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Use what we grow and grow what we use

Saturday, February 02, 2013    

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Dear Editor,

Sometimes the answer to a problem is so close to you that you cannot see it. Take energy. Every day we wake up, the sun rises, full of energy and promise. Yet, we ignore it, and depend on other sources of energy instead; such as oil, coal and liquid gas, which are in fact sources for which the sun provided energy in ancient times. But there is material on which the sun has provided energy for a much shorter time, to produce energy sources which are readily available, renewable and sustainable, and ignoring these energy stores could be in fact an error in the long run. The cost of this error is climbing daily as we ignorantly forget that we are a tropical country blessed with a vast, virtually untapped energy source, which is fast-growing, renewable and environmentally friendly.

Take a look at the scrap metal trade. Before metal got scarce, it was dug from the earth. Now, it is being reused. If we can prevent the pilferage of metal still in use, the scrap metal trade is a viable source of funds for our nation.

Beside the sun and the wind for energy, there is another energy source all around us if we can open our eyes and see it. Only in this case as well, we will have to learn to use it in a renewable way, (as we are learning to do with our scrap metal) or we will end up stripped to the ground, as the experience of some of our near neighbours has shown.

What are we talking about? This overlooked renewable source is our greenery of course. More specifically we speak of Biomass, or all formerly or currently living matter containing carbon. When charcoal is obtained from trees, the trees are cut to the ground and the hills denuded, unless, of course, they are planted back. In Jamaica sadly this tends more often than not to be the case, we do not plant back trees. But there is another process which also uses any carbon material, but in this case, the trees do not have to be destroyed. This process uses carbon scraps: scraps of trees (limbs, branches, leaves, trimmings of hedges, prunings, green waste especially that produced after storms and hurricanes) but can also use other scraps (old newspaper, used cardboard boxes, paper, wooden pallets) including agricultural waste. These scraps are turned into "Biochar" through an innovative process that takes place at a lower heat than used to make traditional charcoal. An added advantage of using such 'plant scraps' for Biochar is that there is less combustible material in the environment to fuel fires such as is occurring now in St Elizabeth.

And guess what? The resultant product: "Bio-charcoal" or "Biochar" can be used for energy but it is more useful in the soil where its millions of micro-pores provides homes for useful organisms including those in the compost; thus it decreases leaching of fertilizers, and allows for better water absorption. Just think of the last time you took some "probiotics, like yoghurt for an upset stomach? Well think of it as soils being given bonded stores of "good" bacteria, to fight off molds, blights, and fungi which are negatively affecting specific Jamaican crops such as ginger. In the future, as a biotechnology application, substrates such as Biochar will be nano-implanted with bacteria specifically selected to fight off and stave off attacks from these situations. Also minerals such as phosphorous, especially, is adsorbed making it more easily available for crops. Based on experiments being conducted around the world, agricultural savings of 25% and up can be obtained through larger crop yields and less fertilizer usage. Think about it, even now farmers can attest to the fact that crops grow better in soil from charcoal piles or when the soil is supplemented with ash.

And guess what? We are cleaning up the environment at the same time.

And guess what? Biochar stays in the soil for thousands of years making it good for the climate (sequesters carbon). It has been suggested as one of the carbon mitigation steps in combating climate change at the UN-sponsored conference on climate change in Pozan, Poland.

And guess what? Biochar can be made and sold, locally and overseas. It will be another source of revenue.

And guess what? Biochar can be used to redeem land, such as from mining. This is an avenue we will be exploring in a big way in the months to come.

We approached the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica with a biochar project in 2009 and they, perceiving the vast value of biochar, provided funds to the Biotechnology Centre, UWI to pursue this endeavour. To date, we have built two machines, one simple (can be used on any farm and rural community) and a larger more complex unit capable of producing biochar and drying crops such as ginger and turmeric at the same time. We have also grown ginger, turmeric and arrowroot in charcoal-supplemented soil with very impressive results. We have built these machines and are presently using them to produce biochar for the first time in Jamaica.

One exciting raw material which we will be using is bamboo, which grows an amazing 30 feet per year! Jamaica will be hearing more and more about farmed bamboo in sustainable stands, and its potential for energy, soil remediants, and other products.

We are in the process of final testing and patenting these machines before we release them to the public for use in making more farm based energy and soil remediants.

The future is bright from our angle. And it is carbon black.

Dr Sylvia Mitchell

Medicinal Plant Research Group

The Biotechnology Centre

University of the West Indies

Mona Campus, Jamaica

Dr Trevor Lee

Scientific Consultant

Michael Barnett

Executive Director

New Horizons Skill Training Facility

Engineer Consultant

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