestimation of long-term decay.Biochar’s particulate form also clearly distinguishes itfrom other stable forms of organic matter, which are com-monly perceived as macromolecules or macromolecularassociations entrapped in fine pores, adsorbed to mineralsurfaces, or occluded in aggregates. Particulate organicmatter, on the other hand, is mostly unprotected by min-eral association and is therefore easily mineralizable
Fi
 
ure 1.Concept of low-temperature pyrolysis bio-energy with biochar sequest-ration. Typically, about 50% of the pyrolyzed biomass is converted into biochar andcan be returned to soil.
 
TransportEnergyCoproducts
(oil, cosmetics)
Industry
Residual heatOptionally, N
2
, NO
 X
, SO
 X
,CO
2
can be added toincrease C sink and nutrientcontentReturned tosoil as
biocharBiomass
– manure– organicwastes– bioenergycrops
(grasses, willows)
– crop residues
Biofuel
– bio-oil– hydrogen
Pyrolysis
 
 J Lehmann Biochar bio-energy
383
© The Ecological Society of America
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(Golchin
et al
. 1994). Although biocharis present in par-ticulate form, it is very recalcitrant to microbial decom-position (Schmidt and Noack 2000). A preferentialoccurrence of biocharwithin aggregates (Brodowski
et al
.2006) suggests physical protection by minerals (Figure 3),in addition to chemical recalcitrance, but there is, as yet,no quantitative evidence of this. It is not yet knownwhether complexation with mineral surfaces also plays arole in biocharstabilization (Glaser
et al
. 2000; Rumpel
etal
. 2005).The particulate form may serve in itself as a protectionmechanism against decay for the interior of the biocharparticle, by compartmentalization; this is similar to themechanism proposed for the protection of organic matterby aggregation. Whether biochar pores are accessible tomicroorganisms or their enzymes remains to be shown.Specific microorganisms probably specialize in biocharenvironments in soils (Yin
et al
. 2000). Whether this alsoresults in a different ecology of biochar degradation isunclear. Vastly different principles may control biocharreactions in comparison to other organic matter; the sci-ence of soil–biochar dynamics is still in its infancy.
Nutrient retention
 Nutrients are retained in soil and remain available toplants mainly by adsorption to minerals and organic mat-ter. While we are usually unable to change the mineral-ogy of a given soil, we can change the amount of soilorganic matter. Typically, the ability of soils to retaincations in an exchangeable and thus plant-available form(cation exchange capacity [CEC]) increases in propor-tion to the amount of soil organic matter, and this holdsfor biocharas well. However, biocharhas an even greaterability than other soil organic matter to adsorb cationsper unit carbon (Sombroek
et al
. 1993), due to its greatersurface area, greater negative surface charge, and greatercharge density (Liang
et al
. 2006). In contrast to otherorganic matter in soil, biocharalso appears to be able tostrongly adsorb phosphate, even though it is an anion(Figure 4), although the mechanism for this process is notfully understood. These properties make biochara uniquesubstance, retaining exchangeable and therefore plant-available nutrients in the soil, and offering the possibilityof improving crop yields while decreasing environmentalpollution by nutrients.There is typically little or no cation exchange capacity of soil organic matter at very low pH, but this increases withhigher pH. Biochar is no exception, but the point at whichthe CEC of biocharis zero (point of zero net charge[PZNC]) depends on the temperature at which the biocharis produced, the potential CEC (standardized for pH 7)increasing with temperature (Figure 5). Also, pH and sur-face area of fresh biocharappear to increase with produc-tion temperature, as carbon yield decreases (Figure 5), sothat the optimum temperature is probably 450–550˚C. Itshould be noted, however, that biocharproperties changeconsiderably during exposure to the environment, andinteractions between production procedures and environ-mental effects have not been investigated to date.The effects of biochar on biological processes (Lehmannand Rondon 2006) or water relationships in soil have notbeen thoroughly investigated, but could potentially leadto important returns. For example, biological fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by common beans was found to beenhanced by the addition of biochar to a highly weatheredsavanna soil, most likely through the mechanism of greater micronutrient availability (Rondon
et al
. 2007).Higher bacterial growth rates with biochar were explainedby better attachment and, possibly, physical protection of microorganisms within the pore structure (Pietikäinen
etal
. 2000). Similar explanations were put forward forgreater levels of infection by mycorrhizal fungi (Saito andMarumoto 2002). A greater surface area (Liang
et al
.2006) is likely to result in greater water-holding capacity,but has not yet been investigated.
Fi
 
ure 2.Dark earth from the Amazon, with biochar whichaccumulated about 800 years before present and still shows adistinctly black color, indicating the high stability of biochar(compare black topsoil with the yellow underlying material inthe pit).
 
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