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Earth Science

Plowing Carbon Into the Fields 467

OzPeter writes "A wheat farmer in Australia has eliminated adding fertilizer to his crop by the simple process of injecting the cooled diesel exhaust of his modified tractor into the ground when the wheat is being sown. In doing so he eliminates releasing carbon into the atmosphere and at the same time saves himself up to $500,000 (AUD) that would have been required to fertilize his 3,900 hectares in the traditional way. Yet his crop yields over the last two years have been at least on par with his best yields since 2001. The technique was developed by a Canadian, Gary Lewis of Bio Agtive, and is currently in trial at 100 farms around the world."
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Plowing Carbon Into the Fields

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  • What (Score:2, Insightful)

    Not that blowing it into the atmosphere is much better, but doesn't diesel exhaust contain all sorts of nasty toxins? If he's polluting his ground water then in a few years he'll have more to worry about than his dying crops..

    • I'm assuming that they literally don't just simply pipe the fumes into the ground people(what is it with /., anyway?), and I'm guessing that's where that's where "Bio Agtive's" IP comes in. It probably works out that purifying the exhaust becomes not only an affordable expense but profitable with this process, hence the pollution benefit. Unfortunately their site is slashdotted right now, so who knows about details. []
    • Re:What (Score:5, Informative)

      by HangingChad ( 677530 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @12:48AM (#29939497) Homepage

      Not that blowing it into the atmosphere is much better, but doesn't diesel exhaust contain all sorts of nasty toxins?

      I don't recall the exact exhaust gas composition, but in my younger days working at a research lab we participated in a series of animal studies on diesel exhaust. You could pump a lot of diesel exhaust through lab animals without any serious side effects. Some of the high dose groups had lungs that looked like they had been smoking, but none of them died from toxins in the exhaust. I don't remember there being any statistical correlation to cancers or cell differentiation, either. But that was a long time ago.

      My vague memory of the conclusions were that you breath a lot of diesel exhaust without harmful side effects, although the particulates would keep your pulmonary macrophage in business.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Alsee ( 515537 )

        My vague memory of the conclusions were that you breath a lot of diesel exhaust without harmful side effects, although the particulates would keep your pulmonary macrophage in business.

        We can mandate that in our next economic stimulus plan.


  • by dr2chase ( 653338 ) on Saturday October 31, 2009 @11:51PM (#29939185) Homepage
    What chemical process is converting the CO2, into not-CO2? He's not burying that carbon deep enough to keep it out of the atmosphere for more than a few days. Best case for him, perhaps some nitrogen compounds in the exhaust are ending up in the soil, but otherwise, this sounds like a gimmick.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Well those nitrogen compounds being depleted is why he has to pay $500,000 for fertilizer.

      But you're right that this does absolutely nothing for reducing CO2 emissions.

    • by icebike ( 68054 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @02:14AM (#29939803)

      I too am calling bullshit on this entire idea. There is simply not enough exhaust to do anything like what was claimed.

      No matter how you work the chemical reactions, the amount of diesel required to plow a field combined with the air of combustion will never equal the amount of CO2 and nitrogen found in the proper amount of fertilizer. By sheer weight of the components alone you can deduce this is nonsense.

      Plants do consume CO2. Merely plowing under his crop, or the chaff thereof would sequester come CO2, perhaps as long as the next growing season.

      Sooner or later you have to add something back in, or plant some other crop that fixes nitrogen or you deplete the soil. His experiment hasn't run long enough to even account for changes in weather, let alone long term damage to the fields.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by anotherzeb ( 837807 )
      Don't know if it was the intention, but biochar (charcoal intended to be buried, sequestering CO2) screws up crop levels if it's used on fertilised land. As this use of exhaust fumes means that no fertiliser is being used, it probably means that the land can have biochar dug into it, which increases crop levels on land with no fertiliser. I agree that what is being done now does nothing for CO2 and I don't even know if the farmer's thought of it, but if biochar were dug into the land, it could be the star
  • It's great but (Score:3, Interesting)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Saturday October 31, 2009 @11:53PM (#29939191) Journal
    It's great that he can inject carbon dioxide during planting, but most farmers use the tractor for more than just planting. Can he inject it into the ground at other times when driving around, or would it disturb the plants? The article didn't say.

    If he can really go without fertilizer in the long term, then it may also help with the human impacts on the nitrogen cycle [].
  • 1100 Kilos of Carbon per Hectacre? That seems a little off to me. Perhaps I don't understand the how its calculated.
    • Someone a few posts lower linked to a blog with more info. It says "Mr Lewis calculates a zero-till rig will put 1100 kilograms of air through the tractor engine to work a hectare."

      I still don't see how this works, but I'm sure enough people will test it eventually.

      • by icebike ( 68054 )

        > I still don't see how this works, but I'm sure enough people will test it eventually.

        This was done in a far off place. Australia. You and I can't afford go there and watch, and can't be sure of what he put on the field.

        It was developed by someone in yet another country. Canada. Why wasn't it tested in Canada?

        So we have the experiment performed in a place where it can't be verified, and developed in a place where it wasn't even tested.

        Brilliant. Now lets make the infomercial and get down to business.

  • by ZackSchil ( 560462 ) on Saturday October 31, 2009 @11:56PM (#29939207)

    Having absolutely no experience with any farming techniques, any real knowledge of the chemical composition of cooled diesel exhaust or even having read the article, I still somehow feel confident enough to give a vague denouncement of this farming technique.


    This will never work because the gas will escape/it will poison the ground/I am so much smarter than whoever came up with this.

    Thank you, thank you. Love ya Slashdot. Never change.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by iammani ( 1392285 )
      I wouldnt go far to say poison the ground.

      I am no expert in chemistry or toxicology, so that take my comment with heaps of salt

      The major composition of emission(CO, CO2, NO2, SO2 gases) will no way get collected during condensation. The condensed liquid/solid will contain all sort of hydrocarbons with various amounts of nitrogen, sulfur and their oxides. It should be an interesting mixture/tar (which I am not really sure will be consistent), which is very likely to not fall under any category of pos
    • It is funny (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @01:29AM (#29939673)

      It seems to be these days that there are a lot of people that can't possibly believe there are any ecological solutions that don't involve the massive reduction in human emissions. When the talk is about global warming and reducing carbon output, they are on board and scream "You aren't a scientist, you have to listen to the scientists!" to anyone who questions it. However, when scientists have any other solution, one that DOESN'T involve an emission reduction, they get pissed off, and denounce those scientists. Suddenly they are experts in all the reasons that must be wrong.

      A good example of this is what has happened with the new book Super Freakonomics. Levitt does the same thing he does in the original Freakonomics of stripping away morality from various issues and applying economics. His original book drew ire from conservative types because it presented a convincing argument that legalized abortion has lead to a reduction in crime, but liberal types were generally ok with it.

      Well, now he's become someone high up on the enemies list because in Super Freakonomics he analyzes the economics of combating global arming through geoengineering methods, rather than reducing emissions. Note that he doesn't say it isn't real or isn't a problem, just looks at different solutions as being more economically feasible. Yet that has drawn massive ire from the environmentalist types.

      It just seems to be an article of faith these days that the only thing good for the environment is to use less. Any solutions that involves anything else is shouted down. This being the same sort of thing. People point to science as the ultimate bastion of truth... so long as what it shows agrees with their world view. Any time something contrary comes out, all of a sudden they are the experts instead of the scientists.

      • Re:It is funny (Score:4, Insightful)

        by deglr6328 ( 150198 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @02:07AM (#29939779)

        um no. But it does seem "these days" that more and more people who, despite obviously knowing fuck all about science or how evidence bound scientific inquiry functions, nonetheless feel entitled to pontificate endlessly on whatever heavily scientifically related subject they like in total blissful, laughable ignorance.

      • Re:It is funny (Score:4, Informative)

        by azgard ( 461476 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @04:07AM (#29940169)

        There was a critique of the chapter in Super Freakonomics on [] []
        I think it's worth reading.

        Anyway, I don't believe any geo-engineering solution will help combat GW, for a simple reason: conservation of energy. Fossil fuels are so important because we can use energy at faster rate than we could obtain it from the sun (their EROI is higher), because it has been accumulating for millions years. So any solution to CO2 reduction different from plain reduction of fossil fuel usage will have to ultimately convert excess CO2 somehow, and this will cost same amount of energy (or more) as it would just use a renewable resource (which there is ultimately only one, the Sun) for energy. Basically, the problem is that the rate at which we consume energy is not sustainable; we will have to match our rate to that of what we can get from the Sun.

  • Fertilizer is nitrogen and phosphorus. Exhaust is carbon and oxygen. Can one pair really be replaced by the other?

    What keeps the injected CO2 from leaking back out?

    Why doesn't the CO2 in the air already do the same thing?

    • I think it has more to do with the NOx from the exhaust. Not that I have any clue how nitrous oxide could be made into something useful like niter by pumping it into the ground. My issue is that this article claims it has something to do with carbon, which makes even less sense.

      Most journalists are worse at science than I am.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by WindBourne ( 631190 )
        Actually, Diesel normally contains many of the bio elements in there ( along with many others that are NOT good for bio) since it is from biological background. But, there is a shortage of N in there. I suspect that you are right and that the NOx (which Diesel engines generate a LOT of), would be in there and might be fairly useful.

        As to the other contaminants, there are already put in the ground. Those that sink in the air will simply land on the ground and soak in. IOW, injecting this in the ground, PRO
      • by canajin56 ( 660655 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @12:43AM (#29939465)
        Or you can read the article and see that CO2 helps anaerobic bacteria that also happen to be nitrogen fixers...guess the journalists know more than you, after all.
    • Re:Questions (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jamstar7 ( 694492 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @12:29AM (#29939379)
      As has been written in here several times, lotta nitrate compounds in diesel exhaust, even more so than gasoline motor exhaust due to the much higher compression ratios that diesel engines require to run on. Plants need CO2, but they also need nitrates and nitrides in order to grow. As far as carbon compounds in the exhaust, I dunno if they escape the soil (being gaseous) or get bound up to become part of the plants immediately or what. I would have loved to see a more technical article than TFA, that's for sure.
    • Re:Questions (Score:4, Informative)

      by jginspace ( 678908 ) <> on Sunday November 01, 2009 @01:05AM (#29939559) Homepage Journal

      Fertilizer is nitrogen and phosphorus. Exhaust is carbon and oxygen. Can one pair really be replaced by the other?

      "The exhaust gases are believed to stimulate microbial activity and root growth, allowing the plants to more efficiently extract nutrient and moisture from the soil."

      What keeps the injected CO2 from leaking back out?

      "The system relies on attraction between negatively-charged ions in the gases and the soil’s positively charged alkaline component to hold the gases in the soil, as well as sealing it in." []

  • Typical (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Jerry Rivers ( 881171 ) * on Sunday November 01, 2009 @12:09AM (#29939261)

    So few facts, so many opinions.

  • Let's ignore for the moment the problem that carbon isn't fertilizer.

    He can't possibly be getting enough exhaust to make a difference. There's just not enough carbon in the tank of Diesel to make a difference when spread across the field in the amounts he burns it during tilling/planting.

    As much as we talk about carbon emissions, the exhaust coming out of his equipment is barely changed from what went in. If pumping in the exhaust from his equipment had a noticeable effect, then pumping in twice as much jus

    • by canajin56 ( 660655 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @12:38AM (#29939435)
      It's nice that you're so sure actual scientists know less than you, and that there's no such thing as nitrogen fixing bacteria, and that they sure aren't fucking anaerobic and like CO2. Christ.
      • No scientists in this story, only farmers.

        As to these bacteria you speak of, they are going to be in bad shape due to the presence of massive amounts of oxygen in this exhaust due to the incomplete combustion typical of Diesels (they do not have throttle plates, and thus do not burn all the oxygen drawn in unless operated at full throttle).

  • by Darkk ( 1296127 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @12:21AM (#29939323)

    What a load of bunk. Let's see if Mythbusters would be willing to bust this myth.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 01, 2009 @12:22AM (#29939333)

    I think the argument to this mechanism is that he is providing an extra carbon source for the nitrogen fixers natively present in the soil. These bacteria convert N2 into ammonia, which can then be absorbed by the plants. Essentially drives the nitrogen cycle more quickly than would occur otherwise. Alternatives in place are to do alternate plantings with plants that have rhizobiums such as legumes.

    As to the people saying this is not carbon neutral, I think you should read up on the Haber-bosch process - how ammonia is made for fertilizer. Unlike microbes which can do this at room temperature and pressure, it takes something like 400 C at several times Earth's pressure. This is a very expensive process, and cutting down ammonia production will save a lot of energy.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by nas ( 29935 )

      Synthesizing nitrogen is very expensive (in energy and in monetary price). If this exhaust idea worked you can be sure farmers would snatch it up. Unfortunately it is snake oil. AFAIK, there is no serious study showing any effect.

      Using legumes to fixate nitrogen is something that *does* work and farmers are happy to do so if there is a market for the crop (we grow yellow peas as much as reasonably possible). Because organic farmers can get a premium for their other crops, they sometimes grow legumes purely

  • by jginspace ( 678908 ) <> on Sunday November 01, 2009 @12:23AM (#29939343) Homepage Journal
    Funny this sounded familiar, I submitted [] the story about the Canadian farmer [] three years ago. That article says it was developed by a farmer named Darrel Carlisle and is generally more informative.
  • I am a farmer in Canada and fertilizer does not cost 1200 to 1500 a tonne. There's no way in hell it costs half a million dollars to fertilize 3900 HA of wheat. Injecting diesel exhaust fumes in a single planting pass to totally fertilize each HA of wheat sounds like junk science to me.
    • I agree with the junk science bit. As for the price of fertilizer, it's highly variable and is doubtlessly different across the world, depending on the price of natural gas usually, or shipping costs if it's imported. Given that two seasons ago in Alberta, Canada our fertilizer bill was about $200k for 2500 irrigated acres (this season was about $100k), it's not inconceivable that prices could double, triple, or even quadruple, depending on oil prices. Not sure what kind of farm you have, but if it's hig

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by nas ( 29935 )

      I don't know which part of Canada you farm in but we probably spend more than that figure. It comes out to 52 $/acre. Using some spring 2009 prices: 60 lbs/acre of N, 25 lbs of P2O5, and 9 lbs of K comes to about 59 $/acre.

      If that exhaust system worked it would be nice. Unfortunately there are no studies that show that it does. Probably the manufacturers are making out okay at $40,000 per system. Hmm.

  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @12:32AM (#29939393) Journal
    First, Diesel COMES from degraded bio matter. So, what is in there? MOSTLY, the same stuff. That means that is contains the same micro elements. As other have pointed out, NOx are being generated and it would appear that these are also being injected. As to the nasty stuff, ALL of those will ALWAYS be generated in a diesel system. AND just about ALL will SINK TO THE GROUND. So wether you inject it into the soil, OR you lay it on the top, it is the same. The question is, is it a small amount? If it is, then not a big deal. And it would appear to be the case.

    This approach makes good sense ASSUMING that you are using a diesel tractor. I am guessing that this will be the norm in another 5 years.
  • Plough (Score:2, Offtopic)

    In Australia, we don't "plow" anything into our fields; we plough it, as the original submission correctly said.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by solanum ( 80810 )

      Actually, increasingly we don't plough or plow in Australia as a large proportion of dryland agriculture has shifted to no till / direct drill. Which has massively improved soil health.

      A consequence of which is that injecting exhaust would be difficult for many arable farmers here.

      Incidentally, I lived for a number of years within a few miles of where this guy is. In that region generally no nitrogen fertiliser is used and phosphorous is a) only applied every couple of years or so, and b) generally applie

  • CO2 is not a fertiliser, so pumping into the ground will not help plant grow. it will infact KILL your plants as a plants root zone requires O2 to breath and take up nutrients. increasing CO2 is a trick green house growers use, but that's in the air where the leafy matter processes it.

    The second problem with this FTA, it that fertiliser does not cost $1200 a tonne.

    unless TFA is grossly wrong, this sounds a lot like the "magnetic water" bullshit sold to people.

  • We have a lot of coal power here in Victoria, Australia and I have long thought that instead of pumping it straight up into the atmosphere we should pump it sideways into huge glasshouses. They could be built as automated food factories because the air in there would not be healthy for humans. The gas venting at the far end should have much less CO2 than when it goes in.

  • Won't do (Score:3, Insightful)

    by flyingfsck ( 986395 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @02:20AM (#29939821)
    This won't do. I guess he is not telling the whole story.
  • I don't buy it (Score:4, Insightful)

    by khallow ( 566160 ) on Sunday November 01, 2009 @04:47AM (#29940293)
    As has been mentioned here before, the point of fertilizer is to provide nitrogen, and to a lesser extent, phosphorus and sulfur, not carbon. So how is diesel exhaust providing those elements in sufficient quantity? It's worth noting that this farmer has only been doing it for two years. That's far too short to make the sort of claims he's making.

    Doing the math, he's claiming that he saves on about 400 tons of fertilizer for a 3900 hectare farm by pumping roughly 4,000 tons of diesel exhaust into the soil. At a glance, most of this is water, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. There's a little bit of nitrogen oxides and sulfur. But I don't see the advantage. I'm wondering, if he's getting some nitrogen and other elements from the death of necessary fauna in his soil. That is, he might be getting a couple of good years of crops by killing off most of his earthworms, nematodes, and other animals in the soil who would be poisoned by excess CO2 and CO levels.

This process can check if this value is zero, and if it is, it does something child-like. -- Forbes Burkowski, CS 454, University of Washington