A carbon-negative economy: A practical prospect or a pipe dream?

“Let’s not simply reduce the CO2 emissions going up into the atmosphere. Let’s draw them down.”

So says Robert Brown, a professor of engineering at Iowa State University and a leader of the university’s Initiative for a Carbon Negative Economy and its Bioeconomy Institute. Those are interdisciplinary campus efforts to develop ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by growing plants or algae, making them into fuels and burying their carbon residues in soil -- and make money doing it.

The notion that we can generate wealth and remove CO2 from the air is obviously appealing. As atmospheric concentrations of CO2 rise and climate risks grow, so does the need for carbon-negative technologies that pull CO2 from the air, as plants do, and then store it underground or deep in the ocean.

But is this practical or a pipe dream? That’s what Brown and his colleagues at Iowa State and its Bioeconomy Institute want to find out, as they explained this week at a two-day workshop on biochar -- that’s the term used for the charcoal created when biomass is decomposed at high heat, in a process called pyrolysis. The workshop was part of the Carbon War Room‘s Creating Climate Wealth Summit in Washington, D.C..

The Carbon War Room, as you may know, is a nonprofit created by Richard Branson of Virgin fame to unlock gigaton-scale, market-driven solutions to climate change. Its new president will be Jose Maria Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica. The group is also tackling projects around energy efficiency, renewable jet fuel, low-carbon ocean shipping and sustainable livestock.

Biochar has been around for a long time, but it’s getting new attention from government and business. The Iowa State researchers last fall were awarded a $25 million research grant from USDA to see if they can find ways to use marginal farmlands to grow perennial grasses and turn them into biofuels and biochar. Local firms like ADM, the agribusiness giant, have expressed support.

This week’s biochar workshop attracted an interesting crowd. USDA was there, as were executives from Conoco Phillips (they are interested in biofuels), Tenaska Energy (also biofuels), Phycal (which makes fuels from cassava and algae), Cool Planet Biofuels (a California startup funded by Google that is working on negative-carbon fuels, using miscanthus, among other feedstocks) and Biochar Solutions (which makes machinery to make biochar.) It’s very, very small but a biochar industry seems to be taking root.

Next Page: Biochar 101