From biowaste to biogold’

How to make use of biomass and biowaste without squeezing the global food supply.

On the Catalyst with Shayle Kann podcast this week:

Biomass: It’s the organic matter in forests, agriculture and trash. You can turn it into electricity, fuel, plastic and more. And you can engineer it to capture extra carbon dioxide and sequester it underground or at the bottom of the ocean. 

So what’s the catch? Well, the world has a finite capacity for biomass production, so every end use of the material competes with another. If the process is carried out improperly, these end uses could also compete with food production on arable land, which is already in tight supply.

So which decarbonization solutions will get a slice of the biomass pie? Which ones should?

In this episode, Shayle talks to Julio Friedmann, chief scientist at Carbon Direct. They cover the many sources of biomass, ranging from municipal solid waste to kelp.

They also survey the potential end uses, such as incineration to generate power, gasification to make hydrogen, and pyrolyzation to make biochar, as well as fuel production via a Fischer-Tropsch process.

In a report from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Julio and his co-authors propose a new concept called biomass carbon removal and storage, or BiCRS, as a way to describe capturing carbon in biomass and then sequestering it. Startups Charm Industrial and Running Tide are pursuing this approach. Julio and his co-authors view BiCRS as an alternative pathway to bioenergy carbon capture and storage. 

They then zoom in on waste, a promising source of biomass. Example projects include a ski hill built on an incinerator in Copenhagen and a planned waste-to-hydrogen plant in Lancaster, California.

Shayle and Julio also dig into questions such as:

  • What’s the best way to procure and transport biomass, especially biowaste, at scale?

  • How can we avoid eco-colonialism (i.e., wealthy countries exploiting the resources of poorer countries to grow biomass without first attaining meaningful consent)?

  • If everyone wants it, when is biowaste no longer waste? And when there’s a shortage of waste products — like corn stover, for example — what’s the risk of turning to raw feedstocks such as corn?

  • Is it possible to pickle trees? (Yes, you read that right.)


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