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Making The Heartland A Bio-Oil Center Without Starving Ourselves In The Process

A new process for converting plants to oil can use plants that we don't also want for food, opening up new possibilities for a future where the fields with amber waves are what power our cars.

When Texas prospectors first hit oil gushers atop Spindletop Hill in 1901, it seemed like the Oil Age would go on forever. Today, researchers are looking hard for alternatives to replace oil after world production peaks and then goes into permanent decline — something that may have already begun in 2006 according to the International Energy Agency.

In a world with less oil, crop silos may replace oil derricks as the iconic symbol for next generation of fuel. The dream of biofuels has been around for some time, but has failed to catch on. Experiments with a new process for making plant-based fuels may lead to new developments.

This process, called pyrolysis, is different from first-generation biofuel production that refines crops, often oil or sugar rich-plants. These plants also make up much of our food or livestock forage supply, creating a tension between feeding ourselves or supplying the biofuel industry. Instead, pyrolysis can create fuel from "lignocellulosic" feedstocks such as switchgrass or trees—basically woody materials—which are turned into oil by being heated in an oxygen-free environment. That also creates syngas (which can be used to power bio-refineries) and charred biomass, also known as biochar, which can be spread on the fields to grow the next crops destined for the bio-oil plant—a complete loop.

"We’re looking at this from a whole system approach," said SDSU professor Tom Schumacher, the project director, in a statement. Now the researchers say they need to figure out how to fine-tune the chemical refining process and the effects of different feedstocks on the final products.

But to make it truly sustainable, they will also need to figure out a way to grow all that biomass—think many square miles for a single plant—without displacing food crops and communities. While pyrolysis means we're not turning our food into oil, we still need to grow those oil-making plants somewhere where they're not competing with what we eat.

[Image: Flickr user Thing Three]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

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  • Erich J. Knight

    Black Swan of Biochar

    Short a nano material PV / thermoelectrical / ultracapasitating Black swan, What
    we can do now with "off the shelf" technology, what I proposed the the
    EPA chiefs of North America at the Comission for Enviromental
    Cooperation last month

    Bellow the opening & closing text. A Report on my talk at CEC, and complete text & links are here: The Establishment of Soil Carbon as the Universal Measure of Sustainability

     The Paleoclimate Record shows agricultural-geo-engineering is
    responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases.  The unintended
    consequence, the flowering of our civilization. Our science has now
    realized these consequences and has developed a more encompassing
    wisdom.  Wise land management,  afforestation and  the thermal
    conversion of biomass can build back our soil carbon.  Pyrolysis,
    Gasification  and Hydro-Thermal Carbonization are known biofuel
    technologies,  What is new are the concomitant benefits of biochars for
    Soil Carbon Sequestration; building soil biodiversity & nitrogen
    efficiency, for in situ remediation of toxic agents, and, as a feed
    supplement cutting the carbon foot print of livestock.  Modern systems
    are closed-loop with no significant emissions. The general life cycle
    analysis is: every 1 ton of biomass yields 1/3 ton Biochar equal to 1
    ton CO2e, plus biofuels equal to 1MWh exported electricity, so each
    energy cycle is 1/3 carbon negative.

    Beyond Rectifying the Carbon Cycle;Biochar systems Integrate nutrient management, serving the same healing function for the Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles.The Agricultural Soil Carbon Sequestration Standards are the royal road for the GHG Mitigation;

    The Bio-Refining Technologies to Harvest Carbon. The
    photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running all around us,
    the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet, conversion
    reactor are the only infrastructure we need to build out. Carbon, as the
    center of life, has high value to recapitalize our soils. Yielding
    nutrient dense foods and Biofuels,  Paying Premiums of pollution
    abatement and toxic remediation and the growing Dividend created by the
    increasing biomass of a thriving soil community.

    Since we have filled the air, filling the seas to full,soil is the only beneficial place left.Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.