Bbookcoverurn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth, by Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper (February 26; pre-orders being accepted)

How can society lower atmospheric carbon levels in order to avert catastrophic climate change? It’s a question that’s keeping thousands of scientists and policymakers awake at night, and one that quickly bifurcates into two sub-problems: what to do with the carbon, and how to make its removal and sequestration profitable.

If you want to understand the problem better, and also become acquainted with leading-edge solutions, Albert Bates’s and Kathleen Drapers’s new book Burn is for you. Bates wrote one of the first popular books on climate change, in 1990, and has been pondering our carbon dilemma ever since, following (and often participating in) pioneering research on ways to capture and sequester the stuff that’s heating our planet. As a result, he’s in position to provide novice readers with the context they need to grasp the subject, while taking the most knowledgeable readers to the limits of current research and practice.

The authors advocate making biochar from plant waste and burying it in agricultural soils (Bates discussed this carbon sequestration pathway in his previous book, The Biochar Solution). Biochar is a miracle substance: it improves soils while also increasing crop yields. But the Earth’s arable soil doesn’t have the potential to absorb all the carbon that society is currently emitting. Therefore this new book focuses on another solution: making char from a wider range of input materials, and sequestering it into the built environment. Bates and Draper envision thousands of small, regional pyrolysis plants using a range of feedstocks (most now considered waste), turning them into both biochar (to increase soil fertility and vegetative growth) and “parolysates” (carbon-based materials produced by a process similar to that used to make biochar, but usually incorporating different feedstocks) to be incorporated into products.

The potential for sequestration of carbon in roads, buildings, and manufactured goods is large. Further, in many instances added carbon would improve the performance of materials, making carbon sequestration profitable. And this is key: most hypothetical atmospheric carbon drawdown efforts rely on government policy (primarily a steep carbon tax) in order to succeed. In contrast, many of the innovations Bates discusses would improve the bottom line for existing industries—and he points to a number of cases where this is already true.

The authors spend a fair amount of verbiage praising carbon—a rhetorical gambit one doesn’t often encounter in climate literature. Carbon has “nearly unmatched versatility”; it can “recycle nutrients and upcycle waste,” as well as “remove pollutants and retain water.” It can make roads more durable. “It can multitask,” producing energy while solving our climate crisis.

A central notion of the book is “carbon cascades”—ways of capturing, sequestering, and using carbon that have many side benefits, which themselves often have further side benefits. The book teems with examples. Here’s just one:

“Imagine now that the 3D printers of the future, being designed in the science laboratories of high schools, even as you read this, employ filament feeds and feedstocks made of industrial wastes digested and decontaminated by microbes or carbonization that in the process supply the electricity required for the printing. And when it is done and the printed object has served its purpose, it can go back to feeding more microbes and producing more energy and supplying another printer somewhere to make an entirely different object.”

Carbon sequestered, energy produced, profit made.

Bates and Draper walk us through more than a handful of industries in which key products and processes can be made more energy-efficient, less polluting, and more profitable, while also storing carbon. These include:

  • Concrete: If biochar is substituted for silicate, the result is lightweight and insulating, fast-setting, and as strong and as monolithic as marble or granite. And there is potential for massive carbon sequestration. Asphalt incorporating biochar offers similar opportunities.
  • Plastics: Carbon nanotubes and graphene can greatly improve the material performance of polymers, but at high cost. Parolysates could do essentially the same job much cheaper, leading to a new generation of plastics with increased longevity and performance—while, again, sequestering carbon.
  • Supercapacitors (for energy storage): these are lighter, faster charging, and longer lasting than chemical batteries. Graphene and activated carbon are already used in capacitors but biochar would be a cheaper option.
  • Paper products: “Chardboard,” a blend of biochar and paper pulp, offers improved performance for food packaging and for blocking harmful electromagnetic radiation.
  • Carbon black: This is a substance used in a wide array of products, from tires and fan belts to inks, currently made from a highly polluting form of natural gas. Substituting parolysates would make for longer-lasting tires, etc., with improved performance—while again helping solve climate change rather than contributing to it.
  • Filters: Fighting water and air pollution requires filtration. As it happens, biochar and parolysates are great at removing particulates from air, and heavy metals and radionuclides from water.

The list goes on . . . and on. All the stuff now made from oil and natural gas—from flip-flops to car seats to paints to computer screens—could be made better with biochar or parolysates. Biochar in animal feed promotes the health of farm animals. In kitty litter, it helps to absorb odors. It even makes better weed barrier cloth.

“We can have our energy and our food at the same time,” write Bates and Draper. “We can get rid of landfills and incinerators, waste lagoons, and ocean dumps all at once. To do this, we need to transform our old linear [economic] model into a carbon cascade economy. . . .”

The last section of the book leaves organic chemistry aside in order to explore how the entire economy could be reconfigured for the purpose of carbon capture and storage. The authors propose the creation of cryptocurrencies based not on meaningless electricity-powered computer math calculations, but on verified sequestration of carbon. Money is created when land is healed.

Throughout Burn, the authors are careful to do the math on carbon capture and storage. By the time all potential sequestration options are added up, they have arrived at a figure well above current total new annual carbon emissions from all sources, and are well into carbon drawdown territory. All without requiring carbon taxes, and “by treasuring and not trashing carbon.”

If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that some puffy writing about the potential for algal biofuel in chapter 11 suggests the possibility that the authors may be relying on optimistic assumptions elsewhere as well. Even if that’s not the case, it would take a truly extraordinary rate of investment (of both money and energy) to realize the potential carbon capture and sequestration quantities discussed in this book. This is definitely not a case of, “Problem solved!” At this stage, the pathways outlined in the book represent a theoretically possible set of strategies that could help us escape the climate trap—if we can summon the courage to change not just policies, but significant and deeply engrained aspects of our industrial ways of life. Still, even with these caveats, Burn is a useful—perhaps even pivotal—contribution to the climate conversation.


Teaser photo credit: By K.salo.85 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0