Saturday, March 17, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

Practical and constructive solutions as to what to do about global warming are much more welcome than demands to stop using electricity, cars, jets, plastic, or transported food.

It irritates me that this article from Yahoo! News describes these ideas as crazy. If it can be done, and if it works, and if it doesn't cause enormous horrible side-effects then it is worth considering.

My favourite idea in this world-engineering vein has been the "gigantic space mirror". It seems wonderfully hubris, but more importantly would give us an excuse to get into space.

Once we have a toehold in space we can begin real space development, construction of a space elevator, self-sufficient space habitat, start mining the asteroids, dismantle Mercury to build a Dyson swarm, and build floating cities in Venus' atmosphere - all the usual things.

Because if it's not the nuclear bombs, or the global warming, or the plagues, or the asteroid impacts, or the earthquakes, or the gamma-ray bursts, it will be something else that gets us. Existential threats surround us, and their prevalence may account for the Fermi paradox.

We need to use the vast resource of oil we are fortunate enough to have to bootstrap ourselves to the next level of technology. Molecular nanotechnology offers enormous potential because it involves manipulating matter at the most fundamental level. If developed to its fullest extend, along with genetic-algorithm-based design software and other things we haven't even thought of yet, it would also create a self-sustaining, self-operating, self-designing, and highly durable "technosphere" independent of the need for human intervention or maintenance.

Why would such a thing be desirable? There is a sort of paranoia about handing too much control over to artificial machines. I believe this is rooted mostly in our knowledge that machines are unreliable in all but the most routine of circumstances, and sometimes they break down. This is why jet-aircraft still have pilots, and trams still have drivers.

But if artificial machinery becomes more like naturally-evolved machinery it would become at least as durable as we and our biosphere are (...if not more so, because it would be less restricted in terms of its use of materials, and it could apply sentience to the problem of design, eliminating flaws like the combining of the breathing-hole and the eating-hole in land dwelling vertebrates...) and these objections to handing control to artificial machines would be irrelevant.

The argument that suggests that "the evil computer will take over the world" is an interesting one. I believe that if we are ever to create an AI that will equal or exceed human "intelligence" (however we quantify such a thing) its mind will need a model of the world at least as good as ours, a model of all the most complex things in that world (including humans) as good as ours, and it would need a model of itself at least as good as ours.

Such a thing would undoubtedly be sentient, as it would be able to view and map its internal processes as well as (and probably much better than) we can. In fact, it would be very close to being a human mind.

Such a mind would be in pretty much the same position as the rest of us as regards taking over the world, but it is worth pointing out that if we imagine this future to be as democratic as the present. Given space, and full human rights, and citizenship of a state, there is no reason why an AI/upload/virtual person couldn't create enough independent copies of itself to affect the outcome of elections.

But such an AI would go beyond human. Part of the power of software programs is they can rapidly modify themselves to suit the job they are doing. Imagine if you could increase your level of curiosity over the tedious report you have to write for work, or become more logical for a maths exam, or develop hand-eye coordination for a badminton match.

So I imagine that the first "true AI" will simply be incredibly accurate models of human beings running on a computational substrate. In this case it won't be a matter of "handing over control to the machines" as it will be simply giving control to those in the best position to use it (I'm assuming human beings running on this substrate will experience time at the same speed or greater than human beings - but I suspect that we will be able to develop computers powerful enough).

Once we have a durable technosphere then, for the first time ever, everything that really matters in this world will not be stuck within three pounds of goo, protected by a thin layer of bone from all the nastiness of the universe.

Or so the transhumanists would have us believe...

Anyway. Realistically, we need to conserve our oil resources, keep our industrial infrastructure, gain a substantial hold in space (including Earth orbit, the Lagrangian points, the Moon, the asteroids, Mars, and Jupiter), develop the third world, and conserve the beauty that can be seen in our only example of a functioning biosphere. That means (for the time being) nuclear power, unless someone comes up with a decent fusion-power-generator.

And a giant-space-mirror would also be pretty cool.


erich said...

After many years of reviewing solutions to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) I believe this technology
can manage Carbon for the greatest collective benefit at the lowest economic price, on vast scales. It just needs to be seen by ethical globally minded companies.

Below is my review of these efforts in the Academic and private sectors, please forward this to all the experts you know, if you think it merits their time and support.

Sen. Byrd and Sen. Rockefeller of W VA and Rep. Udall had very positive responses to Terra Preta soils technology proposals presented to them.

Thanks for your attention

Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens
(540) 289-9750

Could you please consider looking for a champion for this orphaned Terra Preta Carbon Soil Technology.

The main hurtle now is to change the current perspective held by the IPCC that the soil carbon cycle is a wash, to one in which can be used as a massive and ubiquitous Carbon sink via Charcoal. Below are the first concrete steps in that direction;

Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.
Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions from Biomass by 2030
by Ralph P. Overend, Ph.D. and Anelia Milbrandt
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The organization 25x25 (see 25x'25 - Home) released it's (first-ever, 55-page )"Action Plan" ; see
On page 31, as one of four foci for recommended RD&D, the plan lists: "The development of biochar, animal agriculture residues and other non-fossil fuel based fertilizers, toward the end of integrating energy production with enhanced soil quality and carbon sequestration."
and on p 32, recommended as part of an expanded database aspect of infrastructure: "Information on the application of carbon as fertilizer and existing carbon credit trading systems."

I feel 25x25 is now the premier US advocacy organization for all forms of renewable energy, but way out in front on biomass topics.

There are 24 billion tons of carbon controlled by man in his agriculture , I forgot the % that is waste, but when you add all the other cellulose waste which is now dumped to rot or digested or combusted and ultimately returned to the atmosphere as GHG, the balanced number is around 24 Billion tons. So we have plenty of bio-mass.

Even with all the big corporations coming to the GHG negotiation table, like Exxon, Alcoa, .etc, we still need to keep watch as they try to influence how carbon management is legislated in the USA. Carbon must have a fair price, that fair price and the changes in the view of how the soil carbon cycle now can be used as a massive sink verses it now being viewed as a wash, will be of particular value to farmers and a global cool breath of fresh air for us all.

TerraPreta has the potential to solve AGHG emissions WITHOUT having to change basic human behavior. We can keep burning fossil fuels till the cows come home and not worry about Global warming. Using an integrated, local, cellulose to charcoal process , most all GHG from burning Fossil fuels can be cheaply converted to soil food via Ammonia Scrubbing technology;

CO2 to Ammonium Bicarbonate, NOx to nitrogen and putting the end product Charcoal in the soil reduces the soil GHG emissions of CH4 & N2O by 30%!

More Coal & Oil...........MORE Soil

If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP website I've been drafted to administer.
It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of G. I. T. , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who's back round I don't know have joined.

Here is my current Terra Preta posting which condenses the most important stories and links;

Terra Preta Soils Technology To Master the Carbon Cycle

Man has been controlling the carbon cycle , and there for the weather, since the invention of agriculture, all be it was as unintentional, as our current airliner contrails are in affecting global dimming. This unintentional warm stability in climate has over 10,000 years, allowed us to develop to the point that now we know what we did,............ and that now......... we are over doing it.

The prehistoric and historic records gives a logical thrust for soil carbon sequestration.
I wonder what the soil biome carbon concentration was REALLY like before the cutting and burning of the world's virgin forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till and reforestation have started to help rebuild it. It makes implementing Terra Preta soil technology like an act of penitence, a returning of the misplaced carbon to where it belongs.

On the Scale of CO2 remediation:

It is my understanding that atmospheric CO2 stands at 379 PPM, to stabilize the climate we need to reduce it to 350 PPM by the removal of 230 Billion tons.

The best estimates I've found are that the total loss of forest and soil carbon (combined
pre-industrial and industrial) has been about 200-240 billion tons. Of
that, the soils are estimated to account for about 1/3, and the vegetation
the other 2/3.

Since man controls 24 billion tons in his agriculture then it seems we have plenty to work with in sequestering our fossil fuel CO2 emissions as stable charcoal in the soil.

As Dr. Lehmann at Cornell points out, "Closed-Loop Pyrolysis systems such as Dr. Danny Day's are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative". and that " a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! "

Terra Preta Soils Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X FertilityToo

This some what orphaned new soil technology speaks to so many different interests and disciplines that it has not been embraced fully by any. I'm sure you will see both the potential of this system and the convergence needed for it's implementation.

The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil technology may
provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power
structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.

The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade in place.

.Nature article: Putting the carbon back Black is the new green:

Here's the Cornell page for an over view:

This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 19,000 self-selected folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

Terra Preta Discussion , central data base, and Mail list at REPP-CREST:

There is an ecology going on in these soils that is not completely understood, and if replicated and applied at scale would have multiple benefits for farmers and environmentalist.

Terra Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration effort of growing plants.

Charcoal / Ammonia Scrubbing Technology for Fossil Fuel Power Plants Emissions:

Here is a great article that high lights this pyrolysis process , ( ) which could use existing infrastructure to provide Charcoal sustainable Agriculture , Syn-Fuels, and a variation of this process would also work as well for H2 production and Charcoal-Fertilizer, while sequestering CO2, NO2 and SO2 from Coal fired plants to build soils at large scales , be sure to read the "See an initial analysis NEW" link of this technology to clean up Coal fired power plants.
Soil erosion, energy scarcity, excess greenhouse gas all answered through regenerative carbon management

The reason TP has elicited such interest on the Agricultural/horticultural side of it's benefits is this one static:

One gram of charcoal cooked to 650 C Has a surface area of 400 m2 (for soil microbes & fungus to live on), now for conversion fun:

One ton of charcoal has a surface area of 400,000 Acres!! which is equal to 625 square miles!! Rockingham Co. VA. , where I live, is only 851 Sq. miles

Now at a middle of the road application rate of 2 lbs/sq ft (which equals 1000 sqft/ton) or 43 tons/acre yields 26,000 Sq miles of surface area per Acre. VA is 39,594 Sq miles.

What this suggest to me is a potential of sequestering virgin forest amounts of carbon just in the soil alone, without counting the forest on top.

To take just one fairly representative example, in the classic Rothampstead experiments in England where arable land was allowed to revert to deciduous temperate woodland, soil organic carbon increased 300-400% from around 20 t/ha to 60-80 t/ha (or about 20-40 tons per acre) in less than a century (Jenkinson & Rayner 1977). The rapidity with which organic carbon can build up in soils is also indicated by examples of buried steppe soils formed during short-lived interstadial phases in Russia and Ukraine. Even though such warm, relatively moist phases usually lasted only a few hundred years, and started out from the skeletal loess desert/semi-desert soils of glacial conditions (with which they are inter-leaved), these buried steppe soils have all the rich organic content of a present-day chernozem soil that has had many thousands of years to build up its carbon (E. Zelikson, Russian Academy of Sciences, pers. comm., May 1994).

All the Bio-Char Companies and equipment manufactures I've found:

Carbon Diversion
Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns
BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis - Biomass - Clean Energy - Renewable Ene
Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy
Ensyn - Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals
Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste
Advanced BioRefinery Inc.
Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash

The upcoming International Agrichar Initiative (IAI) conference to be held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. ( )

If pre-Columbian Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 15% of the Amazon basin it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of energy return over energy input (EROEI) for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

I feel Terra Preta soil technology is the greatest of Ironies.
That is: an invention of pre-Columbian American culture, destroyed by western disease, may well be the savior of industrial western society.


Brian Dunbar said...

Once we have a toehold in space we can begin real space development, construction of a space elevator, self-sufficient space habitat, start mining the asteroids, dismantle Mercury to build a Dyson swarm, and build floating cities in Venus' atmosphere - all the usual things.

It might be that a space elevator enables the toe-hold ... just saying.