To ease your site search, article categories are at bottom of page.

February 16, 2010

How chicken manure could help curb climate change

by Brian Winter

Here's a low-cost solution to global warming: chicken manure.

At Josh Frye's poultry farm in West Virginia, the chicken waste is fed into a large, experimental incinerating machine. Out comes a charcoal-like substance known as "biochar" — which is not only an excellent fertilizer, but also helps keep carbon in the soil instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas.

Former vice president and environmental advocate Al Gore calls biochar "one of the most exciting new strategies" available to stop climate change. For Frye, it means that, before long, "the chicken poop could be worth more than the chickens themselves."

"I thought it was crazy at first, and my wife still thinks it's nuts," admits Frye, 44. Yet he has sold nearly $1,000 worth of biochar to farmers as far away as New Jersey, and plans to sell much more as he refines production. Venture capitalists, soil scientists and even members of Congress have all come to Frye's farm to see whether his example can be repeated.

Techniques such as biochar may represent the best compromise between what's good for the environment, and what's affordable during the recession, says Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who visited Frye's farm in August.

As political support in Washington fades for more expensive pollution-fighting measures, such relatively cheap green technology may represent the immediate future of the environmental movement, analysts say.

The strategies range from the simple, such as putting carbon dioxide filters on top of smokestacks, to the controversial, such as a recent United Nations proposal to give out more free condoms — which would in turn slow population growth, leading to fewer greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the planet to warm, the U.N. says.

Taken together, a "portfolio" of low-cost initiatives could have a meaningful, positive impact on the environment, says Jae Edmonds, a prominent climate change scientist at the University of Maryland.

More ambitious plans have stalled recently, including "cap and trade" legislation in the Senate that would set a national limit on greenhouse gas emissions and force companies to buy and sell permits to emit carbon dioxide. December's 193-nation environmental summit in Copenhagen failed to produce a binding treaty to cut global pollution.

"You have to make do with what you've got," Edmonds says. "If these other proposals are being deferred, then in the years ahead, we need to embrace these low-cost technologies that can get people excited ... because every little bit helps."

Biochar is typical of the promise — and potential pratfalls — of such technologies. Scientists are still trying to determine how much of an impact biochar can really make in reducing pollution.

In recent years, some promising ideas have either fallen short of expectations or had unintended negative consequences.

For example, the widespread use of corn ethanol as an additive to gasoline has caused U.S. food prices to rise sharply while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by less than 1% a year, according to a report published last year by the Congressional Budget Office.

Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute, a Pennsylvania-based non-profit group that advocates organic farming, says recent research indicates that a widespread shift to organic farming and other changes in how rural land is managed would trap such a large amount of carbon in the ground that they essentially could cancel out all carbon emissions from man-made sources, such as power plants.

LaSalle's predictions have bothered some scientists and environmental activists who accuse him of being too optimistic. LaSalle says he recently received a phone call from one of Gore's assistants challenging his findings. (Kalee Kreider, a Gore spokeswoman, had no comment.)

"I understand that scientists need to be conservative, but what we need right now are the outliers and extreme innovators to step forward and help solve this problem," LaSalle says. "We've got to clean up this atmosphere as fast as we can."

As with many new green initiatives, Frye's began with one main objective — money.

"I always thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to burn all this manure and use the heat to warm the chicken houses?' " he recalls. Frye's farm produces up to 800,000 chickens a year, and hatchlings need to be kept at a steady temperature of about 90 degrees, resulting in about $30,000 a year in propane costs.

Research led Frye to an Illinois-based company, Coaltec Energy, which produces gasifiers for agricultural use. To afford the machine's approximately $1 million cost, Frye applied for grants and low-interest loans from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency that aids soil and water protection efforts, plus the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and other state agencies.

The machine looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Ladders and tubes stick out from seemingly everywhere, and Frye has spent the past three years figuring out the best way to use it. What makes the machine special is its ability to heat the manure in an extremely low-oxygen environment — a process that produces no smoke and no smell.

Some of the resulting heat is, in turn, funneled into one of Frye's chicken houses, where it helps keep his hatchlings warm. It's the byproduct of the process — the biochar — that has environmentalists most excited, and has Frye seeing dollar signs.

Biochar can be produced from several sources including wood and switchgrass, and it was first used in agriculture several centuries ago by Amazon Indians. Only recently have scientists begun to fully appreciate its impact on the environment, says Johannes Lehmann, a soil scientist at Cornell University.

Because biochar contains high levels of carbon, the element contained in all living things, it often serves as a very effective organic fertilizer, Lehmann says. That, in turn, produces healthier plants which, through photosynthesis, suck more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Another aspect of biochar may be even more beneficial. Under normal circumstances, the carbon in waste material — a leaf that falls to the forest floor, for example — decays naturally, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

But Lehmann says the carbon in biochar is particularly resistant to that conversion, so it stays "locked into" the soil much longer than other, unprocessed substances — as long as 1,000 years in some cases.

"That's the key," Lehmann says. "Through this process, you're taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere." He says that even a relatively small-scale effort using such methods "could make a significant dent in emissions on a global level."

Lehmann says he and other researchers are still exploring which kinds of material make the best biochar, and how effectively it works in certain soils. He calls Frye a "front-runner" in poultry biochar, and says other producers may follow his example.

Meanwhile, Frye is working on increasing the carbon content of his biochar, which would make it more valuable. He frequently mails samples to scientists for analysis. When he wants to gauge the quality right away, he admits with a smile that he puts a little char in his mouth. ("If it's pasty and hard to swallow, then it's impure," Frye says.)

When Frye's machine operates at full capacity, it churns out as much as 9,000 pounds of biochar per day.

Based on his contacts with businesses, Frye says he can sell high-quality biochar for $1 a pound. "There's big-time people ... looking at this," he says.

That gold-rush mentality has given some people pause. LaSalle, the organic farming advocate, fears biochar has become overhyped, cautioning "there is too much venture capital involved."

Pat Mooney, director of ETC Group, a Canadian environmental organization, describes biochar as a "gamble."

"It becomes an excuse for others to say: 'Hey, don't worry, we don't have to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions.' And that's just not true," Mooney says.

Even Mike McGolden, president of the company that sold Frye his gasifier, is cautious. He says Frye's experimentation has paved the way for larger-scale producers, including a dairy farm and chicken egg-laying operations in the Chesapeake Bay area, to acquire similar technology. He says it's still unclear whether the technology will prove viable for other small-scale farmers.

Still, Moore Capito, the congresswoman, says she was "very excited" by Frye's operation during her recent tour of homegrown green initiatives in her home state, which included solar and wind farms.

"In the long run, these things might take a little longer (than cap and trade) to produce positive results, but then again they might not. We just don't know," Moore Capito says.

For Frye, it's a win-win.

"This started as a way for me to make savings," he says. "But if it's good for me, and it's good for the planet too, hey, you sure can't beat that.

USA Today

Article Categories

AGRA agribusiness agrochemicals agroforestry aid Algeria aloe vera Angola aquaculture banana barley beans beef bees Benin biodiesel biodiversity biof biofuel biosafety biotechnology Botswana Brazil Burkina Faso Burundi CAADP Cameroon capacity building cashew cassava cattle Central African Republic cereals certification CGIAR Chad China CIMMYT climate change cocoa coffee COMESA commercial farming Congo Republic conservation agriculture cotton cow pea dairy desertification development disease diversification DRCongo drought ECOWAS Egypt Equatorial Guinea Ethiopia EU EUREPGAP events/meetings expo exports fa fair trade FAO fertilizer finance fisheries floods flowers food security fruit Gabon Gambia gender issues Ghana GM crops grain green revolution groundnuts Guinea Bissau Guinea Conakry HIV/AIDS honey hoodia horticulture hydroponics ICIPE ICRAF ICRISAT IFAD IITA imports India infrastructure innovation inputs investment irrigation Ivory Coast jatropha kenaf keny Kenya khat land deals land management land reform Lesotho Liberia Libya livestock macadamia Madagascar maiz maize Malawi Mali mango marijuana markets Mauritania Mauritius mechanization millet Morocco Mozambique mushroom Namibia NEPAD Niger Nigeria organic agriculture palm oil pastoralism pea pest control pesticides pineapple plantain policy issues potato poultry processing productivity Project pyrethrum rai rain reforestation research rice rivers rubber Rwanda SADC Sao Tome and Principe seed seeds Senegal sesame Seychelles shea butter Sierra Leone sisal soil erosion soil fertility Somalia sorghum South Africa South Sudan Southern Africa spices standards subsidies Sudan sugar sugar cane sustainable farming Swaziland sweet potato Tanzania tariffs tea tef tobacco Togo tomato trade training Tunisia Uganda UNCTAD urban farming value addition value-addition vanilla vegetables water management weeds West Africa wheat World Bank WTO yam Zambia Zanzibar zero tillage Zimbabwe

  © 2007 Africa News Network design by

Back to TOP