Charcoal, Bio Char and Nanotechnology

Where's the beef?!
Creative Commons License photo credit: Robert S. Donovan

Most of you, my dear readers, have heard of charring or charcoal at some point (a few might even know the term “Charyou Tree” from the novels of Stephen King). So you may be asking yourselves what is biochar? Is it different from normal charcoal? Why are people putting it in the ground and not using it for bar-b-q?

Biochar is organic material, mostly wood, that has been heated until it has been completely carbonized. How is this different from charcoal? It differs in its primary use. When people think of and use charcoal in America, it’s mainly for burning the charcoal. Biochar’s main uses are as a carbon sequester and a fertilizer. What that means is that when wood is turned into charcoal (or biochar) the carbon it holds is not released into the atmosphere. Instead you end up with a little lump of carbon (not like this, but like this). It turns out that lump of carbon can be used as a very effective fertilizer.

Now why do I bring all this up? It’s not only to talk a little about carbon sequestration or to talk about a hobby of mine, but to talk about up and coming science.

Over at Rice University they are using modern methods of chemistry to try and create the best biochar for fertilizer and how to promote it in developing countries.

Why is this important? First it is a way to improve soil quality without adding too many artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Second, it is a way to store the carbon without releasing it immediately into the atmosphere.

Using charcoal as fertilizer is not a new invention. The idea and practice has been around for thousands of years. One example of it has been slash and burn agriculture.

So what does biochar have to with carbon nanofibers?  Both are made from carbon. Both are being worked on at Rice.

So what is a carbon fiber nanotube? It is a string of carbon molecules that have been put together that are about 1 nanometer in diameter.

A man named 'Smalley' is meant to be a king of the Small world. He was.
Creative Commons License photo credit: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³

These smallest of the small have big potential. A long carbon string made using these carbon nanofibers (and buckyballs) have the potential to help revolutionize fields such as electronics and building materials.

Carbon nanofibers have the strongest tensile strength (how well the material stands up to stress) and can also hold an electrical current 1,000 times greater than the copper wires we use.

So, why aren’t we already using it? That’s the really amazing thing. The technology is so cutting (and bleeding) edge that the implementation is not there yet. 

And there are greater things yet to come. “Oh brave new world that has such people in it.”

Before the Hurricane: Securing the HMNS Greenhouses

Red Beauty
Creative Commons License photo credit: jtloweryphotography

As many of you know, the greenhouses of the Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC) are located on the rooftop of the parking garage on the seventh floor.  Two days before Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast, my volunteer Penny and I were busy preparing the greenhouses for the upcoming storm.  Because we are a USDA regulated facility, we must adhere to specific guidelines in the event of a disaster such as a hurricane. 

The first task at hand was to safely remove the Heliconius longwing butterflies from the rearing facility and transport them into the CBC lower-level basement where they were temporarily housed in 3’X4’ zippered/framed insectaries.  Penny helped out with the transport of the precious little ones and carefully placed a few nectar sources into the three separate insectaries along with a bowl of artificial nectar source. 

Next, we had to remove the 600 caterpillars which were all at different stages of growth to a pupation cage which we transported to the basement by way of my truck-bed.  To our dismay, the pupation cage would not fit through the newly repaired door frame on the seventh floor so we rolled it down the main hall of the museum by way of the main entrance handicapped ramp.  Once we had the pupation cage in place, we transferred the 600 caterpillars into the cage along with a feast of Passionflower vines for them to feed upon until the storm passed. 

We were so busy doing the transport and removal that our Staff Entomologist, Laurie, and Soni, our Assistant Conservatory Horticulturist, came up to the seventh floor to help out by watering the other plants within the greenhouses. Nancy, our CBC director, and Erin, our Insect Zoo Manager and Entomologist decided that because they lived close to the museum, they would make sure that the little ones housed in the basement would be tended to as soon as they could get into the museum district to do so.

passionfruit flower
Creative Commons License photo credit: Meme!

In the greenhouse area, we spent all day removing all the projectile objects from the exterior (wood, concrete blocks etc.).  We secured the plastic tables that usually hold plants to the white fence with newly purchased ratchet straps.  The greenhouse shade screens are set up on a pulley system so we rolled them all down and secured them with the straps. 

Inside the greenhouse, we pushed aside the mist tent where we house our seedlings to make way for the 700-plus plants that were outside that had to come inside until the storm passed.  We also had shelves of thousands of plastic plant flats and thousands of plastic pots which had to be pulled into the greenhouses so that they wouldn’t fly all over from the high winds.  We removed the shade cloth from the exterior so that it would not get ripped up in the wind.  We also had cans full of  Osmocote, a timed released fertilizer, bone and blood meal, perlitevermiculite, soil-mix and orchid medium that we transported into the greenhouse.

Whew… what a day!  We left feeling good about having secured the greenhouses and hoped that when we returned that the greenhouses would still be there.

2008-09-15   15-47-08   IMG_2629
Creative Commons License photo credit: geocam20000

As I write this blog, there are still millions without electricity or water and lots of recovery is taking place in Houston and in my neighborhood, Katy.  The CBC greenhouses, I am happy to say, survived the winds and the rain.  Only one thing happened – two of the steel shade clothes decided to roll themselves backwards and ended up on the opposite side of the greenhouse but remained attached to the roof. 

Erin and Nancy cared for our babies in the dark basement with the aid of flashlights and for this I thank them.  Abraham, our groundskeeper, filled 55 gallon cans with water and Erin and Nancy hand watered the plants in the greenhouses.  There was no electricity in the museum until Wednesday afternoon – hence no elevator – so Abraham had to deliver the water to the seventh floor in the back of his truck.

Since then, we have returned the rearing pairs of longwing butterflies to the insectaries where as of yesterday, there was mating and egg-laying occurring – just as nature intended.   We hope that you are all faring well and wish only the best for you and your precious families.  If you do have a spot in your yard where a tree once stood, you may want to consider filling it with butterfly host plants and nectar plants not only for them, but also for the hummingbirds who will soon be migrating south and will stop in our yards to replenish their energy or to possibly build a nest. If you are able to, we hope you’ll join us for our Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, October 4 on the seventh floor of the parking garage, from 9 to 1 p.m. We would love to see you. 

Take Care…