Sunday, March 18, 2018

Symbiotic Recycling

"Solutions that endure usually begin at the bottom. They build regenerative, circular economies based upon local assets — human and natural. "

The road to energy efficiency is in theory a sustainability sweepstakes… Who needs Russian gas, if we could get all the heat we need from our own surplus? Who needs Middle Eastern oil, when we can integrate limitless renewable sources in our smart grids?

— Jens Martin Skibsted, World Economic Forum 2018 Annual Meeting

The conversation about “development” today is generally phrased in words like growth, jobs, stock market highs and lows, gross domestic product, or trends in consumerism. Some of the more far sighted use metrics like inclusion, intergenerational equity, longevity, marriage stability and happiness. Yet, just as all politics is local, all economics are personal. It comes down to how well any community — be it a rural cluster of farms or an urban neighborhood — fends for itself in the volatile world of the 21st century.

Solutions that endure usually begin at the bottom. They build regenerative, circular economies based upon local assets — human and natural. They care for all, protect the planet, and reach out to help their less fortunate neighbors. They are organic, resilient, and anti-fragile.

A few years ago in Wada, India, Shri Gauranga Das established Govardhan Ecovillage and its philosophy of “Symbiotic Recycling” — a merger of science and Vedic teachings that integrates organic farming, biogas and green buildings into a circular local economy.

Today half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050 the proportion in India is expected to be 80 percent. Three quarters of India’s 83.3 million rural villagers earn less than five thousand rupees ($78) per month. Half do not own land. Those that own are often indebted to banks for equipment, fertilizer and pesticides, charged interest rates they cannot pay. Suicide rates in the countryside are double those in urban areas.

Govardhan’s symbiotic model stops all that. Organic fertilizers, compost and mulch are produced locally at practically no cost. Biogas replaces wood or gas for cooking. Construction wastes like broken cement poles make raised bed gardens, cob houses and infill for infrastructure. Green buildings of compressed stabilized mud bricks are cool in hot weather and warm in cool weather. Broken bricks become waterproofing on roofs.

Rainwater management irrigates in dry months and recharges aquifers from monsoons. Greywater and blackwater flow to bioreactors that use plants, earthworms and aerobic microbes to remove suspended solids, pathogens and odor, returning energy and fertilizer.

India has long been one of the leaders in biochar, thanks in no small part to the work of Dr. N. Sai Bhaskar Reddy Nakka at the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute in Phaltan, a short distance south of Govardhan. For more than 20 years, Reddy has been taking biochar compost blends to farmers, making biochar bricks for green buildings, using biochar powders for waterless cleaning, and designing efficient home stoves. Worldwide, the three-stone open home fire is currently responsible for more childhood deaths than malaria — 8 million last year. Reddy has personally trialed more than 50 designs of low cost gasifiers for homes and businesses.

Now Govardhan Ecovillage is passing its symbiotic practices to 16 nearby tribal villages. Four hundred families have come together to plant more than 100,000 food, forest and medicinal trees that will absorb 2000 tons of carbon-dioxide as they grow. Das calculates that if even 1 percent of India’s villages follow the model of Govardhan, 4.7 million tons of CO2 will be drawn down annually.

Gauranga Prabhu graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in 1993. It is difficult to convey the significance of such an accomplishment outside India, but IIT is like the MIT or CalTech of India, only far smaller and more selective. Only 1000 graduates take degrees each year. The odds against even getting in are very long. In a December TED talk at Thapar University, Gauranga described how the academic pressure could drive students to suicide.

While at IIT, Gauranga studied Vedic scripture with H.H.Radhanath Swami Maharaja, and grew an interest in Krishna Consciousness. After school he began conducting Bhagvad Gita seminars in all prominent engineering colleges, medical colleges and management institutes. His design for Govardhan brought together all of these different elements into his symbiotic recycling. Gauranga Das describes the concept in a TED talk last June:

Unlike the anthropocentricism that pervades the principal Western religions (deriving from oppressed Middle Eastern desert cultures three thousand years ago), the Vedas, which are a thousand years older, present an ecocentric view of creation that places humans on a level footing with animals, birds, insects, trees, rivers, mountains, clouds and all the other parts of nature.

The anthropocentric worldview has failed us rather dramatically. The cultural pioneers at Govardhan Ecovillage are exploring what the alternative looks like in the real world.

Originally published at
Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. This post is from Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies to Reverse Climate Change from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year (the book is free to our sponsors).

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Punctuated Equilibrium

" If the old answers are wrong, or become wrong over time, new answers are required. Civilizations that stay nimble enough to adopt the new answers begin a new chapter of life. "

We tend to conceive of evolution as a process that occurs over millions of years, but lately discoveries in genetics have changed that perception. We evolve in fits and starts — very slowly for long periods, then in sudden spurts of rapid change. Often the trigger is a particular event or convergence of upheavals that shake up the order of things. Within a very short time after each catastrophe, new life-forms emerge, ecotones form, and long-established orders realign. Evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould called this process “punctuated equilibrium.”

Cultural evolution proceeds in much the same fashion, as we can learn from the work of historians, sociologists and anthropologists such as Joseph A. Tainter, William R. Catton, Jared Diamond, and Dmitry Orlov.

Civilizations are living entities with regular cycles of birth, growth and death. They may evolve and grow for as little as a century or two (as for the Inca) or thousands years (as in India and China). When a civilization begins, it is a child — it tries new things and adopts behaviors it likes. As it matures its social norms become more rigid, embedded and brittle. It loses abilities to respond to change or adapt in new ways. Each generation is taught to accept “the way things are” without questioning. This phase ends in corruption, decay and decline.

Many of us can sense the next punctuation coming. It has already begun. Globally, the starting point for the next phase may have come three centuries ago. At that moment humans had only just discovered how to harness coal to make steam but had yet to employ the far greater energy density of oil and gas, never mind nuclear fission. The mere addition of coal to the human energy portfolio was enough to augur the end of the global civilization we know today.

Coal from the Fushun mine in northeastern China was used to smelt copper as early as 1000 BCE but it was the advent of James Watt’s steam engine in the 18th century that gave fossil energy traction, literally. In perfect parallel, expansion of the human population tracked expansion of the supply of available energy, railroads and factories. In 1965, Thomas McKeown put forward the then controversial but now widely accepted hypothesis that human population growth since the late eighteenth century was due to improved economic conditions and better nutrition.

Svante Arrhenius, running the mathematical equations for climate change, and Thomas Malthus, doing the same for population, accurately predicted the outcome once humanity was swept up in the enchantment of seemingly unlimited energy growth.

As we progressed in our ability to harness energy, we moved from a nearly stable world population, fluctuating little over the course of thousands of years, to a steady growth rate of 30 percent every 20 years. As our mechanical technology exploded, we went from adding one billion more people to the planet every 120 years in 1927, and the fraction of a part per million of carbon dioxide that required, to adding one billion people and 25 to 30 parts per million of CO2 every 12 years.

A reckoning awaits. When, exactly, that may occur is difficult to predict. It could occur suddenly, as the fictitious debt instruments engineered to cover the real life-support deficit can no longer be serviced. It could occur slowly, as we continue squeezing out the last tons of brown coal, barrels of tarry shale oil, and cubic meters of unconventional gas, using ever-advancing technologies to find, refine and burn them as quickly as possible, while ignoring the horrific climate consequences we are locking in.

Catton called our modern humans Homo colossus — those among our kind living in industrial countries and consuming massive amounts of fossil fuels to motivate and control machines that do orders of magnitude more work than humans or animals could do otherwise. Homo colossus is gradually replacing Homo sapiens as development spreads like a cancer across the Earth.

While Homo sapiens, with a stable population under one billion, might have had a reasonable chance of being around for another two or three million years, Homo colossus hasn’t a prayer.

In 2004, the Astronomer Royal in Britain, Sir Martin Rees, assigned humanity about a 50/50 chance of surviving through the 21st century. He was being generous. Earth has already passed tipping points in seven of ten essential life support systems for humans — biodiversity, climate change, nitrogen cycle, phosphorus cycle, ocean acidity, land fertility, and freshwater availability — and the other three — ozone, atmospheric aerosols and chemical/radioactive pollution — have yet to be fully quantified but may have already been exceeded as well.

In evolutionary biology a population bottleneck is where radical changes to the environment causes a species to lose of all but the most hardy of its population; hardy, that is, in terms of the selection pressures arising from the change. If there are no sufficiently hardy individuals left, or the ones that manage to survive cannot reproduce sufficiently to repopulate, the species goes extinct. We are quickly approaching that reckoning for Homo colossus but we have yet to understand what is happening, never mind change course.

Fossil fuels artificially boosted the carrying capacity of Earth for human occupancy. There is zero likelihood that deriving energy from capturing current and benign solar influx (as we did for thousands of years) could replace our belovedly potent but toxic concentrates of ancient sunlight gathered and stored over millions of years. It simply can’t. A steep population decline is coming. Whether extinction will be avoided is still an open question.

Evolutionary biologist Bruce H. Lipton says there are three questions that form the base paradigm of civilizations. If the old answers are wrong, or become wrong over time, new answers are required. Civilizations that stay nimble enough to adopt the new answers begin a new chapter of life. Those that don’t disappear. The three questions are:

How did we get here?
Why are we here?
How can we make the best of it?

The first question is a very unusual story no matter how you approach it. You could say we are here because billions of years ago astronomical collisions occurred as objects moving out from the Big Bang ricocheted like billiard balls and in an extraordinary chance occurrence one of those collisions produced an elliptical orbit in the third planet from a star, an orbiting moon just the right distance from that planet to pull tides, a spin that secured climate gradients between the poles and equator, and an eccentric tilt of the axis that permitted annual seasons — and the ebb and flow of photosynthesis. In these extraordinarily auspicious circumstances of birth we were also given the rarest gift — the presence of surface water, arriving during the collision like a water bag breaking at the start of labor.

The collision that struck off Earth’s moon enveloped the young Earth in a hot metallic vapor — 230°C (446°F). Over a few thousand years that vapor condensed, perspiring water and leaving behind a sweltering carbon dioxide atmosphere. Liquid oceans formed despite the temperature because of the pressure of the heavy atmosphere. Gradually, subduction by plate tectonics and absorption by ocean water removed most CO2 from the atmosphere, cooling the world and yielding a benign atmosphere of oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen — and the perfect conditions for life to arise.

Or, alternatively, this may just be a dream that Vishnu is having.

If a civilization answers the third question in a way that ignores the energy and resource flows and storages of the planet — “get more stuff,” “watch out for number one, or “this world doesn’t matter, it is the next we want to get into” — they are destined to fail. If a civilization says to the third question, “maintain harmony,” “don’t anger the gods,” or “live lightly and plant for the future,” they may succeed.

Right now the majority of people in the world cling to self-destructive ways. They are set in old patterns and don’t realize how fragile and brittle those are. A growing minority see better ways and are putting together the building blocks for the next phase.

We have that choice before us now, individually and collectively. Civilizations undergo transformations. We can leave behind the old one that is poorly adapted and design and build a more advantaged new society. This book is part of that visioning process. The dying civilization was founded upon carbon. The new one will be too, just in different forms.

As the planet teeters on a climate precipice and the global economy is running full-speed towards a fossil carbon-induced bubble, many people see no viable solutions to these looming interconnected disasters. 

Those few among us who have glimpsed the possibility for a new carbon economy grounded in vast legions of energized and empowered youths spreading out across the landscape regenerating soils, forests, oceans, whale populations, migratory waterfowl and a garden planet may seem crazy.

But these are not moonshots, or science fiction. They are economically viable and applicable reconceptions for many different industries. Some solutions are already being field tested while others have yet to leave the laboratory.

It is an exciting time to be carbon beings on a carbon world, learning how to grow and prosper with the natural cycles of carbon.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. This post is from Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies to Reverse Climate Change from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year (the book is free to our sponsors).

Tainter, J., (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Catton, W., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press (1980); Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, Xlibris US (2015).
Diamond, J., (2011) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, Revised Edition.
Orlov, D., The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit, New Society Publishers (2013); Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects, New Society Publishers, Revised edition (2011).
Rees, M., (2004) Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century — On Earth and Beyond, Basic Books.
Lipton, B., (2016) The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles, 10th Anniversary Edition, Hay House, Inc.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Carbon Cool

"These stories have three things in common. They reverse climate change by gaining new respect for the element carbon upon which all life depends. They are powered by human ingenuity, working as part of, not against, nature. They are driven and emboldened by the astonishing, illimitable, force of youth."

 Sustainability is an overused and misused word in most languages. In the physical world absolutely nothing is sustainable. Nothing. We need to accept that. What sustains us is change, and our ability to adapt and innovate.

Sustainability is a bit like treading water. What is it you are trying to sustain? The endless economic growth industrial paradigm? Creature comforts that require long supply chains and toxic pollution that hopefully you never have to see? A consumerist ethos backed by military might, sewing discord and terror around the planet? 

These are the things that must change, quickly, or the change we shall experience will be a very unpleasant human extinction.

Continuing on a thread here, we are bringing you more stories of change and innovation that are seldom covered by mainstream media. But then, we all know mainstream media is going extinct anyway, so who cares about that?

These stories have three things in common. They reverse climate change by gaining new respect for the element carbon upon which all life depends. They are powered by human ingenuity, working as part of, not against, nature. They are driven and emboldened by the astonishing, illimitable, force of youth.

In the rural regions of the world, particularly in the tropics of Latin America, Africa and Asia, precious vaccines and medicines that need to be kept cold wither and spoil in the heat of the midday sun.

It’s not merely a lack of refrigeration but also a lack of electricity and the lack of money. Clinics must often store vaccines for days or weeks before they can be administered to those arriving from distant villages. Keeping live cultures fresh for such a long time is nearly impossible without being able to lower storage temperature. Every year, vaccine spoilage costs billions of dollars and impacts millions of lives.

In 2009 a team of Engineering Students from Michigan State University traveled to a workshop organized by the Appropriate Technology Collaborative in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Their task: a refrigerator that can be built from locally available materials almost anywhere and run without power.

Design an adsorption refrigerator capable of maintaining a temperature between 2°C and 8°C that utilizes passive solar energy and can be built in developing countries. The team’s final product will be a clear and comprehensive set of instructions for building the device.

The students built a vaccine refrigerator that does not use electricity. It does not have any moving parts. You simply place it in the sun and it chills or freezes things.

ATC Solar Vaccine Refrigerator
This very remarkable machine runs on pyrolytic carbon. The char does not need to be food grade, as for biochar or activated carbon. It stays inside a closed loop. It could be cascade carbon from a variety of feedstocks. Its essential service is evaporative cooling. The total cost for the prototype was $917.39. Estimated worker cooperative production cost at the scale of three per month, including labor, would be under $300. Their report reads:
Based on the design decision matrices, a solar-powered adsorption refrigerator was selected for the design of the vaccine refrigerator. This refrigerator has no moving parts aside from a few valves. It uses no toxic materials, generally available materials, and should be simple to build and operate. The refrigerator has an intermittent cycle. It will “charge” during the day and remove heat from a cooling volume at night.

Some previously used adsorbent/refrigerant pairs used for solar adsorption refrigeration systems are zeolite and water, silica gel and water, activated carbon and methanol, activated carbon and ammonia, and activated carbon and ethanol. It has been determined that the performance of each pair depends greatly on the climate in which it is tested.

The students looked at all of these adsorbents and the most promising were methanol and ethanol. Methanol is highly toxic and difficult to handle while ethanol is easily obtained from alcoholic beverages in most places, so ethanol became the refrigerant of choice.

The kind of carbon needed has to be able to adsorb ethanol in its vapor form almost instantaneously, so a well-developed pore structure. There are three kinds of pores in pyrolyzed carbon:
  1. Macropores (>500 Angstrom*)
  2. Transitional Pores (20–500 Angstrom)
  3. Micropores (0–20 Angstrom)
*Angstrom = 0.0000001 mm.

Macropores are mostly used for water filtration systems and treating solid waste. Transitional Pores are more suitable for adsorbing large molecules, such as in soil remediation or to remove discoloration. Micropores are the most useful for trapping vapors of any kind.

When analyzing different kinds of activated carbon for this project, there are two main parameters which must be given great consideration. The porosity or the abundance of micropores, and the grain size of the carbon. Powder carbon is not very useful for our application due to its hard handling characteristics. Although more surface area can be achieved with powered carbon, it is difficult to package inside the adsorber bed. Therefore, activated carbon of granular form is preferred instead. The larger grain size makes it easier for packaging inside the adsorber bed and allows the design to be more flexible.

The refrigerator has three parts: collector, condenser, and evaporator. At the top is an adsorbent bed/solar collector — a flat tray of wood filled with activated carbon, oriented towards the equator to catch the sun. The entire energy input for the system is solar radiation. As the temperature rises in the morning hours, vapor is rejected out of the charcoal bed. The vapor is forced into the condenser from the pressure of desorption (it is a sealed system). Refrigerant moves from condenser to surrounds, gives off its heat and returns to liquid form.

At night, as the carbon bed cools, its capacity to adsorb vapor increases and the fluid in the condenser is drawn back into the evaporator. As it begins to vaporize in the warm evaporator, it provides the cooling effect. Once the adsorbent bed has reached capacity, it awaits sunrise and the cycle begins again. Meanwhile that “coolth” is circulated into an insulated cooler where the vaccines are stored, lowering its temperature for the following day.

A somewhat simpler charcoal refrigeration example comes from the women of the Bidii Farmers Group in the arid Kambi Sheikh Village in Isiolo County, Kenya. Using charcoal, a wire mesh and a water tank, the women have made an innovative cooler to store their produce for market. Explains Catherine Wanja,
“Charcoal is an ideal material for refrigeration because it has pores, which absorb and store water. This reduces heat from outside. And because wet charcoal does not allow easy passage of heat, it results in low temperatures inside the cubicle.”

Kambi Sheikh Cooperative Charcoal Cooler
The cooler is made from charcoal filled in between six-inch cavity with double wire mesh walls.
The roof is made of iron sheets and is also filled with charcoal. It has a network of perforated water pipes going round the top of the charcoal walls. The pipes are gravity fed water from an overhead tank. The water continuously drips — like a drip irrigation system — all the way to the bottom of the charcoal wall where it can be collected again.

Temperatures in the walk-in fridge drop as low as 8°C (46°F). Wanja says the fridge has a capacity of 20 crates of produce. “Today if the canter that collects the French beans does not come, we are confident that we will not make losses,” she says.

“It is a simple technology that is working for us because we do not have electricity here and we cannot buy a conventional fridge.”

With an increasing number of heat waves, would not having a ‘char-conditioned’ house fifteen degrees cooler provide a bit of relief? Evaporative cooling walls are not a new but generally made from materials with a much higher embodied energy and more limited lifespan than homemade biochar. Carbon can also filter runoff while boosting the resilience of living roofs, not just on homes, but on barns, animal sheds, grain silos, and aquaponic shelters.

Once a cooler, or a building, is chilled by the heat of the sun, there’s the challenge of retaining that coolth through the 24-hour cycle — and longer if the sun doesn’t shine every day where you are. Carbon is coming to the rescue.

Aerogels have recently become hot science. A “multiwalled carbon nanotube aerogel” dubbed “frozen smoke” with a density of 4 mg/cm3 lost its world’s lightest material title in 2011 to a micro-lattice material with a density of 0.9 mg/cm3. Less than a year later, aerographite claimed the crown with its density of 0.18 mg/cm3 and less than a year after that, a new aerogel made from graphene was created by Gao Chao’s team at China’s Zhejiang University. This ultra-light aerogel has a density lower than that of helium and just twice that of hydrogen — just 0.16 mg/cm3.

“With no need for templates, its size only depends on that of the container,” said Prof. Gao. “Bigger container can help produce the aerogel in bigger size, even to thousands of cubic centimeters or larger.”

The result is a material the team claims is very strong and extremely elastic, bouncing back after being compressed. It can also absorb up to 900 times its own weight in oil and do so quickly, with one gram of aerogel able to absorb up to 68.8 grams of organics per second — making it attractive for mopping up oil spills at sea.

Aerogels infused with a plastic material are flexible, like a spring that can be stretched thousands of times, and if the nanotubes in a one-ounce cube were unraveled and placed side-to-side and end-to-end, they would carpet three football fields. Carbon aerogels are also excellent conductors of electricity, ideal for sensing applications and will be finding their way into many electronic devices, like smartphones that bounce harmlessly if dropped. This new form of carbon — diverted from landfills and incinerators — will soon be revolutionizing diapers, sanitary napkins, protective packaging and building insulation.

For inexpensive thermal insulation aerogel, scientists at the National University of Singapore have found a new source — old clothing. Recycled cotton and similar natural fibers can make an ultralight material to keep vaccine refrigerators, beverages, and high rises cold, and also, just by the way, to control bleeding from deep wounds.

Professors Hai Minh Duong and Nhan Phan-Thien say their process is “fast, cheap and green” (about 20 times faster than it takes to fabricate conventional aerogels) — similar to the process by which they previously produced an aerogel from paper waste.

To stop battlefield wounds from bleeding, medics inject mini cellulose-based sponges with a large syringe. Once in the body, they absorb blood and expand, applying pressure to the wound from the inside and stopping blood flow within about 20 seconds.

“Each cotton aerogel pellet can expand to 16 times its size in 4.5 seconds — larger and more than three times faster than existing cellulose-based sponges — while retaining their structural integrity,” says Duong. “The unique morphology of the cotton aerogels allows for a larger absorption capacity, while the compressible nature enables the material to expand faster to exert pressure on the wound.”

The production process is simple — mixing water with carbon fibers from cotton, paper, or whatever, then adding a polymer resin and applying sound energy to agitate the solution. Next, the mixture is poured into molds and frozen at -18ºC (0ºF) for 24 hours, after which it’s freeze-dried at -98ºC (-144ºF) for two days. Finally, it’s cured in an oven at 120ºC (248ºF) for three hours. The final result is an opaque biodegradable, recycled material that is non-toxic, flexible, mechanically strong and oil- or blood-absorbent. As a thermal insulating jacket for canteens, it can maintain its contents without freezing even after when stuck in ice. Its the perfect media to store vaccines in a solar refrigerator.

How do aerogels meet our third common thread — driven and emboldened by youth? They were invented by two students, Sam Kistler and Charles Learned, in a college lab using borrowed equipment.

The manufactured goods these discoveries can replace are fossils that pollute and could operate without guilt or compunction only in that careless heyday before the Dawn of the Anthropocene. We have come now to the Age of Consequences when such foolishness must be put behind us.

Inexpensive carbon aerogels made from recycled paper, cloth, and virtually any other carbon source, storing medicines in carbon-cooled passive refrigerators, beckon cascades of opportunity to the circular carbon economy that is coming like a entrepreneurial tsunami. This is how it will end — not with desperate migrations of small bands of hominid survivors poleward to seek final solace, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster on a melting ice floe, but with a banquet of wonders served by brilliant young minds driven by single-mindedness of purpose.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. This post was a collaborative effort between Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper and is likely to be included in Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies to Reverse Climate Change from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year (the book is free to our sponsors).

Sunday, February 25, 2018

My Tesla Runs on Banana Peels

"Batteries from carbonized biomass can come from sources as simple and abundant as green algae, bamboo, olive pits, and banana peels."


These days there is a lot of interest in biomass as a substitute for fossil fuels, the idea being to get off the 500-million-year savings account and into the checking account that comes from sunshine in order to stop screwing with the atmosphere. This likely won’t work if the biomass is grown in lieu of either food or forested ecosystems. It has to come from carbon wastes. Fortunately there is no shortage. It also won’t work if the biomass is just burned, sending long-lived greenhouse gases skyward. The only way it can work is if the biomass is converted to stable biochar, with energy and potentially food as (profitable) byproducts.
Put biochar in the ground, and regardless who the next farmer is, or what the weather decides to do, the biochar carbon will stay in the ground. That is possibly our strongest asset in relation to other options that are only as good as the management that maintains them. Forests can be bulldozed, soils can be ripped up and oxidized, biochar is stable in soil.
— Josiah Hunt
The amount of thermal energy or electricity produced during that conversion is variable, depending on the energy potential of the biomass and the process. The types of machines used are typically divided between CHAP (combined heat and power) and CHAB (combined heat and biochar). CHAP is mostly carbon neutral (depending on transportation distances) and CHAB is carbon negative, or net drawdown, as long as the product — biochar — is not reused as a fuel.

from The Biochar Solution (2010)
 In many production systems the waste heat is used to good advantage. Thomas Harttung’s farm in Denmark — the largest subscription farm in Europe —  uses it to heat greenhouses. The Pyreg unit in Stockholm uses it to warm air in the winter and water in the summer for district air conditioning.

Some biomass energy equipment also produces pyrolysis oil, also known as wood vinegar, biocrude or bio-oil, that can be burned in boilers, furnaces or turbines, or transformed into useful chemicals, plastics and adhesives.

Wood gas, also called producer gas, is a type of synthesis gas (syngas) that can directly power internal combustion engines, gas furnaces and stoves the way gasoline or diesel does. Syngas can generate electricity with lower emissions than fossil fuels, although with full cycle costing you can’t say its carbon negative.

Biomass can also be gasified chemically. Argonne National Labs discovered that adding small amounts of biochar to anaerobic digesters can boost both the quantity and the quality of methane. This process led to municipalities being able to reduce contaminants from sewage sludge, and that’s led to pipeline-quality methane for power and transportation fuel.

At the COP23 summit in Bonn, Bronson Griscom told a crowd that the maximum drawdown potential of all natural pathways, over and above what they already accomplish, could be as much as 37.4 gigatons of CO2-equivalent at a 2030 reference year. All human activity today releases about 37 gigatons, so Griscom said, essentially, we can neutralize that with biochar, forests, and wetlands. Then, cut emissions and we can return the atmosphere to the way it was before fossil fuels came into widespread use.

The economics of Griscom’s plan, however, do not pencil out. This is true of many such plans. Planting new, climate-hardy forests over the available 1780 million hectares of marginal lands is not an inexpensive undertaking. Also, applying biochar to soil rejuvenation at the rate of several billion tons per year would likely run out of forestry wastes, at least in the near term. 

Adding sensitive plantations (willow, bamboo, vetiver, miscanthus) or ecosystem-optimized forestry rotations (milpa, coppice, step-harvest low-grading) would expand the feedstock reservoir. That strategy is more about social permaculture and community building than legions of government-paid tree-planters.
But here is the kicker. If you put your biochar in concretes, asphalts, composites, or electronics you can then employ municipal wastes and industrial wastes that greatly expand the available biomass supply. In our forthcoming book we call these carbon cascade enterprises. They make carbon drawdown so profitable as to eliminate the need for credit exchanges. Consider a few examples.

The quest for larger and longer storage capacity has researchers and investors frothing because batteries are the key to kissing fossil fuels good-bye once and for all. Besides capacity and discharge time, batteries need to be durable, fast charging and cheap. They also need to operate at ambient temperatures year-round, in nearly all climates.

Hydrogen has long been looked upon as a promising energy storage medium for transportation but the special qualities of hydrogen — the lightest and easiest-to-combine of all elements — have proven challenging. Fortunately, we now know that hydrogen stored in the pores of a biochar sponge is less likely to escape its confines and even less likely to combust in the tank (or body panels) of your car or the wing-reservoir of a commercial jetliner.

Supercapacitors (also known as ultracapacitors or supercaps) store energy as static charge rather than chemical charge. They are quickly replacing chemical batteries because they are lighter, faster charging and longer lasting. They can be recharged thousands of times without much capacity loss, and they have a broader temperature performance range.

This kind of storage is particularly good for products that require many charge/discharge cycles for relatively short-term power needs — consumer electronics, braking systems, and data storage, for instance. Graphene and activated carbon are already used in capacitors but biochar is coming in at a lower price point. This is helpful for biomass energy producers and indirectly for farmers and foresters.

What makes low-tech, easily sourced biochar economically viable without government subsidies or carbon credits are the carbon cascades. The same biochar might first filter out heavy metals such as nickel in wastewater. Charged this way, it is twice as effective as plain biochar as the dialectic between the two metal conducting plates. It shows almost no loss of capacity after 1000 cycles.
Biochar from pyrolyzed alligator weed, an aquatic invasive species found across the globe, shows even longer durability, lasting more than 5000 cycles without losing capacity.

Storing energy electrochemically has been dominated by lithium ion batteries for more than two decades. They power Nike+ FuelBands, Apple Watches and Teslas. They move electrons from one side, or electrode, to the other to charge, then reverse the direction to power. The negative side is known as an anode and is generally made of carbon. The positive side is called a cathode and is usually a metal oxide. The catalyst is called an electrolyte — in this case lithium salt in an organic solvent. Although Li-ions have a fairly long life (~1200 cycles), they are pricey and have a relatively low energy density so using them for larger applications has been difficult.

The new kid on the electrochemical battery block is the lithium sulfur battery. It packs five times more energy, is lighter and cheaper, but there’s a catch. Li-S suffers rapid capacity fade. It can only charge/recharge 50 to 100 times due to something called the shuttle effect — basically a meet-up of polysulfides.

Carbon to the rescue! High porosity carbon such as cherry pit biochar activated with phosphoric acid is beginning to improve the prospects for longer lived Li-S batteries. Cherry char traps polysulfides.

Batteries from carbonized biomass can come from sources as simple and abundant as green algae, bamboo, olive pits, and banana peels. All those feedstocks have been optimized in trials to increase surface area at lower cost, producing anodes with better conductivity and less charging time.

The world of 3D printing materials is changing by the day. Filament materials are no longer limited to just plastics and metals but might include ceramics, paper, sugar — even seaweed. Today carbon in its various forms is a versatile and regenerative feedstock. For its part, 3D printing helps put carbon where it needs to be.

We are about to dive into the weeds here, so a quick chemistry lesson:

Oxidation is the loss of electrons or an increase in oxidation state by a molecule, atom or ion; reduction is the gain of electrons or a decrease in oxidation state. As an example, during the combustion of wood, oxygen from the air is reduced, gaining electrons from the carbon. Although oxidation reactions are commonly associated with oxides, oxygen is not necessary. Other chemical species can serve the same function.

The reaction can occur relatively slowly, as in the case of rust, or more quickly, as in the case of fire. The oxidation of carbon to yield carbon dioxide (CO2) or the reduction of carbon by hydrogen to yield methane (CH4), and more complex processes such as the oxidation of glucose (C6H12O6) in the human body are all examples of this oxidation-reduction reaction.

Microbial fuel cell technology captures the exudates of microorganisms to generate electricity, even while they serve their essential function of digesting and transforming organic matter. First discovered a century ago, MFCs only began to leave the lab and find practical applications in the 1970s. Most MFCs contain a membrane to separate the compartments of an anode (where oxidation takes place) and a cathode (where reduction takes place). The electrons produced during oxidation — when the microbes break down oxygen-containing food — are transferred directly to an electrode or to a redox (short for reduction–oxidation reaction) mediator. The electron flux is moved to the cathode and stored as useful power.

The charge balance of the system is compensated by ionic movement inside the cell, usually across a membrane. Most MFCs use an organic electron donor that is oxidized to produce CO2, protons and electrons. Petroleum hydrocarbons, solvents like vinyl chloride, and soil organic matter are all compounds that can be electron donors. The cathode reaction brings together a variety of electron acceptors that can reduce oxides, metals, sulfates or nitrates; or change water to hydrogen and oxygen.

Meghana Rao, who dazzled us as a High School sophomore from Beaverton, Oregon at the Sonoma Biochar Conference in 2012, delivering a PhD level talk on the effect of particle size and feedstock on physical and chemical stability of biochar, returned for an encore at the Amherst Biochar Conference in 2013 as a much older 17-yr-old High School junior, having by then presented in Kyoto, Japan, final-ed at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, had 15 minutes with President Obama to better educate him on the climate restoring value of biochar, and then been named Young Naturalist of the Year by the American Museum of Natural History. Her presentation in Amherst, which was again jaw-dropping, was on the “Novel Implementation of Biochar Cathodes in Microbial Fuel Cells — Phase I.”

Having earlier noted the high surface area and cation exchange capacity of biochar, she began conducting a longer study on replacing platinum and rare earths in fuel cells with biocathodes. Preliminary results suggest biochar is somewhat less efficient (10–15 percent) but up to 400 times more cost-effective and of course can be recycled from or to later uses, such as water filtration, toxin-scavenging, or as an organic soil amendment.

This past week the Journal of the Electrochemical Society previewed an article accepted for its May issue entitled Flexible and Self-Healing Aqueous Supercapacitors By Polyampholyte Gel Electrolytes with Biochar Electrodes and Their Unique Low Temperature Properties. You know you are not a bubba when you actually enjoy reading stuff like this, right?

Author Hyun-Joong Chung of the University of Alberta says that he created a flexible and self-healing supercapacitor with 3 times the normal energy density (50 Wh/kg at room temperature) with 90% capacitance retention after 5000 charge-discharge cycles. The electrode material was biochar produced from biological wastes (could be banana peels, but he didn’t say).

Pyrolyzed carbon film is now finding applications as working electrode material for electrochemical impedance biosensors. Batch-fabricated by photolithography, smooth thin film carbon electrodes can be inexpensively produced that have electrical resistivity comparable to that of highly boron-doped polysilicon. This opens new approaches for miniaturization, circuit integration, and low-cost fabrication in electrochemical biosensors.

In microbial fuel cells, carbon can function as both an electron donor and an electron acceptor. This is no small advantage. It means that rather than having to be continuously fed, the MFC can operate on a closed cycle. Biochar is its own redox pair. A 2018 literature review for the journal Bioresource Technology found that:
Biochar can be used as an environmentally-sustainable electron donor, acceptor, or mediator. It can enhance the reduction of oxidized contaminants and participate in elemental cycling in terrestrial, groundwater, or waste water ecosystems. We illustrated that it is possible to tailor the redox characteristics of the biochar by selecting specific feedstocks, pyrolysis temperatures, and post-treatments. Further understanding of the factors impacting these redox properties will allow production of biochars for specific redox applications.
Imagine now that the 3D printers of the future, being designed in the science laboratories of high schools, even as you read this, employ filament feeds and feedstocks made of industrial wastes digested and decontaminated by microbes that in the process supply the electricity required for the printing. And when it is done and the printed object served its purpose, it can go back to feeding more microbes and producing more energy and supplying another printer somewhere to make an entirely different object. This is the way a proper carbon cycle goes: not point A to point Z — petrofuel to pollution. Instead, around and around.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. This post was a collaborative effort between Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper and likely is to be included in Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year. Since neither of us are physicists, we are hoping you, dear readers, will spot our errors and offer corrections.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Breathing Highways and Sponge Cities

"We could do worse than to go back to the way nature manages rainfall."

During the 20th Century, the rate of global warming was twice as fast in Taiwan (1.7°C) as for the world as a whole (0.74°C). Partly as a result, the number of days with rainfall decreased dramatically and typhoons gained strength. In 2009, Typhoon Morakot dropped over 1,000 mm (39.4 inches) in a single day and caused the loss of 699 lives. A massive mudslide wiped out Xiaolin Village and 474 people were buried alive. In 2015, Typhoon Soudelor left similar damage. It took months to repair the roads.

Then Taiwan and East China were struck by Dujuan, known in the Philippines as Typhoon Jenny, a killer storm and the thirteenth typhoon of the 2015 Pacific typhoon season. Eight months later, Nepartak became the third most intense tropical cyclone on record with 114 deaths and more than $1.5 billion damage in Taiwan and East China. September brought Meranti, a super typhoon and the strongest ever to make landfall in China in more than 1000 years of records. Meranti’s peak sustained winds tied the record set by Haiyan in 2013, 195 mph (315 km/h), comparable to a tornado, or a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. In Taiwan, nearly 1 million households lost power and 720,000 lost water supplies. Flooding in Zhejiang took 902 homes and affected 1.5 million people.

Between those punctuations, the erratic weather brought long droughts. New Taipei City had to enforce water restrictions when the Shihmen reservoir went dry in April. All cities along coasts or rivers have engineered means to remove excess water and to prevent flooding. Few have the means to sustain themselves in severe droughts.

As a city develops, the soil is slowly covered by hardscape. There is less and less water infiltrating through to reach soil. Typically cities build a drainage system that directs water out. During times of typhoons or heavy rainfall the level of external water in rivers may rise, so floodgates are closed to prevent external water from gushing in. Pumping stations swing into action to take the excess water out. If the level of rainfall exceeds the pumping stations’ capacity, the city floods, like New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or New York during Superstorm Sandy.

We could do worse than to go back to the way nature manages rainfall. That was the inspiration of a Taiwanese road construction engineer, Jui-Wen Chen. His idea is to build a “permeable city” that allows internal water to infiltrate into the soil and return the natural water cycle.

In conventional road-building there are two kinds of suitable materials to allow a hard surface to drain: porous asphalt and porous concrete. Between the two, porous asphalt is more commonly used and has the longest history. It uses larger-graded aggregates in the asphalt mixture to increase the porosity, which allows water to infiltrate into the soil through the gaps. The other type is interlocking blocks that join together, forming small gaps between and allowing water to infiltrate. A wide variety of materials can be used as interlocking blocks, such as rocks, concrete bricks, permeable bricks, grass bricks, and others.

Jui-Wen Chen said that he was not a scholar, did not study a lot and could not understand the research on this topic written in other languages. As a boy he gave up on schooling and only graduated from junior high school. Although he had extensive experience of road construction in Taiwan, he had no knowledge of the current popular trends elsewhere in the world.

He considered that a good thing. When we met at the UN climate conference in Paris, and later at COP-22 in Morocco, he told us through a translator he was not limited by others’ ideas and was able to invent his own. He explored what interested him, thought creatively and acquired whatever skills and materials he needed to experiment.

When Jui-Wen Chen was a child he had allergies, but he could control them if he stayed away from places where pollen and dust were high. Then his own child developed a more severe condition than his and needed to go to the hospital regularly to receive treatments.

Over the years, Mr. Chen noticed there were more and more children suffering from similar allergies. The doctor told him it was mainly due to the increased levels of pollution. The doctor pointed to the road construction outside and explained that, with all the digging and paving, road construction could be one of the causes. Jui-Wen Chen was shocked to hear that his successful career may actually have contributed to his son’s suffering.

Realizing this, Chen became more sensitive to the impact of air pollution on human health. He also learned how his roads were having negative effects on marine life from the street runoff that ran into rivers and the ocean.

Then came the spate of super-typhoons and Chen noticed that, even with a higher embankment protecting the city, it would still flood because water was not able to discharge. The city kept building more pumping stations, but it cannot cope with a storm that can dump more than one meter per day.

Jui-Wen Chen started to think that maybe he could invent a new type of roadway to solve all these problems. He slowly formed the idea of making roads a part of the city’s drainage system.
He asked himself many questions. Can permeable pavement actually allow water to get to the soil? Would building a hard roadbed lead to more runoff? If the roadbed were soft, would it cause soil liquefaction when an earthquake hits? Would a soft pavement be able to withstand the weight of the road, or would it break during high traffic volumes?

From his construction experience, Chen knew that using reinforced concrete with embedded steel bars would be the most structurally stable and durable. A reinforced concrete structure does not need to compact soil below, like asphalt does, but only requires a layer of leveled gravel for support. To make pavement with high permeability, Chen came up with the idea of changing the steel reinforcing bars into steel pipes so that whenever it rains, the water could drain into the pipes and infiltrate through the loose gravel and then into the soil. His concept of an air-circulating aqueduct assembly was born.

The system Jui-Wen Chen invented is called an “aqueduct grate.” It is neither permeable porous pavement nor permeable interlocking pavement.

Steel pipe posed more problems, however. Pavement needs to withstand the test of time. Steel bars are susceptible to rust. Once the rust starts, the bars rupture and expand, resulting in cracks in the pavement and weakening its integrity. In his search for the perfect material, Jui-Wen Chen tried and failed with many. One after another — iron, aluminum, copper and more. And then he tried carbon.

Specifically he tried polypropylene — (C3H6)n.

Carbon was first made into a crystalline isotactic polymer in 1954. After polyethylene, polypropylene is the most important plastic, with revenues expected to exceed $145 billion by 2019. The sales of this material are forecast to grow at a rate of 5.8 percent per year until 2021. In isotactic polypropylene, the methyl (H) groups are oriented on one side of the carbon backbone. This arrangement creates a greater degree of crystallinity and results in a stiffer material, tough, flexible, and with good resistance to fatigue. It can resist both acidic and alkaline chemicals; it is structurally strong; and it can withstand heat as high as 140°C and cold as low as -40°C.
Chen resolved to make his aqueduct grate system from recycled plastics.The structural mechanics of the pavement would allow the weight to be evenly distributed, even for a load as heavy as a tractor-trailer truck hauling stone.

Jui-Wen Chen later added, “I didn’t expect to see such a perfect match of these two distinct materials, concrete and plastic, in road construction.” The carbon did not corrode the way steel does, nor did it expand and contract with temperature change. The concrete was more stable with carbon than steel, and would remain that way for a longer time.

 Jui-Wen Chen shopped around the city for women’s shoes to test his design. He designed pipe openings small enough to be safe for most high heels. To prevent silt buildup that might block the pipes, he designed the pipe ends as a cone — wide down below and narrow at the top. When cleaning the street, a pressurized water jet can easily and quickly wash the dirt down to the gravel layer.

To maximize the level of air-circulation in his Aqueduct Grate, Chen alternated narrow pipes and wide pipes. The narrow pipes allow water drainage into the gravel and soil where it will help create a suitable environment for microorganisms that clean the city air. Then, using the Bernoulli principle, the clean air and moisture move back to the atmosphere through the wide pipes. Chen thinks his design will play a significant role in reducing urban air pollution.

To the gravel layer under the pavement Mr. Chen added “water retention balls,” each about the size of a ping-pong ball. These are hollow, recycled plastic balls with perforations around their circumference. Chen asked us not to underestimate the look and design of these water retention balls — they have an astonishing impact.

At 0.5m height, the averaged level of CO2
over the JW pavement is about 84% lower than
that over the non-JW pavement.
The water retention balls are added into the gravel layer, about 30 percent by volume to the gravel. Rainwater can make its way into the balls through the perforations and that increases the amount of water that can be stored underneath the surface of the pavement. Microorganisms thrive in the hollow spaces, cleaning both air and water.

Depending on the needs of each area, there are five different types of water retention balls:
  • Red balls: completely hollow balls for increased water storage.
  • Green balls: filled with absorptive carbon — ashed rice hulls — to provide nutrients and a suitable environment for microorganisms.
  • Blue balls: filled with sponges to retain water for long dry periods.
  • Black balls: filled with biochar to detoxify water and air from heavy metals and other pollutants, and to encourage microbial diversity.
  • White balls: filled with the topsoil taken up from that pavement site, to return the ecosystem and microbial life to its original health.
Jui-Wen Chen formed a company called JW Eco-Technology and started to market his “Structural Pervious Pavement” with several features that predecessor eco-pavement products had not been able to accomplish — heavy load bearing, low-maintenance, long term durability and ecological habitat. His pavement is a sandwiched system of multiple layers serving complementary functions. The top layer is concrete reinforced with the Aqueduct Grate to withstand high traffic volumes while drawing down water. Surface texture and color can be selected or changed as desired.

The gravel layer with water retention balls provides space for microorganisms and for both air and water to circulate. The pavement can become an air-conditioner using the moisture beneath the pavement to chill summer heat or melt snow in the winter. Finally, using the water it stores and the fertilizers the organisms create, the system builds healthy soils directly beneath the road.

Jui-Wen Chen’s urban planning passion has now advanced to what he calls his “Sponge City,” with terraced retaining walls, waterways, porous pavements, lakes and urban aquaculture irrigating urban farmland. By using his porous roads and tracks around the city, the land will become a reservoir all by itself. Farmers will have a constant supply of water and no need to deplete limited supplies in times of drought.

Mr. Chen’s work reminds us that it is only by finding a way to live peacefully with the natural world can we resolve the crisis caused by global warming and other negative effects of cities.
Jui-Wen Chen is a talented inventor pushing out the frontier of the carbon revolution. His work reflects his concern for people and planet, and he constantly tries to find the best way for humans and the natural world to return to living peacefully together.

The next step to cascade Mr. Chen’s pavement might be for each city to produce its own biochar. The city of Stockholm, Sweden is likely the first large city piloting an urban pyrolysis-based biorefinery. The Stockholm Biochar Project, one of 5 winners of the 2014 Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge and recipient of $ 1 million in prize money, is carbonizing the city’s green waste and making the biochar available to city residents and for municipal landscaping.

Bjorn Embrén, Stockholm’s Tree Officer, has been using biochar successfully for nearly 10 years to improve urban forest survival rates and enhance growth. Looking to source more locally produced biochar, Embrén and a colleague, Jonas Dahlof, who heads up planning and development for the city’s waste disposal, developed a plan for converting park waste into biochar and using the excess heat to feed into the city’s district heating system.

Stockholm also significantly improved its stormwater management, demonstrating what Mr. Chen has been saying. Stockholm’s stormwater, like Taipai’s, is contaminated with total suspended solids, nutrients, heavy metals, PAHs, E.coli and other substances. Stockholm found it could mitigate many of these problems by installing biochar beds along roads and drainages. It found that different types of char are more effective at filtering different types of contaminants and that it can also increase hydropic conductivity — infiltration of water into soil.

Particle size and pore size distribution matter, and both are boosted with higher temperature kilns. Finer sizes may be better for sandy soils, while courser particles may be better for soils with high clay content. Higher temperatures can also produce biochars which are less hydrophobic.

In 2014 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) invited the Stockholm team to Washington D.C. to explain how carbon-structured soils has saved their city money and cut pollution.

Stormwater can be captured and treated in catch basins, French drains, porous sidewalks, rain and roof gardens, swales, storm drain channels and wetlands. Researchers at the University of Delaware are designing ways to incorporate carbon catchment into the greenways along highways. That will reduce the need for state and local governments to buy additional land for stormwater treatment right-of-ways, potentially saving millions of tax dollars and rescuing coastal cities from the nightmare storms climate change still has in store for the 21st century.

Thanks for reading! Please consider sharing it around. My open banjo case catching for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. My next book is Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies, due out from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year.




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.