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Terra Preta Soil Improvement and Carbon Sequestration

Soil can hold organic carbon to fertilize our soil for hundreds of years

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Soil is such a subtle, under-appreciated wonder. It holds the power to trigger new life, nurture it, support it, cool it, warm it...and hold life's promise in its depths for the next generation...and the next.

Modern people struggle to appreciate the genius of previous generations, and the science of soil is one of those areas of earthy genius that could benefit from ancient wisdom. Today's erosion problems from wind, bare construction sites, monoculture, leaching, and flood could benefit from a touch of that genius that everything from the soil must return to the soil.

Sustainable agriculture is a mandate for peace.

When people go hungry -- they go to their leaders first...and if solutions aren't found, they go to war to feed their families. It's that simple. The way to foster peace is to provide quality agriculture, and renewable energy for quality of life such as light and heat. Sustainable agriculture techniques such as organic farming, permaculture, and now...Terra Preta ... can bring the possibility of peace and survival to populations around the world.

Fertile soil is not rocket science. Sustainable food and energy has become a matter of heart!

The techniques of caring for the earth (and all life) is being handed down from ancient civilizations and it is up to us to distribute that knowledge for the wellbeing of all -- not just capitalists. This solution belongs to the people of the world.

Terra Preta -- Black Earth

Modern researchers have discovered a treasure deep in the mountainous jungles of Amazonian Brazil. "Terra Preta de Indio" (Amazonian Dark Earths were also called "Terra Preta do Indio" or Indian Black Earth) is the name for certain dark earths in the Brazilian Amazon region. These dark earths occur in several countries in South America and probably beyond. They were most likely created by pre-Columbian Indians from 500 to 2500 years B.P. and abandoned after the invasion of Europeans.

Composition of Terra Preta

Soil-based organic carbon is an important pool of carbon in the global biogeochemical cycle.

The total amount of organic carbon in soils is estimated to be 2011 Gt C, which constitutes about 82% of the global organic carbon in terrestrial ecosystems (Watson et al., 2000).

Amazonian Dark Earths have high carbon contents of up to 150 g C/kg soil in comparison to the surrounding soils with 20-30 g C/kg soil (Sombroek, 1966; Smith, 1980; Kern and Kämpf, 1989; Sombroek et al., 1993; Woods and McCann, 1999; Glaser et al., 2000).

Additionally, the horizons which are enriched in organic matter, are not only 10-20cm deep as in surrounding soils, but may be as deep as 1-2m (average values probably around 40-50cm)!

Therefore, the total carbon stored in these soils can be one order of magnitude higher than in adjacent soils.

The organic matter in the dark earths is persistent since we find these elevated carbon contents even hundreds of years after they were abandoned.

Terra Preta was first described by Charles Hartt in 1874 and is now intensively researched by Cornell University in the Lehmann lab, as well as others. The application of bio-char has significant, long-lasting fertility impacts where low soil organic matter and acid soils predominate.

These soil deposits are found in the midst of the widely spread poor topsoils of the Amazon jungle. But these hilltop deposits of dark, nutrient rich soil seemed to be the secret to advanced civilizations that were able to thrive in the jungle.

Today's Terra Preta Soil Research

Terra preta research inspired the development of a revolutionary technology that can have tremendous impact on rural soil quality as well as carbon sequestration.

The application of stable organic matter in the form of bio-char (biomass-derived black carbon or charcoal) along with nutrient soil amendments is very stable, provides and retains nutrients for millenia, as seen in Terra Preta.

Nutrient losses such as highly weathered soils in the humid tropics limit soil productivity, and can have detrimental impacts, such as agrochemical contamination of ground- and surface waters.

Under extremely adverse soil conditions, crop productivity can be increased several times with a comparatively simple application of bio-char. Acid soils can be balanced where conventional liming is prohibitively expensive, and fertilizer efficiency is drastically improved.

Not only can crop yields be improved, but cropping systems can be changed so that farmers can raise crops of higher value produce such as vegetables. These farming capabilities not only improve farm income through sales of produce but also farmers’ health through better nutrition.

How Terra Preta Works

The application of bio-char improves soil fertility by adding nutrients to the soil and by retaining nutrients from other sources including nutrients from the soil itself.

Bio-char is biomass-derived black carbon. It is highly stable in soil and can remain for hundreds and thousands of years. It is much more stable than the most stabilized carbon in soil, so it provides a much longer carbon sink than most other sequestration options such as no-tillage, manure application, or afforestation.

According to Johannes Lehmann, the Cornell researcher of Terra Preta, "If black carbon is buried in deep soils through leaching or in sea or ocean sediments, black carbon sequstration can be considered a permanent carbon sink."

Sourcing Bio-char

Black carbon soil management can become a valued by-product of several production systems that produce carbon:
  • Bio-fuel energy production
  • Slash-and-char as an alternative to slash-and-burn
  • Waste recycling of agricultural and charcoal production

By shifting cultivation of primarily forest biomass from burning to bio-char production, an identical amount of biomass can be used to retain and return about 50% of the biomass carbon to the soil in the form of bio-char.

Millions of tons of agricultural wastes are discarded annually including wastes from charcoal production, yard and municipal park trimmings, crop residues, forestry and wood processing industries. These organic materials can be used to product black carbon or charcoal and applied to the soil. Many (but not all) materials are useful for the production of bio-char. For example: corn residue is less approprite, but peanut shells and rice husks are ideal.

Bio-energy crops can be used to produce energy by charring them in specialized power plants and yield bio-char as a by-produt. The majority of the energy is converted into hydrogen, bio-oil or electricity. Due to favorable energetic processes, this revolutionary process can bcome a net sink of atmospheric carbon dioxide and provide organic matter to enrich soils at the same time.

For more information about Biochar and Terra Preta

Cornell University, Lehmann Lab

Johannes Lehmann
Department of Crop and Soil Sciences,
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences,
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 148534,
Cornell - Lehmann

Terra Preta Discussion List

The Terra Preta Discussion List is part of the that bioenergy lists is striving to be the primary web location for technical discussions on new important uses for biomass.

The International Biochar Initiative

The IBI provides a platform for the international exchange of information and activities in support of biochar research, development, demonstration and commercialization. It advocates biochar as a strategy to: improve the Earth’s soils;, help mitigate the anthropogenic greenhouse effect by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering atmospheric carbon in a stable soil carbon pool; and improve water quality by retaining agrochemicals. The IBI also promotes: sustainable co-production of clean energy and other bio-based products as part of the biochar process; efficient biomass utilization in developing country agriculture; and cost-effective utilization of urban, agricultural and forest co products.

Biochar for Environmental Management:Science and Technology
This book will explore a diverse set of aspects needed to advance the application of biochar for environmental management. Authors with expertise in the basic sciences as well as economics, marketing and policy will summarize our current knowledge and provide a roadmap for future research and development of biochar. This volume is an effort of the International Biochar Initiative (IBI, and is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2008.

eGenesis Industries, Redondo Beach, CA

EGenesis Industries Inc. (EGEN) is the first licensed provider of biomass pyrolysis machines made by EPRIDA. EGEN provides technical services that allow purchasers to fully develop the carbon negative co-products that are made from biomass pyrolysis. This includes support for maximizing energy outputs (heat, bio-oils an syngas) and as well as assistance in marketing of biomass charcoal (biochar)as carbon-sequestering soil amendments for home, garden and agriculture markets.

eGenesis Industries
212 Yacht Club Way A-12
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
Phone: 310.399.9775

Edited by Carolyn Allen
| soil | carbon | carbon sequestration | agriculture | forestry | biofuel |


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