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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

National Geographic documentary on terra preta and biochar: solve multiple environmental crises simultaneously

Biochar, or the sequestration of char in nutrient-poor soils to make them more fertile, is gaining interest from a growing number of conservationists, ecologists, climate activists and anthropologists because it is increasingly seen as one of the few realistic ways to tackle multiple environmental and social crises simultaneously: hunger, soil depletion, deforestation and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services that go with it, fresh water depletion, land ownership, energy poverty and even climate change. National Geographic is the latest to focus on this almost too-good-to-be-true land use strategy, which is based on the old, very fertile "terra preta" soils that have been discovered in the Amazon.

NG's article 'Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible?' is an introduction to a new documentary that analyses how pre-columbian Amazonian societies were built on the ingeniously engineered black soils. The film "Lost Cities of the Amazon" [video fragments here and here] builds on the recent insights that these forests may have been home to vast urban networks that sustained large populations for thousands of years. Scientists now think that the 'black gold' agriculture - the biochar these communities put in their soils - not only was the key to this sustainable way of life, but that it may help save the planet today.
Now scientists are trying to recreate the recipe for the apparently human-made supersoil, which still covers up to 10 percent of the Amazon Basin. Key ingredients included of dirt, charcoal, pottery, human excrement and other waste.

If recreated, the engineered soil could feed the hungry and may even help fight global warming, experts suggest.
Scientists have long thought the river basin's tropical soils were too acidic to grow anything but the hardiest varieties of manioc, a starch-rich root crop.

But over the past several decades, researchers have discovered tracts of productive terra preta—"dark earth." The human-made soil's chocolaty color contrasts sharply with the region's natural yellowish soils.

Research in the late 1980s was the first to show that charcoal made from slow burns of trees and woody waste is the key ingredient of terra preta.

With the increased level of agriculture made possible by terra preta, ancient Amazonians would have been able to live in one place for long periods of time, says geographer and anthropologist William Woods of the University of Kansas, who studies ancient Amazonian settlements.
As a result you get social stratification, hierarchy, intertwined settlement systems, very large scale. And then 1492 happens. The arrival of Europeans brought disease and warfare that obliterated the ancient Amazonian civilizations and sent the few survivors deep into the rain forest to live as hunter-gatherers. It completely changed their way of living. - Professor Woods
Magic Soil?
Today scientists are racing to tease apart the terra-preta recipe. The special soil has been touted as a way to restore more sustainable farming to the Amazon, feed the world's hungry, and combat global warming.

The terra-preta charcoal, called biochar, attracts certain fungi and microorganisms. Those tiny life-forms allow the charcoal to absorb and retain nutrients that keep the soil fertile for hundreds of years, said Woods, whose team is among a few trying to identify the crucial microorganisms:
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"The materials that go into the terra preta are just part of the story. The living member of it is much more," he said. For one thing, the microorganisms break up the charcoal into smaller pieces, creating more surface area for nutrients to cling to, Woods said.

Anti-Global-Warming Weapon?

Soil scientist Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University is also racing to recreate terra preta.

The Amazonian dark soils, he said, are hundreds to thousands of years old, yet to this day they retain their nutrients and carbons, which are held mainly by the charcoal.

This suggests that adding biochar could help other regions of the world with acidic soils to increase agricultural yields.

Plus, Lehmann said, biochar could help reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere from the burning of wild lands to create new farm fields. (Learn how greenhouse gas emissions may worsen global warming.)

For example, specialized power plants could char agricultural wastes to generate electricity.

The process would "lock" much carbon that would have otherwise escaped into the atmosphere in the biochar. The biochar could then be put underground, in a new form of terra preta, thereby sequestering the carbon for centuries, Lehmann suggests.

Current Amazonian farming relies heavily on slash-and-burn agriculture—razing forests, then burning all of what's left.

By reverting to the ancient slash-and-char method—burning slowly and then mixing the charcoal into the soil—Amazonian carbon dioxide emissions could be cut nearly in half, according to Woods, of the University of Kansas.

With slash-and-burn, he noted, 95 percent of the carbon stored in a tree is emitted to the atmosphere. Slash-and-char emits about 50 percent, he said.

"The rest is put into different forms of black carbon, most of which are chemically inert for long periods of time—thousands of years."

In addition, the technique would allow many farmers to stay sedentary, Woods said.

Because the soil would apparently remain fertile for centuries, "they don't have to cut down the forest constantly and send it up into the atmosphere," he said.

National Geographic: Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible? - November 19, 2008.

National Geographic: Ancient Amazon Cities Found; Were Vast Urban Network - August 28, 2008.

University of California at Los Angeles: Susanna Hecht

University of Florida: Michael Heckenberger

University of Kansas: William Woods

Cornell University: Johannes Lehmann


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