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New national panel envisions a carbon negative economy

November 15th, 2011

Biochar can be added to farm fields to sequester carbon and boost soil fertility. (Photo: Iowa State University Bioeconomy Institute)

From Green Right Now Reports

A national panel led by Iowa State University engineers is launching an effort to research and develop technologies that capture, use and sequester carbon while enhancing food production, ecosystems, economic development and national security.

The 33-member National Panel for a Carbon Negative Economy recently met for the first time in Chicago. Participants represented universities, companies, federal agencies and non-governmental agencies, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ConocoPhillips, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the International Biochar Initiative.

“Our goal is to help develop an intellectual framework for this new field and help move it forward,” Robert C. Brown, director of Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute and the leader of the carbon negative project, said in a statement.

The panel will meet at least twice a year with the next meeting scheduled for May 2012. Potential next steps include preparing a white paper detailing key aspects of a carbon negative economy, presenting the concept at professional conferences and in scientific journals, bringing the idea to federal agencies and private foundations, and continuing joint activities that strengthen the collaborations initiated at the first meeting of the national panel.

Brown and his colleagues think they have a solution for not only reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, but also removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Our proposal envisions a carbon negative economy, which goes beyond current efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by adopting a strategy of actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” the project proposal states. “This captured carbon is sequestered in soils, sediments, and oceans as part of the natural carbon cycle of the biosphere while supporting economic activities of human society.”

The objective, in other words, is “to develop technologies that take carbon out of the atmosphere and make money while doing it,” said Jill Euken, a member of the new panel and deputy director of industry and outreach for Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute.

The initiative envisions fixing carbon from the atmosphere by growing cellulosic crops such as switchgrass and aquatic species such as microalgae. The harvested biomass would be thermochemically converted to a biocrude that can be used for transportation fuels, biobased chemicals or the generation of electricity. The thermochemical conversion also produces biochar, a carbon-rich solid similar to the charcoal produced in fires. Applying biochar to agricultural soils can sequester the carbon and boost soil fertility.

And now the new national panel will work to advance that idea.

“The (first) meeting helped the participants identify new opportunities for scholarship within and among our disciplines,” Brown said. “But this is more than an academic exercise. The concept of carbon negative economic activity may be the only practical way to reverse the flux of carbon between the geosphere and the atmosphere.”


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