The humble phytolith

This journey begins with a crazy ecofeministanarchist?marxist called Carrie who I fell in love with at St Mark’s College in Adelaide while studying a M.B.B.S. at the University of Adelaide. Carrie was studying ecological and sociological subjects at a hippie college in Oregon, USA. She decided to spend a year at the University of Adelaide in an exchange. It turned out there some radical students and lecturers there who Carrie enjoyed learning from and spending time with. We started going out with each other when it was clear that we both enjoyed having fun and good conversation. She taught me a lot about ‘The Environment’ and got me excited about public health and alternative ways of looking at the world which were not really promoted in the conservative medical curriculum at that time. At the end of the first year of Uni, Carrie went back to the USA to continue her studies and I was stuck in a heart wrenching long distance relationship with her and an increasing studyload at Uni. By the end of the third year, I’d managed to fail almost every subject and managed to pass 13 supplementary exams which may still be the record in the Adelaide Uni med school. After this, I decided to go overseas on a world backpacking tour when I was 21. I caught up with Carrie in the US, broke up, continued to travel with her in South America but the damage was done. She mistakenly took Larium for malaria prevention which wasn’t really needed and she became psychotic, depressed and often tearful. She left me with a friend at Punta Arenas in the Tierra del Fuego (land of fires) and headed back home – she’d had enough and that was the last time I’d seen her. She had left her mark on me – I was now deeply concerned about social and ecological issues and swore never to take Larium.

 

 

 

A couple of years later I quit medical school, joined up again then quit it again. I now had a strong desire to word up on environmental issues and started a Masters at Flinders University in ‘Environmental Management’. In one of my tutorials in ‘Environmental Politics’ I met a student who was a self-declared permaculturist or ‘permie’. I started researching it and realised that there were other people out there who were disillusioned by politics and wanted to live sustainably while achieving social and environmental change. I quit after passing all but one of my subjects ‘Environmental Politics’ - I got caught up in the politics of the Murray-Darling Basin and refused to submit my essay in fear of being labelled too ‘radical’ and realised then that down the rabbit hole we needed systemic change to implement bioregions with bioregional management plans based around river catchments such as the MDB. That was in 2003. A lot of stuff happened after that. I was restless, moving around the country and overseas too. I worked in many different jobs, lived in many places, had different partners and learned a shit load about survival.

 

 

 

I made the call. Time to study a Diploma of Permaculture as nothing else was working out for me. I went to Byron Bay and studied a Diploma under the Permaforest Trust directed by Tim Winton. Tim and his crew were great mentors. I met other mentors along the way. I spent some time with the late Geoff Moxham from Terania Creek who had been obsessed with biochar for 4 years before he ironically got killed by biomass (in an elaborate swinging tree trunk manouvre that knocked him on the head after which he went into a Tibetan Buddhist dying position while haematoma presumably ruptured his brain and killed him). Biochar is basically biomass (the mass of anything biological) that’s produced in an oxygen starved fire in a process known as ‘pyrolysis’. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) and went on to design a ‘Top-Lit UpDraft’ stove out of Geoff’s reclaimed 304 stainless steel birko that I inherited for my main research project, inspired by Geoff and Dr TLUD that we could fight climate change, poverty and respiratory disease with the one simple technology that produces biochar. This is when I began to learn about phytoliths from Dr Jeff Parr’s research.

 

 

 

So, what is a phytolith? It’s basically a compound of Carbon and Silica that forms in plant cell walls, inside plant cells and between plant cells. It’s also known as ‘plant stones’, ‘plant opals’ and ‘PhytOCs’. What is it good for? We’ve all heard about climate change and probably other names for it as well to describe the end of days such as climate chaos, climate disruption, climate heating, and of course, climate hell. So many research papers and articles have been released around this topic, mainly in the last couple of decades but beginning as early as the 1950s. So what do phytoliths have to do with any of this? Carbon biogeochemical sequestration. Why do we need that? It is Carbon emissions causing the majority of climate heating. Who causes those? Mainly people and environmental runaway loops or cascades that feedback into themselves such as the Arctic melting (known as the ‘albedo flip effect’) and bushfires, such as those seen in California, the Amazon and Austalia in recent months and years.

 

 

 

I almost studied Archeology at Melbourne Uni and I had been interested in this topic for many years, inspired by different archeology celebrities and my own travel eg. I visited Egypt when I was 10 years old and was amazed by it’s culture. Phytoliths were one of the key tools in understanding archeological time. In fact, phytoliths of a bamboo genus, Pleioblastus have been recorded in parts of soils dated to the last interglacial period (130,000–74,000 BP ) from Japan...Bamboo biochar. According to PhytAID phytolith research group, fossil grass short cell phytoliths (GSSCP’s) have been found on every continent and the oldest GSSCP’s are at least 66 million years old....but this is just a snapshot of the potential of phytoliths, and long-term Carbon and Silica sequestration to heal the planet…

 

 

 

Many years went by via different projects which I hoped would kick start my business. It didn’t seem many people were listening – or maybe I wasn’t marketing my technology effectively? I instead made it a personal challenge to design many different kilns (devices used to make the biochar) for many different applications. I got sucked into ‘top fed open draft’ (TFOD) kilns in 2015 with the design of the Kon-Tiki biochar kiln by Dr Paul Taylor and Hans-Peter Schmidt which was a variation and adaptation of the Moki kilns from Japan. These were mainly cone based kilns with near zero Carbon emissions to make biochar if they were manufactured and operated appropriately. After various failures in work (though I did finish a few qualifications at TAFE), I became long-term unemployed. The longer I was out of work the more application rejections I received and the worse my mental health became. So, rather than give up hope I just kept developing appropriate tech as I predicted one day people, if not now, could benefit from it and make a positive environmental impact.

 

 

 

To help pass the time, I began learning programming on a super intuitive platform called ‘Datacamp’. A major growth area in coding is an area of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) called ‘Machine Learning’ (ML). Python seemed to be the the best language to learn for this exciting area of new applications. I then had a hunch that maybe people had used ML to recognise Phytoliths in a large volume of samples so I researched it and alas work had been done on this. In other research, people had made predictions about quantities of biochar produced based on kiln and biomass/plant properties. Adding 2 and 2 I realised you could probably make predictions of how much Carbon could be sequestered as Phytoliths/PhytOCs from a given type and amount of biomass for a given kiln design over time well into the future. Kiln designs could include the Kon-Tiki eg. the Kon-Tiki ‘Rolls’ (which is for sale on my website at permachar.net in a shameless plug). I contacted Dr Paul Taylor and it turns out that he was researching how to estimate tonnes of biochar produced over time as a basis for a Carbon Credit system for the United Nations (UN). This was interesting to me as I had been researching NORI, a blockchained Carbon removal/credit scheme (the potential competition) and I found that their weakness was the lack of the temporal dimension. Paul had worked it out with a physics proof of concept and I had done it with ML and Phytoliths (see previous '#Software for the hardware' blog and check out "http://phytaid-site.s3-website-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/#")! Carbon credits are probably doomed by capitalism and corruption anyway however ecocapitalism seems to be increasingly more ethical than other forms of growth capitalism :(

 

 

 

So now what? Well, all these megafires in Australia are killing my hope. I keep asking myself, is it too late to even bother trying to spread biochar throughout the main planks of the economy when so much Carbon is being released into the atmosphere making the conditions worse for future bushfires (on a macro scale, just like on a micro scale the bushfires create their own weather to increase the fire magnitude)? Then it occurred to me today, while I was reading an article that there are a small number of researchers saying that Phytoliths are not affected by bushfire. In other words, maybe the bushfires are adding soil Carbon to the soil (aka ‘Terra preta Australis’) in addition to the soil Carbon that was already there before the bushfire, locked up in Phytoliths? Also, as fire (and water) is used by nature to germinate various dormant seeds such as the Acacia species would the magnitude of the fires destroy the seeds? Obviously, it’s tragic that all that bushland, homes, communities and people’s lives in Australia have been all but destroyed and many species will struggle to repopulate, including us humans. But, when the recovery happens, will the same development and planning mistakes be made as they have in the past and will we miss an enormous opportunity to think like a Permie and solve various problems using elegant solutions so that ecosocioeconomic systems are resilient to future catastrophic bushfire, doughts, other climate events, global financial crises and even climate-related economic downturns?

 

 

 

All the technology in the world won’t make it rain. Climate change is changing rainfall patterns and causing droughts all over the planet and will only get worse before/if it ever gets better again. Cloud seeding shouldn’t be used – Indonesia tried it and it caused flash flooding and besides - you need clouds in the first place to seed which we presumably don't have in large quantity over drought-stricken areas. So, we are left with a small number of safe biogeochemical sequestration options such as biochar (which has a plethora of multiple uses) for long-term planetary sustainability and healing. Unfortunately, once the forest is gone, there will be virtually no evapotranspiration and evaporation in these areas to produce rain clouds which provide water for seed germination and long-term survival of the regenerating flora and fauna. Note that the charcoal remaining from the bushfires will be able to provide a buffering effect for water release into the ground once rainfall returns. The charcoal/biochar is like a sponge - when it's wet micro-organisms mainly live in the soil and the biochar adsorbs water into it's 3D matrix. When it's dry, micro-organisms enter the 3D matrix from the soil and use what moisture remains inside and the nanostructures as 'high rise accommodation' and continue to mine nutrients found inside the matrix. When it's dry, water is released from the outer areas of the matrix back into the soil.

 

Even if we seedball (google) (eg. biochar, clay and acacia gum binder) the hell out of these burnt areas with drones with pneumatic cannons (eg.AirSeed Technologies) we still need water eg. rain for germination which has been demonstrated in the Kenyan seedballing enterprise...eg. It has taken up to 7 years for some acacia seedball areas to germinate in Kenya due to lack of rainfall. But, what will we tell our young people if we don’t even try and regrow our forests?

 

We could establish key wildlife/biodiversity corridors connecting a patchwork of agroforestry ecosystems. For eg, if the drought hasn't broken soon, bores could be sunk and we could R&D fire-resistant/fire-safe irrigation to supplement the biochar water conservation strategy. These agroforestry ecosystems could be grown with selected fire-resilient food, fuel and fibre crops that don’t require excessive soil and water resources but still support some wildlife to link up with the wildlife/biodiversity corridors. For example, the hemp plant could be grown and used in combination with recovered biochar in biocomposite called ‘charcrete’ (refer to ‘Burn: Using fire to cool the earth’ ) to rebuild sustainable housing and infrastructure in bushfire affected areas.  WWF Australia wants to grow 2 billion trees by 2030. This could integrate well with agroforestry ecosystems. It would be a shame to just regenerate bushland only to have it unsustainably burn down again in the future - we need to think outside the box and adapt to the new environment the megafires have produced and will keep producing possibly to varying degrees every fire season from now on though it's hard to imagine a similar extent of damage could ever happen again...touch wood.

 

 

 

David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture with the late Bill Mollison, wrote an article called ‘The flywire house’ in 1993. I’ve got a book on earth covered houses and there are always ‘Earthships’ pioneered by Michael Reynolds and crews. I would like to see collaboration across the entire system and the thinking of the system needs to be updated to now and into the future. It’s not enough to just declare a ‘climate emergency’ and make a minimal effort to rethink policy. What is happening now in Australia with climate change is happening in other parts of the world and we still don’t have a comprehensive mitigation and adaptation strategy on the table. How much suffering is ‘needed’ before the system reboots onto a more positive footing for dealing with all this chaos? The key is time travel...could we use the humble phytolith to lead us down good cultural and survival pathways. So, I think a valid question to ask is then, which cultures were sustainable and in some case still are and what we can do to learn from them that also commits to building future policy, research and development goals for sustainable culture?