Industrial Carbon for making Terra Preta

I set out in this article to address the industrial production of carbon for agriculture. I am treating it as an industrial process in order to establish the most cost effective way of getting the task done. The reason that I do this is that is that will always be the prime competition for other industrial methods. We have already done this for the subsistence economies were we applied onsite earthen kilns using the unique nature of corn culture.

I am not constraining myself to sustainable methods for this article, although I certainly think that all agricultural carbon should be made from agricultural waste where possible. It will not be possible for a large portion of the earth’s croplands simply because biomass production is way too low for it to be feasible. If you cannot grow corn for lack of moisture, then you surely cannot make an earthen kiln or even hope to gather enough biomass to make a difference. This describes a lot of good farm land in Africa, to say nothing of the grain lands of western America and Australia.

I also think that the principal benefit of terra preta soils is totally a function of the elemental carbon, rather than any other carbon form. This is because of the long lasting fertility to this day, of terra preta soils, centuries after any other carbon compound was destroyed. It is unlikely that any other factor matters.

So let us stop dragging vast amounts of wet wood waste out of the forest in monster convoys of trucks to the central processing plant. We start instead with bituminous coal. This coal does not even have to be the highest quality because a good chaser of shale may even be a good thing. That also means that huge reserves of poorer quality coal can be exploited. There is plenty of that to do the whole job once and for all.

The coal is then coked in coking ovens which are fueled by process gases and produces a highly porous product of virtually pure elemental carbon. This then has to be crushed into a finely powdered form for agricultural use. It makes very good sense to also blend in fertilizers during this powdering stage. If we are fortunate it should produce a possible non corrosive product that does not damage equipment. At least that should be the objective.

It may prove better to pregrind the coal before it is roasted for forty eight hours. This form of carbon has high crushing strength and this must mean a high wear rate on the grinding equipment. It makes one appreciate the elegance of reducing corn stover to elemental carbon which must naturally produce a finely subdivided powder.

We now have an agriculture ready product that can follow current fertilizer distribution channels.

There is no need to attempt to match terra preta in a single year obviously, but even putting in five hundred pounds per acre, will easily get us there in three generations. Integrating properly with the fertilizer industry facilitates the whole process and allows a slow transition for the soils. Even a hundred pounds per acre as part of the fertilizer blend will put a ton per acre into the ground every twenty years.

Field experiments will need to be done, if only for safeties’ sake. We all know, thanks to the Amazon that the end product is fantastic. However, a hundred pounds even of completely activated charcoal may be simply too aggressively reactive to easily be accommodated.

This or a similar low level can then be even mandated by regulation without putting the industry out of sorts and assuring that soil futility will henceforth be improving no matter how incompetent the individual farm.

This would establish pricing benchmarks that a wood waste charcoal industry must work towards in terms of their feasibility. Biochar kilns on the farm should still produce a better product, but the commercial carbon fertilizer industry can establish a price point for farm labor input.

What I have just described could be implemented today with very little fuss. Experience only has to be gained in grinding coke and blending the various forms of fertilizers to see what is quickly practical.

I want very much to convert atmospheric CO2 into soil carbon by way of carbonizing agricultural waste and thus resolving the CO2 issue. That desire is however equal to the desire to do everything possible to hasten the evolution of global agriculture to sustaining highly fertile soils everywhere and reversing the massive destruction of good farmland everywhere. I even suspect that the soils of the Fertile Crescent can be brought back to ancient fertility and perhaps even reversing the salinity problem there.

The damage done by ten thousand years of often lousy agricultural practice is a problem that puts the current damage of pollution and industrial practice in the shade. We are actually doing a better job as we have industrialized agriculture over the last two generations.

A really great and overly ambitious experiment would be to take a barren field no longer productive because of salinity and attempt an irrigated crop using a ton of carbon fertilizer. It should not work at all, but changes with adjacent untreated plots should inform us if we are onto something. I am optimistic that at some point we will be able to actually produce sweet soil.

Most importantly, the conversion of the industrial fertilizer industry over to carbon based application protocol will assert the primacy of terra preta style soils everywhere and greatly facilitate the adoption of other protocols achieving the same objective.

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