Catch a (micro)wave

carbonscape.jpgThere are some amazing people in NZ. Just when I’m tearing (what’s left of) my hair out at the idiocy of some politicians, along comes a news story to gladden the heart of anyone living in the real world. Yesterday, Blenheim-based start-up Carbonscape reported that it has just begun batch production of charcoal in a microwave oven the size of a double garage. Wood waste goes in at one end, the oven heats it up and it turns into charcoal – giving off syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The charcoal can be added to soil (as biochar, aka terra preta), fixing the carbon away from the atmosphere and improving soil fertility, while the syngas can be burned to create energy to drive the process – known as pyrolysis.

Carbonscape call their oven the Black Phantom, Stuff reports:

The idea for Black Phantom came to Carbonscape geologist Chris Turney after he accidentally blackened a late-night potato dinner. He blew up his home microwave in Sidmouth, England, but produced perfect carbon specimens. The experience triggered the establishment of Carbonscape.

It’s a good story, but there’s better coverage at the Herald and TV3. Using pyrolysis to process biomass into charcoal is not new, but Carbonscape believes its patented process is a world-beater. Director Nick Gerritson told the Herald:

“The potential for carbon credits from forestry and agriculture worldwide is huge,” he said. In New Zealand, biochar could help solve the problem of the 13 million tonnes of radiata pine waste dumped every year, and in the USA, it could help the State of Iowa make use of 22 million tonnes of corn husk waste each year.

Gerritson and some of the other Carbonscape directors are also involved in the Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation, a Marlborough company making great strides in producing biodiesel from wild algae growing on sewage.

Meanwhile, a team at the University of Calgary led by David Keith are claiming significant progress in capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air. From the Science Daily release:

Keith and his team showed they could capture CO2 directly from the air with less than 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity per tonne of carbon dioxide. Their custom-built tower was able to capture the equivalent of about 20 tonnes per year of CO2 on a single square metre of scrubbing material – the average amount of emissions that one person produces each year in the North American-wide economy.

“This means that if you used electricity from a coal-fired power plant, for every unit of electricity you used to operate the capture machine, you’d be capturing 10 times as much CO2 as the power plant emitted making that much electricity,” Keith says.

The U of C team has devised a new way to apply a chemical process derived from the pulp and paper industry cut the energy cost of air capture in half, and has filed two provisional patents on their end-to-end air capture system.

Very interesting. The tools for dealing with atmospheric carbon seem to be coming along nicely. All we need now is the political will. And I want some biochar for my veggie bed.

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14 thoughts on “Catch a (micro)wave”

  1. The beauty of the air capture system proposed is that it can be sited anywhere in the world – so you could have an array of these things over a suitable depleted oil field. No need to ship the gas anywhere, except downwards.

  2. “13 million tonnes of radiata pine waste dumped every year”

    Where did this figure come from? I’m assuming the bulk of this waste is the stuff leftover from the logging and milling processes. Yes?

  3. Fiddler: comes from Carbonscape. No idea of provenance, but it seems to refer to waste from forestry, yes.

    Cindy: the general idea is to shove it underground, in old oil fields. Oil companies have been pumping gas into ageing oil fields to help extract the last dregs of oil for years, and in Norway they’ve been running trials on storing CO2. Lots of work being done on this as the S of CCS.

  4. Sorry, but isn’t the point of this char method that the CO2 is stored as part of the charcoal, in solid, not gas or liquid form, and therefore more stable? In other words you shove it underground in the soil, not mines, etc.

    My uniformed opinion is that they should combine the char with municipal compost production so it can be applied on top without CO2 depleting soil disturbance.

  5. Although, something you have to take into account is that when you dig up soil, you release loads of CO2 into the atmos, is the amount of CO2 in the charcoal you are burying more than the amount that is released by digging soil?

  6. Judy: yes, the idea is that the charcoal from Carbonscape’s process would be added to soil, taking the carbon out of the system that way. There’s still a lot of work to be done on how stable that might be in different soils/climates, but it looks good.

  7. ah yes, the old, unproven CCS, the coal industry’s excuse to build loads of new coal-fired power stations. Despite the hype, it’s still 20 years or so off and would still be enormously expensive. Then there’s the liability – what if it leaks out? Who pays (apart from the environment)?

    CCS is being relied on far too much as the answer to all of our problems… It may be needed one day, but it seems like not producing C02 in the first place is a good place to start, not using CCS as an excuse to continue doing it.

    hmmm – Who Pays and Liability seem to be my Theme for Today.

  8. Couple of papers on this may be of interest to some. Best Energies submitted a paper on pyrolysis and agrichar to the Garnaut Report. Some interesting reading and industry references:

    Scroll down to BEST and download the PDF. (I would have given a direct link but it’s heinously long).

    There’s also a good paper by Leihman, J. in Nature 447, 10 May 2007, pp143-144.

    I’m quite intrigued by the possibilities. It looks like a win-win across multiple platforms and Australian soils could take several billion tons of it over a long period, so storage should not be a problem for a very long time.
    My only (pessimistic) thought was that if it ever takes off as a cash cow for carbon credits, it’s conceivable that we’ll see old growth forests bulldozed and planted with fast growing crops that produce ‘sustainable’ CO2 capturing agrichar/biochar.
    If that sounds ridiculous, I agree, but does the word ‘ethanol’ ring a bell?

    Personally, having today received the keys to my brand spanking new home in NZ, I’d like to know how to get my hands on a container load. I’ll also happily volunteer an acre or so field test it.

    Gareth, given the yield of test crops such as corn, would you try it around a couple of low- or marginal-yield vines (assuming you have any)?


  9. Thanks Sonny. Don’t worry about long links, I use a WordPress plug-in called WP-Chunks that automatically shortens them.

    I’ve already discussed the use of biochar in my truffiere with one of Carbonscape’s directors…. Happy to give it a go!

    [Give us a ring when you get to NZ. Happy to buy you a coffee at Jo Seagar’s….]

  10. “The Biochar Revolution” with “The Biochar Solution”
    The Biochar Revolution collects the results and best practical advice that these entrepreneurs have to offer to the biochar community. When practice and theory advance to the point where they meet in the middle, then we will truly see a biochar revolution.

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