Research project to identify the best UK locations for biomass crops.
by Roger East
When and where is it really smart to use farmland for energy crops? A research team has set out to improve our knowledge of how to do the carbon calculations. And a big part of the answer, it says, lies in the soil.
A University of Southampton team is comparing different ways of producing biomass for fuel, such as growing grasses and short rotation coppiced woodland, to yield a new kind of ‘carbon opportunity map’. The aim is to identify the best locations for biomass crops in the UK, in terms of the CO2 they would lock away.
The research involves detailed analysis of the plants’ photosynthesis, root structure, and interaction with micro-organisms in the ground – asking how these variables affect the capacity of the surrounding soil to capture and store carbon.
Estimates suggest that there are over a trillion tonnes of carbon stored in soil worldwide – significantly more than the total amount in the atmosphere, and perhaps twice as much as in all living vegetation. Some of this storage is quite short-term, but most of the carbon sequestered as organic matter in soil hummus is held for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Agricultural practices such as biochar, which improve this soil sequestration, can make a real difference to the global carbon balance.
If you take all aspects of the equation into account, says team leader Gail Taylor, the research already suggests that bioenergy crops could potentially reduce carbon emissions by several million tons in the UK alone over the next decade.
This piece originally appeared on Green Futures. Green Futures is published by Forum for the Future, one of the leading magazines on environmental solutions and sustainable futures. Its aim is to demonstrate that a sustainable future is both practical and desirable – and can be profitable, too.
Editor's Note: Links and images added by Worldchanging. Image of Professor Gail Taylor via Dr. Gail Taylor's website.
What about biochar? If produced at higher end of the temperature range, the charcoal is pretty pure, and very stable. This sequesters half of the carbon content of biomass, and might even have some syngas left over. The whole process is carbon negative, compensating for use of fossil fuel anywhere else on earth. Together with carbon-free energy sources, buried biochar made from all available biomass has a chance of reducing atmospheric CO2. Simply trying to use biomass as an energy source wastes the major opportunity to sequester carbon captured from the atmosphere by plant growth.