The Cool Lab
 

"Is  it possible that technology no more complicated than an Easy Bake Oven — one that pays for itself — can reverse climate change?"

Permaculturally, the first stage of any design is protracted  observation. What does a biological system have in over-abundance? What  is scarce? How will it restore balance? What are the obstacles? 

Let  us say that an impoverished village in Haiti risks being carried away  by mudslides that follow brush fires where the forest has been cut down  to supply wood for shelter and cooking. What things are scarce? In no  particular order:

food
water
cooking fuel
secure shelter
energy
productive employment
biodiversity
soil
birth control
health care

What things are over-abundant?

mud
deforestation
rain
hurricanes
earthquakes
unemployed people
superstition
resentment
mosquitoes
climate change

Lets see which of these things we can match up and cancel out. What we are about to describe is a carbon cascade.

The  hillside needs to be planted with vegetation. It is especially  important that the hilltops be forested. A keyline analysis will show us  where water wants to go when it rains, and how best it can be held high  in the landscape and directed both to subsurface flows and to dam  storage for uses in the dry season. Alley cropping along the contours  follows hand-cut swales (or machine cut where financial capital   substitutes for social capital).

The  berms are planted with successional understory (in this tropical  example, pineapple, cassava, ginger, allspice, coffee and medicinal  herbs), mid-level canopy (banana, papaya, moringa, cacao, mulberry, tree  legumes of mimosa, cassia, and pea subfamilies, chaya, climbing vines  such as vanilla, dioscorea, cucumber, chocho and pasaflora,  and eventual overstory (coconut, jackfruit, breadfruit, breadnut,  ramon, samwood, mahogany, cedar, bamboo, peach palm, etc). Between the  alleys are seeded perennials such as callalu, okra, sorghum, and  supergrasses like kernza (Thinopyrum intermedium), sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea), pennisitum and pearl millet hybrids (Tembo),  brassica napus, amaranth, etc., as well as familiar food crops such as  maize, rice, yam and beans, where soils and water supply are well  suited.

As much as possible, the planting process can  be accompanied by biofertilizers having a high percentage of finely  pulverized biochar, activated indigenous microorganisms, some immediate  food for those microbes (such as composted food wastes and manures), and  minerals keyed to redress local soil deficiencies. If these  biofertilizers are not immediately available for the first plantings,  they can always be added later, as a byproduct of the early harvests.

Water in storage on the hillsides is edge-planted with Acoris,  a plant that inoculates the water with a mosquito-larvae destroying  resin. As the Acoris matures, pools and dams progress from being  mosquito generating to mosquito decimating.

In the  lowlands, water that overflows from catchments above is directed into  chinampas, constructed wetlands composed of alternating islands and  channels and rotating between aerobic (horizontal and vertical flow  reedbeds) and anaerobic (settling lagoons) seeded with aquatic and  semi-aquatic plants (taro, Chinese water spinach, lotus, azola, wild  rice) and freshwater fish (aquaculture). Acoris for mosquito control can  also be planted here, but the fish do most of that work already, so the  plant is only needed in mudflats and places fish cannot go. The  appearance of this microbiome also augurs the reappearance of frogs,  peepers, lizards, dragonflies, water birds, bats, turtles, and forest  mammals who venture to the water's edge to drink.

Within  the first season, the hillside mud problem is erased, deforestation is  reversed, and food scarcity begins to be alleviated from the  fast-yielding varieties of annuals, perennials and fish. Productive  employment can expand this system as much as available land permits,  even on relatively steep hillsides. Resentment diminishes, and with it,  superstition.

Within  the village a regenerative, biological energy system arrives to replace  the fossil fuel (diesel electric) grid-based source that previously had  supplied electricity only intermittently, occasionally dimming lights  and frying phone chargers and boom boxes.

This system  consists of a biomass furnace, running on the woody wastes from coppice  (the moringa, jackfruit and cassava plantation), coconut, rice or other  shell crops, pelletized supergrasses and other biomass after food  harvest or extraction of leaf protein, vitamins and useful fiber.

The loading dock at the biorefinery receives raw materials second-harvested from the farms. Leaves of tropical legumes (Leucaena  Zeucocephala, Vigna unguiculata, Clitoria ternatea, Desmodium  distortum, Psophocarpus tetragonolobus, Macroptilium lathyroides,  Phaseolus calcaratus, Brassica napus, and Manihot esculenta,  for instance) are taken by conveyor and chopped into 2-cm pieces, soaked  in 2-percent sodium metabisulfite, disintegrated in a hammer mill and  pressed in a single-screw press. The expressed juice is heated with  steam (produced by the furnace) and protein coagulum collected,  centrifuged, and pressed, then spread in a thin layer on glass plates  and dried in an air-filtered, dehumidified room. It is then collected as  a powder and containerized to be used or sold as a feed supplement.

At  its most basic level, high-protein, high-quality leaf protein  fractionation is simple. Production is geared to consumption by farm  animals to remove some of the food safety, preservation and storage  concerns. Later improvements can produce dried leaf extracts for human  consumption but higher capital costs are incurred and clean-room  protocols by workers become essential.

Following  leaf-protein extraction, the dried mash from the press is used as a  feedstock for the furnace, where it joins other dried agricultural  wastes: coppice wood, prunings, bamboo thinnings, pallets, cardboard  boxes, coconut coir, nut and rice husks, etc. All of this is pyrolyzed,  the heat captured to run both the leaf protein process and produce  electricity, and co-products (fractionated volatile gases, wood vinegar)  drawn off before the final product — high quality biochar — remains.

The  biochar is quenched (preferably with urine because that adds a 30%  fertility gain), pulverized, and charged (blended with microbe-rich  aerobic compost) to make a potent “cool” biofertilizer. Alternatively,  it is kept at food-grade and sold as a dry product for use as a food  supplement, animal feed probiotic, water filtration medium or  deodorizer. At less-than-food-grade it can be used as a litter amendment  to reduce smells in animal enclosures, improve the fermentation of  silage, or go into a variety of natural building materials — paints,  dyes, plasters, wallboard and bricks. And it can always become  biofertilizer, even after undergoing one or more of these other uses.

Styrofoam  “clamshell” food containers, which are ubiquitous from take-out  restaurants and shops in the cities and often wind up just floating away  on ocean currents, never to be destroyed, are collected and brought to  the biorefinery. There they go into an acetone bath and the dissolved  liquid blended with low-grade biochar and poured into molds to dry. The  resulting hard resin is mold-proof, waterproof, non-degradable,  lightweight and durable. Depending on the dies and molds, it can become a  whole range of products — roofing tile, caulk, surfboards, fishing  boats, life-vests, doors, bicycles, and ice chests.

If  there is a surge in demand for a particular product — refrigerator  deodorizers or animal feed supplements, for instance — or there is a  surplus of some particular feedstock — bamboo knocked down by a storm —  the biorefinery can shift its production pattern to take advantage  immediately.

This  system sequesters more carbon than  it emits, so we call it “cool.” By adding biochar, mineral rich compost,  and microorganisms to the poor soils, we can jump-start soil  productivity and boost farm productivity. The gains in those  alley-cropped contours will be anywhere from 40-percent to 400-percent  vegetative growth, depending on the type of plants and the quality of  the soils (poor soils will produce higher performance gains than good  soils). The same can be said for fish and livestock fed the leaf-protein  and biochar nutriceuticals.

Let us pause here just a  moment. Step back and take a look at the big picture. What is really  being increased here is not so much village-scale well-being as photosynthesis. How  are the greenhouse gases that are causing climate catastrophe —  principally CO2, CH4 and N2O — to be removed from the atmosphere?  Mainly, although not exclusively, they will be removed by  photosynthesis. The more of Earth's surface that can be brought to bear  on that task, the sooner the vital balance that harbors life on this  tiny blue rock in space can be restored and the crisis ended.

Poultry  can free-range the alleys to benefit of both plants and animals.  Grazers can be moved through rotational cells that take advantage of  water impoundments and high quality supergrasses. Fed nutrient-dense  supplements with biochar, fish, poultry and grazing animals all grow  faster and healthier without antibiotics or hormones, and deposit  long-lived biochar back into the earth for long term carbon storage and  soil fertility.

Growing nutrient-dense, no-till,  organic food and perennial fibers on these marginal lands, using  bioenergy and biofertilizers, creates a new, circular bioeconomy.  There  is no such thing as waste. Nothing need leave the system, but what does  is not raw material or pollution — representing the depleting wealth of  the land — but high value byproducts — providing return on social  capital invested. Waste becomes an orphaned verb.

Transportation  presents an energetic challenge in the post-petroleum world. Nearly all  modern forms of transportation evolved in an era of cheap net energy  and diminish in economic viability when costed on renewable sources and  life cycles.

Gone will be diesel-powered  semi-tractor-trailers and locomotives. There could be new generations of  electrified tow-paths for barges and gondolas, mag-lev rail and other  innovations, but these costly innovations will be fragile in an era  marked by overpopulation, resource constraints, climate chaos and  economic contraction and likely will not provide a stable foundation for  commerce in most places. Returning will be sail and animal powered  transport.

If taken to maximum scale (rotationally  planting an area the size of India each year and installing Cool Labs in  every village), at a capital cost of $10000 to $15000 per hectare,  would tally up at approximately 2% of the price of the fairy dust BECCS  (Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage) conversion favored by  geoengineers stuck in the fossil industrial paradigm.

Moreover,  while BECCS represents continuing cost and is fraught with hazards of  plantation biomass crops — possibly genetically engineered and carrying  along the can of worms that opens up — in the place of forested,  multi-diverse, self-regenerating ecosystems, the Cool Lab alternative  represents antifragile synergies of local conservation communities,  continuous and adaptive profits, and continuous gains in ecological  health, stability and wealth. 

Can the conversion be  done in time? In contrast to the 45-year gradual expansion of soybean  cropping from the early 1960s to reach 200 Mha today, this system offers  5 times the protein per area farmed while providing a far greater, and  more immediate, returns on investment. When one considers the rapid  growth of renewable energy in the past decade, consider this: an energy  producing Cool Lab costs one-seventh the capital as hydro, wind or solar  and runs entirely on "wastes" that would otherwise be destined to add  greenhouse gases to the atmosphere but are now intercepted and  neutralized.

Cool Labs use the existing financial and  technological landscape of the world today and simply change the way  products are produced in order to heal the earth, balance carbon, and  make more real wealth for more people more quickly. Does this hold a  hazard in the form of perpetuating wealth inequality, militarism and  hegemony by the "taker" class? Yes it does. However, in the  post-petroleum era, relocalization of economies is inevitable, and with  relocalization comes local control over shared destinies. Cool Labs  represent circular economies that are inherently leveling. 

Each  lab adapts to needs and available resources and can flex to provide  more or less of a particular kind of benefit and tailor fuels to  available feedstocks and labor options. The number of cascades possible  is limited only by the imagination and each year we conceive of more. We  are at the dawn of a new kind of lean, clean, nature-centered economy.

This  system can turn almost any human settlement into an ecovillage,  although the criteria for what defines ecovillage must necessary include  a few more elements than merely having a Cool Lab or permacultural  support systems.

Ecovillages are based on a cohesive  worldview, an abiding respect for the ecological integrity of your home  biome, a circular local economy and a culture of peace and mutual  respect. Depending on your starting point for each of these elements,  bringing all of them into harmony can take time and effort. 

The  energy and food production system using mixed-aged, mixed-species  forest, wetland and marine ecosystems we’ve outlined, taken to scale on  the world's available marginal land (not productive farmland or  developed areas) could restore the fertility of those soils and waters  while sequestering carbon from the atmosphere at the average rate of 17  PgC/yr after getting established. To get back to the Holocene we need to  return atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial range, around 260 ppm. The  system just described, at full scale, could do that within about 50  years, taking into account the oceans' CO2 outgassing feedback.

Proliferating village scale Cool Labs could achieve the cumulative  storage of 667 gigatons of legacy carbon required to bring atmospheric carbon back to pre-industrial levels in the lifetimes of the majority of  people now living. Were nations to collectively phase out fossil fuels  as quickly as called for in the Paris Agreement, restabilization of the  climate would be achieved sooner. 

Recovering one  percentage point of soil organic matter means that around 27 long tons  of organic matter per hectare would enter the soil and remain there.  Because around two thirds of organic matter added to agricultural soils  will be decomposed by soil organisms and plants and given back to the  atmosphere, in order to add permanently 27 tons, a total of 81 tons of  organic matter per hectare would be needed. This cannot be done quickly  or it just washes or evaporates away. A slow process is required.

An  example of how this could play out in Haiti or anywhere else can be  seen in the Loess Plateau of Northern China  where fertile soils were  overworked until they had to be abandoned. At the time of abandonment  organic carbon concentrations had dropped to under 3 percent. Thirty  years later Loess soils had regained concentrations of 6 percent by  natural processes. If natural restoration were accelerated by amending  soil carbon in both metabolizable forms (such as crop litter and  manures) and recalcitrant forms (such as biochar), the potential to  increase soil carbon in a few decades could be raised to 10 percent or  greater. This could happen virtually anywhere. 

A farm  that switches to organic, animal powered no-tillage methods can  sequester 1 to 4 tons of organic matter per acre per year. By employing  perennial polycultures, rotated pastures of grazing animals, trees and  wild plant strips, that amount can be doubled or tripled.

Harvard professor Thomas Goreau  writes:

Current  rates of carbon farming at typical current levels would take thousands  of years to draw down the dangerous excess CO2, but state of the art  methods of soil carbon sequestration could draw it down in as little as  decades if the percentage of long lived carbon is raised to as little as  about 10%.

If  the recuperation of soil carbon became a central goal of agricultural  policies worldwide, it would be possible and reasonable to set as an  initial goal the sequestration of one half ton per acre-year (1.5 t/ha-y  or 500 grams per m2/y), comparable to the 4 pour 1000 program (4 grams  per kg of soil) proposed by the French delegation at COP-21. 

Carbon  stored in the world's soils and living biomass provides additional  benefits beyond sequestration. As soil conditions improve, erosion and  pests decline and the land comes back into balance. Farming this way  globally could sequester about 8 percent of the current total annual  human-made emissions of 10 petagrams of carbon (PgC). However, the  fertility gains (equivalent to more than all of current global  fertilizer production) would mean that chemical fertilizers could be  (and should be) eliminated where carbon farming is practiced. By  reducing emissions of nitrous oxide from fertilizer (equivalent to  approximately 8 percent annual human-made greenhouse gases) and the  transportation and energy impacts of fertilizer production, we shave  another 1 percent off global emissions.

But let's keep  going. If organic waste is returned to agricultural soils in the form of  compost, then methane and CO2 emissions from its current destinations  to landfills and wastewater (equivalent to 3.6 percent of man-made  emissions) could be significantly reduced. Even a modest start, such as  by elevating the soil carbon content of existing farmed soils by 0.4  percent, would have the potential to offset global greenhouse gas  emissions by approximately 20 percent per year.

If biochar is added to the compost, we can quickly get to 100 percent, and then 120 percent. That is when it starts to matter. 

After  10 years, we can increase progressively the reincorporation of organic  matter into soils. By mid-21st century, we could increase the total  world reservoir of carbon in the soil by two percentage points, and  possibly more. In this way it is conceivable to restore our soil carbon  reservoir to 10 percent, as Goreau argues. Because the system works best  in poor soils, and because it eventually creates its own hydrological  cycles, it can even re-green and reforest sandy deserts.

Are we doomed to Near Term Human Extinction?

Not  yet. While there are still wild cards waiting to be played, what we  have outlined shows a complete escape from our present trajectory. Is it  possible that technology no more complicated than an Easy Bake Oven —  and that pays for itself — can reverse climate change?

The  rotary oven pictured at the top of this essay gasifies waste rice husks  at the rate of 2.5 tons per hour. Thirty-five percent of that weight is  transformed into biochar. Half of the rest, as pyrogas, is extracted  for useful synthetic compounds that replace petrochemicals. The other  half of that gas is used to co-generate 1.6 megawatts of electricity  from this half-million-dollar biorefinery. It could also be refined into  a liquid substitute for gasoline.

The Chinese  government has invested heavily to develop this technology, and the  wares they are producing are now the most efficient and lowest cost in  the world. They will pour another $40 million into advanced biochar  research this year.

Chinese Cool Lab reactors have been  sold to 20 countries, including Haiti. In Senegal there is a prototype  that has been continuously operating for 8 years. In Egypt, the biochar  made by their Chinese reactor is producing organic cabbages from the  sandy shore of the Suez Canal. We witnessed a similar effect in the  infertile clay soil beside the Asian Biochar Centre in Nanjing.

This  we know: we can achieve faster and more well-rounded human development  within the carrying capacity of the Earth. Will we? Who decides?

This  post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone  Manifesto. We post to The Great Change on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48  hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page. Albert  Bates offers ecovillage apprenticeships, including Cool Lab and biochar trainings,  this year at The Farm in Tennessee through July.