Wood Carbon Containment

New Methods to Prolong the Containment of Carbon in Wood

Mechanisms of storing carbon in living woody biomass usually focus on growing more trees and plants or protecting them. As a complement to this activity, the CC Lab is developing and testing methods to prolong the containment of carbon in biomass after photosynthesis has captured carbon in biomass and before respiration releases the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. The CC Lab aims to substantially slow the rate of decomposition of this material or halt it altogether. In doing so, the Lab is leading research into a new form of nature-based carbon containment. Implementation of CC Lab projects in this area seek to bring the following four main stages of a project together through partnerships that allow projects to be deployed at scale.
Carbon cycle of wood biomass
    Carbon cycle for the CC Lab Containment of Carbon in Wood project
  • Gather: Acquisition of biomass should occur at low cost, and with full accounting of economics and energy. Currently, a significant driver of gathering woody biomass is forest thinning techniques motivated by immense wildfire risk.
  • Treat: The processing and treatment of biomass should reduce decomposition rates and/or minimize vulnerability to loss (e.g., wildfire or pests). Treatments will seek to optimize cost, effectiveness, environmental impact, human health, capital requirements, and availability of partners.
  • Store: Storage of biomass will consider duration, adoption rates, regulatory issues, and co-beneficial ecosystem conservation and restoration effects. The CC Lab assesses locations where storage opportunities are already available on the landscape, such as decommissioned roads, eroding gullies, extant mines, and defunct drainage ditches.
  • Verify: With long-term verification in mind, systems will be grounded in experimental results, scalability, and life cycle/economic assessments.

Wood Containment Field and Bench Experiments

The CC Lab currently has five ongoing field and bench experiments designed to measure and alter rates of woody biomass decomposition. The first, located in Half Moon Bay, CA experimentally measures the effect of management techniques on slash pile decomposition. The second series of experiments, which is ongoing in multiple locations across the country, tests how a series of management techniques alter wood decomposition across a variety of climates. This project started in September 2020 and will be completed by September 2025 with interim monitoring of results in between. These two projects will inform whether simple, cost-effective techniques can slow decay of woody biomass across locations and will quantify the short and long-term carbon effects of these treatments.
Map of downed dead wood stocks in the continental U.S. (lighter colors are downed dead wood minima, while darker reds are downed dead wood maxima). All U.S. roads are overlaid (gray) to show locations where downed dead wood and existing transportation infrastructure are most likely to overlap. Source: FIA downed dead wood dataset and Yale Carbon Containment Lab analysis 2020

A third series of experiments serves as an implementation pilot, focused on using desiccation or burial of available biomass to slow or stop decay. It examines how large amounts of sub-merchantable woody biomass can be sourced and moved from forests in California to arid conditions in Nevada, in order to slow decomposition. A fourth project explores biomass burial in Maine with the collaboration of Wagner Forest Management.

The fifth woody biomass project measures biomass silicification, exploring the process of permineralization of biomass for the end purpose of slowing/arresting its decomposition. Silicification is a process in which organic structures are infused by silicate minerals; this is naturally caused by the flow of aqueous silica solution through the plant pore spaces and over its surface. The CC Lab partners with Yale’s Peabody Museum and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences to pursue this work. The team’s research includes the siting and sourcing of naturally occurring silica-containing substances (such as diatomaceous earth or volcanic ash), the processing of those substances so that silica readily enters into solution in high concentrations, and the addition of other substances to promote safe and beneficial characteristics of the final product such as resistance to fire, fungal decay, and termite infestation.

Based on annual fluxes of downed dead wood and the opportunity for slowing or arresting woody biomass decomposition in the U.S. given some of the systems and techniques that the Lab is focused on, the CC Lab estimates that the total carbon containment opportunity contributes significantly to its goals both for the current decade and for 2100.  The Lab’s initial focus is on techniques and systems that utilize biomass resulting from thinning operations to mitigate catastrophic wildfire risk. The aim is for these techniques to be readied to deal with disease and dead wood both in the U.S. and globally.