Long stretches of mowed grass may look nondescript to a passerby, but they signify a wealth of opportunity for Jade Monroe and her team of environmental scientists at North Dakota State University.
The team, called Carbon Negative, took home first place in the Social Track for their Innovation Challenge project this year. The project is centered around reducing carbon emissions by planting prairie vegetation on underutilized land.
“We take these lands like the one by West Acres, or the long ditches that go through town that fill with sandbags when it floods, and we convert that into prairie vegetation,” said teammate Jesse Riley. “Prairie vegetation has benefits; it attracts pollinators, cleans storm water, it’s good for erosion and it sequesters carbon.”
The team, made up of Riley Monroe and Alexis Steinman, first started working on it after a volunteer stint with Prairie Restoration Incorporated, where they began to consider all the values of prairie vegetation. Riley, who also works as a landscape artist, said much of the land that could be used for prairie vegetation costs up to $100,000 just to maintain.
“They [the city] mow everything, and that’s just a big cost,” he said. “It keeps grass down, and it’s aesthetically pleasing and clean. But these pieces of land are not baseball diamonds or soccer fields. They could go back down to be prairie.”
This means more native prairie grasses and flowers, like the type of open land you might see at Buffalo State Park he said. The kind of land some might see as weeds.
“In this area, a lot of people are one generation off from a farm. They often view prairie vegetation as weeds. As unclean,” he said. “But that’s starting to change.”
Drawing awareness to the carbon reduction that would happen as a result is helping to shift the mentality as well. Right now they are focusing on Fargo; but in North Dakota as a whole, if 11% of the public land was turned back into prairie vegetation, “we could sequester more carbon emissions than LA produces in a year,” Monroe said.
“Carbon emissions suck, and they are growing at an exponential rate,” she said. “By 2015… 80% of carbon emissions are coming from human uses in cities. Why don’t we target that right at the source? Our idea is that we can effectively sequester carbon emissions locally, through city municipalities.”
Not only does it reduce carbon, but the team aims to monetize this process, too. Which is where things get interesting.
Each year they plan to harvest that plant material, bale it, and bring it to a facility at the landfill. The facility, which is a newly patented mobile gasification unit, will bake the plant at 1,000 degrees and turn it into a product called biochar.
Biochar is a charcoal produced from plant matter that can be stored in the soil as a means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“[The gasification unit] works like a filter,” Monroe explained. “It traps the nutrients that are beneficial to plant material. Biochar is just a more sustainably produced carbon product.”
The unit was designed by Curtis Borchert, from Ada, Minnesota, after he attempted to create biochar for his wife’s garden by sealing wood from the family’s Christmas tree in a popcorn tin and tossing it into a wood burning stove. It ended with a pile of charred material on the floor, which then inspired the idea for mobile gasification unit that was patented last year.
Borchert is working closely with Monroe and her graduate paper on releasing their research by this summer.
Dr. Jack Norland, the team’s advisor and an associate professor in natural resources management (NRM) at NDSU, said the process of creating biochar has actually been used long before now.
“Just think charcoal. That’s all it is,” he said. “And people have been using that since almost the beginning of time.”
“In fact,” Monroe chimed in, “The Amazonians used biochar to help their soil quality.”
A biochar facility large enough for a city does not exist anywhere else in the world, Monroe said. A small, personal machine costs about $60,000. For one the city would use, it could cost around $15 million, she said. The up front cost is one of the biggest hurdles they expect to jump with the project.
But in the long run, Monroe said, it’s a wise investment.
For one, the biochar material is highly valuable, she said. Borchert, the one who patented the biochar making facility, claims to have discovered over 8,000 ways biochar material can be used.
In a cost analysis Monroe and her team generated, they expect $4 – 10 million to be produced annually by the city of Fargo, including both the biochar sales and the money saved by not maintaining the public land. The return on investment would be up to $4.50 per every dollar spent by the city as well, she said.
“If we were to lay the groundwork, the system could be put into place in 3- 5 years with profits generated by year six,” Monroe said. “If started this year, by year 2019-2020 we could see revenues generated by this system.”
Monroe and her team have already garnered city and state interest with their project, she said. They are working closely with City Commissioner Mike Williams, and have even spoken with Senator John Hoeven about the capabilities of their project.
Winning first place at Innovation Challenge gave them a boost as well, the team said. They split the $5,000 to be used individually, most choosing to use it on their graduate studies. Most of all, the awareness helped them in an area where they need it most; political will and public support.
“The win opened people’s eyes to this becoming a reality,” Jesse said.
People should keep their eyes open, the team said. As outlooks grow increasingly negative around the topic of climate change, there is a need for positive solutions, Monroe said.
“I think we all can agree that we want the quality of life for current and future generations to be better,” she said. “This is an opportunity for people to think innovatively about how we approach these things.”
Come and hear more from the Carbon Negative team this Wednesday at 1 Million Cups, 9:15 AM at the Stage at Island Park!