28 April 2008

The Future of Dirt by Drake Bennett

Today's Boston Globe, at Boston.com has a fascinating opinion article about a rapidly depleting resource: soil. Take the time to click on the link below to read the entire article. It is well written, referenced and thought provoking.

"The Future of Dirt" by Drake Bennett
Highlights -
-oil reserves and dwindling freshwater supply may get all the attention, but modern society is also overtaxing the ground itself.

An increasing number of scientists are starting to emphasize the extent to which soil - even more than petroleum or water or air - is a limited and fragile resource.

Scientists in Australia and the United States have started making rich new earth from industrial waste, and research into the astonishing fertility of a mysterious Amazonian soil may lead to an additive that can boost the power of soil for thousands of years.

Dirt remains, in certain ways, a puzzle: Despite its seeming simplicity, it is a complex system whose fertility arises from the interaction of myriad physical, biological, and chemical properties.
It takes tens of thousands of years to make 6 inches of topsoil.

Because of all the things human beings do to it, University of Washington geologist David Montgomery has calculated, the world today is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is replenishing it.

However, it has also happened that civilizations have improved their dirt. Among the world's richer soils is terra preta, the "black earth" found in certain swaths of the Amazon basin. It is dark, loose, and loamy, and unlike the pallid earth that characterizes most of the Amazon, it is strikingly fertile.
In the last few years, archeologists have established something else intriguing about terra preta: it is man-made. It contains high concentrations of charcoal, along with organic matter such as manure and fish bones - essentially the household trash of a pre-Columbian society practicing a distinctive brand of slash-and-burn agriculture.

The challenge is to make truly synthetic soil that matches the stability and longevity of natural topsoil. (The artificial soils sold by the bag at gardening stores tend to be either natural soil that has been enriched, or potting soil, which is mostly compost and quickly degrades.)

Dick Haynes, a soil scientist at Australia's University of Queensland, has created a synthetic soil from industrial waste products: fly ash from power plants and byproducts of aluminum processing for its mineral components, poultry litter and manure for its organic matter.

Until such methods are within reach of farmers, soil experts are focusing on ways that farmers can protect and even improve the soil they have.

One example is crop rotation, an ancient farming practice now seeing more use in both the developed and developing world. Instead of watching soil blow away from fallow fields between plantings, farmers are alternating grain crops with other crops so that the soil is covered at all times. And if those other crops are legumes like alfalfa, clover, or soybeans, they also take nitrogen out of the air and enrich the soil.

Another technique is to persuade farmers to stop tilling their ground entirely. Tilling, or plowing, is for most people synonymous with farming - traditionally it's been used to control weeds and mix fertilizer into the soil. But it also leaves soil far more susceptible to erosion, drying it out and leaving it bare to wind and rain.
To combat this, a growing number of American farmers are adopting "no-till" techniques, using machinery that inserts seeds through small slits into the ground. After the harvest, the crop remains are left on the field to decay, replenishing the soil in ways that synthetic fertilizers cannot.

To soil scientists, the time horizon is only part of the political challenge. The larger problem may be, simply, that it remains hard for many people to take soil seriously.

Caring properly for soil, whether through additives like biochar or techniques like crop rotation and no-till agriculture, may have a serious role to play in mitigating greenhouse gases.

"Maintaining your soil quality," says Laird, "is maintaining the viability of your society."
Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com.


Erich J. Knight said...

I hope you will come to share my passion in getting the word out on
the wonderful solutions provided by TP soils.
I'm sort of the TP list cub reporter, most all my list postings, under
shengar@aol.com, are news items, collaborative work, lobbying efforts with
government, writers and journals.

If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP
web site I've been drafted to co-administer.

It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail
list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the
M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of EPRIDA , Dr.
Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who's back
round I don't know have joined.

Bellow are my collected stories and links that I promiscuously post to
anyone who has an iron in this fire.

Thanks for your interest


the current news and links on Terra Preta (TP) soils and closed-loop
pyrolysis of Biomass, this integrated virtuous cycle could sequester 100s
of Billions of tons of carbon to the soils.

This technology represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and
productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.Terra Preta
Soils a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon
sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.

UN Climate Change Conference: Biochar present at the Bali Conference


SCIAM Article May 15 07;


After many years of reviewing solutions to anthropogenic global warming
(AGW) I believe this technology can manage Carbon for the greatest
collective benefit at the lowest economic price, on vast scales. It just
needs to be seen by ethical globally minded companies.

Could you please consider looking for a champion for this orphaned Terra
Preta Carbon Soil Technology.

The main hurtle now is to change the current perspective held by the IPCC
that the soil carbon cycle is a wash, to one in which soil can be used as a
massive and ubiquitous Carbon sink via Charcoal. Below are the first
concrete steps in that direction;

S.1884 รข€" The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:

Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

for the 2007 Farm Bill


Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.
Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions from Biomass by 2030by Ralph P.
Overend, Ph.D. and Anelia Milbrandt
National Renewable Energy Laboratory


The organization 25x25 released it's (first-ever, 55-page )"Action Plan" ;

On page 29 , as one of four foci for recommended RD&D, the plan lists: "The
development of biochar, animal agriculture residues and other non-fossil
fuel based fertilizers, toward the end of integrating energy production
with enhanced soil quality and carbon sequestration."
and on p 32, recommended as part of an expanded database aspect of
infrastructure: "Information on the application of carbon as fertilizer and
existing carbon credit trading systems."

I feel 25x25 is now the premier US advocacy organization for all forms of
renewable energy, but way out in front on biomass topics.

There are 24 billion tons of carbon controlled by man in his agriculture
and waste stream, all that farm & cellulose waste which is now dumped to
rot or digested or combusted and ultimately returned to the atmosphere as
GHG should be returned to the Soil.

Even with all the big corporations coming to the GHG negotiation table,
like Exxon, Alcoa, .etc, we still need to keep watch as they try to
influence how carbon management is legislated in the USA. Carbon must have
a fair price, that fair price and the changes in the view of how the soil
carbon cycle now can be used as a massive sink verses it now being viewed
as a wash, will be of particular value to farmers and a global cool breath
of fresh air for us all.

Also Here is the Latest BIG Terra Preta Soil news;

The Honolulu Advertiser: "The nation's leading manufacturer of charcoal
has licensed a University of Hawai'i process for turning green waste into
barbecue briquets."

See: http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/antalkingsford

ConocoPhillips Establishes $22.5 Million Pyrolysis Program at Iowa State


Glomalin, the recently discovered soil protien, may be the secret to to TP
soils productivity;


Mycorrhizae Inoculent;


The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) conference held at Terrigal,
NSW, Australia in 2007. The papers from this conference are posted at
their home page; http://www.biochar-international.org/home.html

Here is my current Terra Preta posting which condenses the most important
stories and links;

Terra Preta Soils Technology To Master the Carbon Cycle

Man has been controlling the carbon cycle , and there for the weather,
since the invention of agriculture, all be it was as unintentional, as our
current airliner contrails are in affecting global dimming. This
unintentional warm stability in climate has over 10,000 years, allowed us
to develop to the point that now we know what we did,............ and that
now......... we are over doing it.

The prehistoric and historic records gives a logical thrust for soil carbon
I wonder what the soil biome carbon concentration was REALLY like before
the cutting and burning of the world's forest, my guess is that now we see
a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices
like no-till and reforestation have started to help rebuild it. It makes
implementing Terra Preta soil technology like an act of penitence, a
returning of the misplaced carbon to where it belongs.

On the Scale of CO2 remediation:

It is my understanding that atmospheric CO2 stands at 379 PPM, to stabilize
the climate we need to reduce it to 350 PPM by the removal of 230 Billion
tons of carbon.

The best estimates I've found are that the total loss of forest and soil
carbon (combined
pre-industrial and industrial) has been about 200-240 billion tons. Of
that, the soils are estimated to account for about 1/3, and the vegetation
the other 2/3.

Since man controls 24 billion tons in his agriculture then it seems we have
plenty to work with in sequestering our fossil fuel CO2 emissions as stable
charcoal in the soil.

As Dr. Lehmann at Cornell points out, "Closed-Loop Pyrolysis systems such
as Dr. Danny Day's are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon
negative". and that " a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could
ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to
the total current fossil fuel emissions! "

Terra Preta Soils Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration,
1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X FertilityToo

This some what orphaned new soil technology speaks to so many different
interests and disciplines that it has not been embraced fully by any. I'm
sure you will see both the potential of this system and the convergence
needed for it's implementation.

The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil
technology may
provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power
structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.

The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade or a
Carbon tax in place.

.Nature article, Aug 06: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:

Here's the Cornell page for an over view:

University of Beyreuth TP Program, Germany

This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and
has been viewed by 19,000 self-selected folks. ( I post everything I find
on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

There is an ecology going on in these soils that is not completely
understood, and if replicated and applied at scale would have multiple
benefits for farmers and environmentalist.

Terra Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These
nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that
facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many
hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of
sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration
effort of growing plants.

The reason TP has elicited such interest on the Agricultural/horticultural
side of it's benefits is this one static:

One gram of charcoal cooked to 650 C Has a surface area of 400 m2 (for soil
microbes & fungus to live on), now for conversion fun:

One ton of charcoal has a surface area of 400,000 Acres!! which is equal
to 625 square miles!! Rockingham Co. VA. , where I live, is only 851 Sq.

Now at a middle of the road application rate of 2 lbs/sq ft (which equals
1000 sqft/ton) or 43 tons/acre yields 26,000 Sq miles of surface area per
Acre. VA is 39,594 Sq miles.

What this suggest to me is a potential of sequestering virgin forest
amounts of carbon just in the soil alone, without counting the forest on

To take just one fairly representative example, in the classic Rothampstead
experiments in England where arable land was allowed to revert to deciduous
temperate woodland, soil organic carbon increased 300-400% from around 20
t/ha to 60-80 t/ha (or about 20-40 tons per acre) in less than a century
(Jenkinson & Rayner 1977). The rapidity with which organic carbon can build
up in soils is also indicated by examples of buried steppe soils formed
during short-lived interstadial phases in Russia and Ukraine. Even though
such warm, relatively moist phases usually lasted only a few hundred years,
and started out from the skeletal loess desert/semi-desert soils of glacial
conditions (with which they are inter-leaved), these buried steppe soils
have all the rich organic content of a present-day chernozem soil that has
had many thousands of years to build up its carbon (E. Zelikson, Russian
Academy of Sciences, pers. comm., May 1994).

All the Biochar Companies and equipment manufactures I've found:

Carbon Diversion

Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns

BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis - Biomass - Clean Energy - Renewable

Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy

Ensyn - Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals

Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste

Advanced BioRefinery Inc.

Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash

3R Environmental Technologies Ltd. (Edward Someus)
WEB: http://www.terrenum.net/

The company has Swedish origin and developing/designing medium and large
scale carbonization units. The company is the licensor and technology
provider to NviroClean Tech Ltd British American organization WEB:
http://www.nvirocleantech.com and VERTUS Ltd.

Genesis Industries, licensee of Eprida technology, provides carbon-negative
EPRIDA energy machines at the same cost as going direct to Eprida. Our
technical support staff also provide information to obtain the best use of
biochar produced by the machine. Recent research has shown that EPRIDA
charcoal (biochar) increases plant productivity as it sequesters carbon in
soil, thus reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.



If pre-Columbian Kayopo Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep
over 15% of the Amazon basin using "Slash & CHAR" verses "Slash & Burn",
it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product
them at scale.

Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the
whole equation of energy return over energy input (EROEI) for food and Bio
fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no
longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by
populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens
1047 Dave Berry Rd.
McGaheysville, VA. 22840
(540) 289-9750

Martha said...

Hi Erich - thanks for your comments.
Everyone should be concerned but only a few of us have the interest.

How did you become involved in these issues?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...


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May I use part of the information from your post right above if I provide a backlink back to your website?