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#298173 - 01/17/17 04:39 PM Unconventional approach to energy production
logtroll Offline
veteran

Registered: 04/26/10
Posts: 8494
Loc: New Mexico (not old Mexico)
As you may know, I have been engaged in the nascent biochar production industry for 3 or 4 years. Biochar is charcoal created by pyrolyzing woody biomass and it has a great deal of value as a soil amendment. Putting biochar in the soil not only improves soil health, it is a way of sequestering large amounts of carbon - derived from CO2 in the atmosphere.

When making biochar, about 50% of the energy contained in the biomass is released as a flammable gas, which we normally call smoke. The rest remains in the un-oxidized biochar (nearly pure carbon).

About 10 years ago, the state installed a biomass fueled steam boiler at a nearby medical facility, to be supplied with fuel by a non-profit forest restoration company that I started in 1998 - it thins overcrowded forests and turns the resulting biomass into a range of wood products, mostly chips. The boiler is paired with an existing natural gas fired unit. About the time they got it installed and running, fracking for NG came into full play and the price for gas plummeted. Two years later the state built a new hospital and the steam plant went dormant.

Last week representatives from state forestry and the USFS came for a site visit and to talk about finding a new location for the boiler. I told them to get it out of our community, it is a dinosaur and does nothing but hurt our efforts to create any sort of viable, sustainable local economy around wood products. We had a long conversation, moving from the boiler plant to my shop where we looked at the biochar production equipment we are developing, as well as other durable products that are made with low value biomass. I told them that the reason we didn't want the big boiler is because we could make the same amount of heat using the pyrolysis process and make biochar, which is far more valuable than the biomass. I hadn't crunched the numbers but promised I would and send them along in an email.

The reason I am making this post is because I was astounded at what the calculations showed. The list of bits and pieces of ancillary benefits is so large that I can't put them down here, or the point about the direct economic comparison will be buried, but here's the basics:

20 year cost projection comparison for three boiler systems, simplified to: sum of capital cost installed; fuel consumed; and revenue from product sold:

Natural gas boiler: cost $3.9 million
Biomass boiler: cost $6.0 million
Biochar boiler: profit $4.0 million

In the same 20 years, the NG boiler would spew 137 million pounds of fossil fuel sourced CO2 into the air; the Biomass boiler would spew 137 million pounds of recycled CO2 into the air, and the Biochar boiler would sequester a net 274 million pounds of CO2.

Take hope in this example - we can sequester meaningful amounts of CO2 and restore forests and soils while making money in localized economies! Best of all, the global petrochemical boys are left sucking wind in the process.
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"You can't fix a problem until you know what the problem is." Logtroll

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#298178 - 01/17/17 09:20 PM Re: Unconventional approach to energy production [Re: logtroll]
Jeffery J. Haas Offline


Pooh-Bah

Registered: 08/03/04
Posts: 12448
Loc: Whittier, California
Shared!
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The men the American public admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth. - H. L. Mencken

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#298179 - 01/17/17 10:46 PM Re: Unconventional approach to energy production [Re: logtroll]
chunkstyle Offline
journeyman

Registered: 10/02/07
Posts: 596
Logs I'm a bit confused (not a hard thing).
Am I to understand that your charring wood to generate heat and charcoal?
Heat runs a boiler and the charcoal is used as a soil amendment that sequesters co2?

I'm trying to understand how it is that you take up any more co2 than is released...
I thought that was the thing with burning wood for heat, as I do. That you release as much co2 as the tree was sequestering. How is this benefitting reducing co2?
Very curious.

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#298181 - 01/18/17 12:19 AM Re: Unconventional approach to energy production [Re: chunkstyle]
logtroll Offline
veteran

Registered: 04/26/10
Posts: 8494
Loc: New Mexico (not old Mexico)
Good question. A large part of the reason I posted this was to get some conversation going.

The carbon in the biomass comes mostly from plants taking it in from the atmosphere and using it to build cells. In a normal boiler, the biomass is burned completely, leaving only ash. In making biochar, only the smoke is burned completely, leaving about 1/3 of the original mass as carbon. The carbon could be burned too, but it is far more valuable than the biomass feedstock. When biochar is put into the soil, it doesn't break down, lasting for hundreds or thousands of years as inert carbon. The reason it is an excellent soil amendment is because of its incredible porosity, which functions like a reef in the soil, harboring nutrients, microbes, and water for plant use.

Back to the energy equation, it does take more biomass to to make energy and biochar - a little bit more than twice as much, in fact, because half of the biomass energy content is reserved in the biochar. The wood smoke also contains some carbon, which becomes CO2 when burned. But if the heat is utilized to displace heat generated by burning fossil fuels, there is a gain there.
_________________________
"You can't fix a problem until you know what the problem is." Logtroll

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#298182 - 01/18/17 04:46 AM Re: Unconventional approach to energy production [Re: logtroll]
chunkstyle Offline
journeyman

Registered: 10/02/07
Posts: 596
The reading I've been doing on renewables would indicate that the cost of solar and wind power generation has become as cheap as fossil fuel. Over the last half dozen years the price of solar has gone down by 80%. There is speculation that solar will be hitting 28c/ watt.
Wind generators have also dropped by apx. 1/3 while they have had similar % increase in output.
Would it be possible to char the biomass with electric? In my state we have the option to buy renewable wind energy in our competitive electrical supply market. You buy 100kwH of power by paying the difference of wind vs. traditional electrical generation. The difference is $2.50 per bloc. Before participating in the program I always felt guilty turning on my shops equiptment to make money. Knowledge that that electricity was adding co2 to the atmosphere. Not any more.
There's also a topic called 'carbon farming' that employs seed drill crop planting combined with livestock pasturage that is supposed to sequester co2. That may be a way off as it would need a carbon credit market. Can't see that happen with the current Exxon/Gasprom administration.
If you have an option to source your electric from renewable it may be cheaper than you think if you haven't priced it lately.


Edited by chunkstyle (01/18/17 04:48 AM)

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#298187 - 01/18/17 01:39 PM Re: Unconventional approach to energy production [Re: chunkstyle]
logtroll Offline
veteran

Registered: 04/26/10
Posts: 8494
Loc: New Mexico (not old Mexico)
The electrical power generation technologies are exciting and advancing quickly. But their application to providing heat for pyrolysis is probably not a good match. The basis is that heat is a "low grade" energy and electricity is a "high grade" energy and their best uses are very different. You can make heat from electricity, but if it is direct then you squander all of the properties that make electricity so useful - transmission of power long distances through wire, energizing motors for mechanical power, operating all kinds of technology including our computers and the internet. In most cases there are a lot of efficiency losses in making electricity. The cool thing about PV and wind is that they didn't start from a low grade heat source, like coal or petroleum, which only reach a 20-30% conversion efficiency, but they do require a good deal of tech investment.

Heat from pyrolysis, on the other hand, is a low grade energy and is difficult to capture or transport. Any close coupled use, especially to displace coal or petroleum sources is highly efficient. We can make electricity with it but the conversion efficiency is no better than for the fossil fuels. So using some of the woodgas energy to drive pyrolysis is not only an extremely simple technology, it is one of the rare highly efficient uses for it. Our plan is to use the remainder of the heat energy to dry more feedstock, which will be pelletized and bagged, thus creating a storable and transportable form of energy that can be used on demand for building heating pyrolyzers. These small units units (essentially modified pellet stoves) will enjoy the same economic advantages as in the boiler example - people can heat their homes or businesses while manufacturing biochar, actually making money and sequestering carbon while making heat. That part of this model is perhaps the most mind-bending; get off fossil fuels, reduce atmospheric CO2, and no heat bill (likely a check instead).
_________________________
"You can't fix a problem until you know what the problem is." Logtroll

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#298193 - 01/18/17 05:55 PM Re: Unconventional approach to energy production [Re: logtroll]
chunkstyle Offline
journeyman

Registered: 10/02/07
Posts: 596
O.K., I get it know. it's a boiler/heater run on wood gassification, correct?
Interesting in that it has a value added by creating concentrated carbon in the form of charcoil for soil additive.
The problem I see with it is if the soil is disturbed after the charcoal has been added, and the added charcoal is brought to the surface thru plowing/tilling whats to stop the carbon from being released back into the air thru oxidation? This has been another area of concern for scientists. Exposing solid to the air exposes the carbon sequestered there and allows it to be released to the atmosphere by combining with oxygen and forming CO2.
I've been reading about carbon farming where plots of grazing land are planted with a mixture of plant seeds, selected for their appetite for CO2, and planted with 'No Till' planting. Plants grow up, cattle are re-pastured to graze on feed plants carbon is sequestered thru this mellenia old earth process that human civility has disturbed. It is claimed to have the ability to REDUCE the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. I'm not sure that the scenario you've outlined has taken into account the release of the carbon in the charcoal if it is exposed to air.
To be fair I haven't drilled into the carbon farming math to see how much off an offset there is with the plants ability to sequester CO2 vs. the methane released by the livestock. Provocative real life case study

Quick read on carbon farming

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#298194 - 01/18/17 06:03 PM Re: Unconventional approach to energy production [Re: logtroll]
chunkstyle Offline
journeyman

Registered: 10/02/07
Posts: 596
Final thought. I have come to understand a large part of the geopolitical shift and coming realignment when I have looked at the future thru the lens of the concept of the Carbon bubble:
The stakes among many
This has done more to explain what's going on than any other with the incoming administrations cabinet picks and attitude towards the petro state of Russia.
Global warming rejectionism is focused mainly in one party of one country (ours of course). It's where many of the petro campaign dollars are lavished.





Edited by chunkstyle (01/18/17 06:04 PM)

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#298198 - 01/18/17 07:19 PM Re: Unconventional approach to energy production [Re: chunkstyle]
logtroll Offline
veteran

Registered: 04/26/10
Posts: 8494
Loc: New Mexico (not old Mexico)
Originally Posted By: chunkstyle
To be fair I haven't drilled into the carbon farming math to see how much off an offset there is with the plants ability to sequester CO2 vs. the methane released by the livestock.

Everything you said is part of the play. None of the carbon/soil sequestration works if heavy tillage and use of fertilizers continue. A large part of the CO2 in the air is from soil carbon release. It doesn't mean a whole lot, but biochar does not degrade when exposed to air. The soil carbon release is through biomass degrading and the carbon involved there is molecular and can oxidize. However, the largest % of soil carbon will not come from artificially placing it there, it will happen naturally as a result of healthy and intact soil ecosystems - the plants will do the heavy lifting. A colleague has developed a soil inoculant that is fungal dominant and fast tracks soil regeneration in combination with a several year cover crop management protocol. He has monitored annual increases of soil carbon that are rising, currently at a rate of 10 tons/acre/year in year 5.

Our plan is to pre-treat, or charge, the biochar with a tea made from his compost which will be applied to cropland at a one time, 1 ton/acre rate, using the biochar as "mobile temporary housing" for the microbes until the vegetation part of the system establishes. The biochar also stores moisture against evaporation, meaning less water is need to grow crops.

Biochar has an interesting use as a feed supplement for farm animals. Chickens will peck it up with their feed and it reduces the incidence of a number of disease. Cows fed with .5% of biochar have been shown to fart 50% less methane and have 20% more muscle added with the same amount of feed.

For lots of reading, go to International Biochar Initiative
_________________________
"You can't fix a problem until you know what the problem is." Logtroll

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#298211 - 01/18/17 09:15 PM Re: Unconventional approach to energy production [Re: logtroll]
pondering_it_all Offline
old hand

Registered: 02/27/06
Posts: 6600
Loc: North San Diego County
This is almost identical to coal, and coal deposits buried underground are very stable. It's only if the biochar is near the surface that it can interact with bacteria and such. Also an oxidative reaction (a coal fire) has a high energy requirement to start. That's why coal exists. Somebody would have to set some biochar on fire, it would have to get oxygen, and be non-dispersed enough for one bit of biochar to ignite the next bit. If you buried it in one big pile, it could all burn (turn into CO2). But I doubt it is in close proximity when you use it as a soil amendment.

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