Green Charcoal

The development of cooking fuels using biomass has created another type of fuel—that of green charcoal. This process involves a continuous process of pyrolysis of vegetable waste (agricultural residues, renewable, wild-growth biomass) and transforms it into a product referred to as green charcoal. This newly created domestic fuel performs the same as charcoal made from wood, but at half the cost. Used in Africa, this fuel has many more uses than cooking; it also represents a freedom from being held hostage to a scarcity of resources and the long distances to and great costs of available fuels in Africa.

Today, more than 2 million people worldwide face domestic energy shortages. In many parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, wood is becoming more scarce, and modern energy supplies are difficult to come by or nonexistent. In the Sahel region, inhabitants have to walk about 12 miles (20 km) a day just to find a household supply of wood. In the small villages, families are forced to spend up to one-third of their income on wood or charcoal. As the villagers gather wood, they steadily deforest the area increasing the ill effects of drought and deforestation, which then leads to climate change.

In an effort to halt deforestation in the savanna zones, a renewable replacement substance to effectively use as an energy source was introduced to the people in the region. A process was developed to carbonize vegetative material into pellets or briquettes. Savanna weeds, reeds, and various types of straw (wheat, rice, or maize), cotton stems, rice husk, coffee husk, bamboo, or any plant with a sufficient lignin content can be used to produce green charcoal. The advantage to using green charcoal is that it preserves forests, keeping them from being deforested. Green charcoal also eliminates methane emissions. The process of producing the briquettes does not release any greenhouse gases.

Another reason for using green charcoal is to avoid the buildup of soot. According to an April 16, 2009, article in the New York Times by Elisabeth Rosenthal, soot (also called black carbon) builds up in tens of thousands of villages in the developing world, based on research con-

Green charcoal briquettes are made from biomass, sawdust, and shredded and soaked paper in Bukava and the Virunga Mountains in Congo. This alternative fuel is used instead of traditional charcoal to protect the mountain gorillas of the region (obtaining charcoal in the region endangers the gorilla). The biomass briquettes burn charcoal. They are mixed and patted into molds until they dry into briquettes (top image). Once they are ready to burn, their heat output is similar to charcoal, enabling the villagers to cook their food efficiently and sustainably. (Wildlife Direct Organization)

ducted by Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, professor of climate science at Scripps Institute of Oceanography and one of the world's leading climate scientists. It is actually a pollutant and a major (although previously ignored) source of global climate change.

Ramanathan says that black carbon has recently emerged as a serious contributor—responsible for 18 percent of the global warming that has occurred, compared to a 40 percent contribution from CO2. Focusing on black carbon emissions and reducing them is currently being viewed by scientists such as Ramanathan as an inexpensive, easy, relatively fast way to slow global warming, especially in the near term. One way to accomplish this goal is to replace the common primitive cooking stoves found in most homes in developing countries with a modern version that emits much less soot.

According to Ramanathan, "It is clear to any person who cares about climate change that these [replacement stoves] will have a huge impact on the global environment. In terms of climate change, we're driving fast toward a cliff, and this could buy us time."

Another advantage to this is that because soot has a fairly short life span (a few weeks), decreasing the input of soot in the atmosphere would have an immediate effect in combating global warming.

The discovery of black carbon's influence is so new that it was not even mentioned in the IPCC's 2007 report. It has been through recent research by institutions such as Scripps and NASA that black carbon has recently become better understood. It is now believed that black carbon could account for as much as half of the current Arctic warming. While soot does not travel globally like CO2, it does travel. Soot from India has been found in the Maldives and on the Tibetan Plateau. From the United States, it travels to the Arctic. Professor Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a glacier specialist in India, has predicted that the Himalayan glaciers will most likely lose 75 percent of their mass by 2020 because of black carbon deposition.

In an effort to take action on this, the U.S. Congress introduced a bill in March 2009 that would require the EPA to specifically regulate black carbon and direct aid to black carbon reduction projects abroad. This major effort would include providing modern cookstoves (efficient, low soot-producing) to 20 million homes in developing coun tries where black carbon pollution poses the biggest problems. These new stoves cost about $20 and use solar power, making them much more efficient while reducing soot levels more than 90 percent. The solar stoves do not use wood or biomass. Other new stove options burn cleaner. In March 2009, a cookstove project called Surya was initiated. It began market-testing six different styles of cookstoves in small villages in India in an effort to begin the conversion of stoves to reduce black carbon pollution.

Research scientists are busy developing alternative and advanced fuels and are also busy looking for options beyond fossil fuels to supply energy for the future. If significant advances are not made within the next decade, there will be little hope of offsetting the permanent destruction from global warming. Research scientists—and policy makers—are up against the clock, which is ticking fast.

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