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18 Jan 2006

EPRIDA – too good to be true?

epridaLast week I listened in to a lecture **Bernard Lietaer** gave at Schumacher College called ‘Tools for a Planetary Wisdom Civilisation’, which looked at his thoughts on a new approach to international economics, what he called ‘Intentional Economics’. The last part of his talk looked at a technology he is involved in promoting called Eprida. When looking at solutions to the peak oil challenge, I tend to work on the basis that anything that sounds too good to be true generally isn’t true. Eprida sounds very promising, and I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on it.

According to Lietaer, the origins of Eprida are, ironically, in Brazilian rainforest clearance. In certain parts of the Amazon, where there had been tales of an advanced civilisation hundreds of years ago, settlers found soils, which came to be known as ‘terra preta’, which unlike most rainforest soils, didn’t become exhausted after 3 years. This, it turns out, was due to high levels of charcoal in the soils. The people had developed a method for burning charcoal which was then added to soil as a very long term slow release fertiliser.


The Eprida model is an international, decentralised, self supporting approach to carbon sequestration. Because making charcoal locks up carbon which can then be added to the soil, it is offers a method whereby agriculture can become a form of carbon sequestration. The machine they have developed for doing the charcoal burning basically takes 10 tons of any woody or plant biomass and turns it into 1 ton of charcoal and 3.2 tons of diesel. You can see a Flash animation of the process here. Because carbon credits are now bought and sold internationally, the idea is that farmers have one of these units on their farms, grow their crops, put the residues in the machine, get paid in carbon credits for doing so, make the charcoal which they add to their soils, and produce diesel for themselves and to sell. Lietaer said that a land mass the size of France using this system could lock up all the carbon the world needs to. The company they have set up is a social purpose company, with 50% of its profits going into social development work. You can read more about the technical aspects of Eprida here.

It certainly sounds good, although when he claimed that it was a solution to peak oil, I felt he really underestimated the scale and urgencyof the challenge. Eprida is about a year away from being ready to be rolled out, and initially Brazil and China are to be the pilot places. So it’ll be a few years until any units start popping up in the UK or US, so any hope of having a fallback in place for the 2007-2010 peak is just not feasible. Another concern I had was that people in the Amazon, once there is a cash incentive to obtain biomass to feed these things so as to make more money, will obtain it from all over, further threatening biodiversity and habitat. His response was at the moment people slash and burn, with Eprida they will slash and charcoal instead.


Eprida could also create a dependence on the international price of carbon credits, working well at first, but as more and more people get into it, the returns decrease and then these people are back where they started. It also, and perhaps most dangerously, creates a sense in the West that business as usual is viable again, these guys in China and Brazil are busy locking up all our carbon for us and we don’t need to do anything.

Ultimately, I feel that the best option is to reorient agriculture to become more tree based, along the lines of agroforestry, where nuts, fruit, fuels, medicines and much more can be produced using a form of agriculture that is constantly locking up carbon, along the lines put forward by the wonderful folks at Badgersett Farm in the US. This offers a truly sustainable agriculture, one that is producing useful produce for local markets, building biodiversity, locking up carbon, producing a wide range of products. I wonder about the full energy breakdown of growing the crops in the first place for the Eprida system? How much biomass would it take to produce enough diesel to run all the UK’s cars? In terms of conventional biodiesel it is said to be something like 3 times the UK land mass. As Robert Hirsch is wont to point out, peak oil is primarily a liquid fuels problem. Can Eprida be scaled up to be able to produce enough diesel for the UK car and transport fleet? I suspect not. With the addition of the fuel it takes to grow the biomass in first place, I imagine it would have a place as an on-farm source of sufficient diesel to run farm machinery, but to run our current transport based globalised economy, it wouldn’t appear to me to be a runner. As I said at the beginning, tend to think that something that looks too good to be true is generally not. What do you think?

Some additional articles about Eprida can be found here, here or here.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


20 Jan 10:47am

After reading this I posted one the link to in the Powerswitch forum to get people’s thoughts. Discussion available here:

21 Jan 1:05am

Hows this for starters. The diesel yield is estimated at 3.2 tonnes per 10 tons of biomass. In the UK, you MIGHT get the equivalent of 5 tonnes of SRC per hectare after the energy to grow, harvest processand transport the crop is factored in. Hence a diesel yield of about 1.6 tonnes or 1800 litres per hectare This would not come close to keeping one family going for one year. Britain would require 20,000000-40,000,000 hectares of land devoted to SRC
( short rotation coppicing) simply to keep the private cars on the road in the manner to which people are currently accustomed. That is 20,000-40,000 square kilometers, or the equivalent of all Britains arable land and rough pasture combined give or take a bit.
Doesn’t sound like much of a solution to me. Dream on…..

Philip Small
20 Feb 12:47am

I am curious if this technology is adaptable to smaller scale, highly distributed production centers.

Danny Day
29 Apr 6:40pm

Good comments. We know that there a appropriate places for integration of this technology, with others to produce a sustainable future.

Nature’s only silver bullet is sunlight and biodiversity provides it with advantages we are only beginning to tap as we move from through the embryonic growth of the petroleum age.

This challenge represents a doorway to stable energy and agriculure. Technically it is accomplished through increasing efficiency in all areas of human activity as well as incorporating external costs of inefficiancy and GHG gas emissions output (read as non-utilization inefficiency). The use of economic drivers effects the planning of corporations and familiy budgets, but mostly it begins to change the thoughts we teach our children. What we teach we learn.

We have an opportunity to become an integral symbiotic part of nature’s design but it takes a release of the judgements we place on the humankind and on our selves, as they limit us in the scope of we can create. What we face is not that to be feared, no more than we fear the fuel gage of our auto. In this case though it is a feedback mechanism of our own development. If we see each other as takers rather than givers, we create from fear and see a dim future. If we see billions of bright minds rapidly learning and discovering secrets of the universe; working from a paradaigm of collaborative abundance to create and give each other a sustainable future, we see hope.
The future does not come at the choice of governments or corporations…it is your choice…our choice. What future do you/we wish to give those who share our world?

As we come to an agreement on a future we wish to give, the fuel gage will move away from empty and our lives will be filled with purpose.

Robert Maxwell
18 Jan 5:30am

This process can be scaled down to use 10 tons of waste which is not a lot in the scale of things. So it can be used by small farmers in third world countries where the increased fertility of the soil and extra income from fuel will be well appreciated.
As I understand it the low temp char acts a substrate for fungal mycelia which in turn increase the bioavailabilty of plant nutrients. The fuel gases add nutrients above and beyond what the indians were using. This could be a welcome improvement.
Of course there is no one answer but part of the answer for US and Australia is to stop being such pigs.
Whispering Ted

[…] Terra Preta in the news For instance, has the summary statement below ever been independently verified by someone like the CSIRO? If so we may have some hope for the […]

[…] (As well as potentially SOLVING Global warming and preparing the soil for less fertiliser). If the following quote is true, then it seems there is ground for hope. […]

[…] number of criticisms have been made about biochar. These […]

[…] number of criticisms have been made about biochar. These […]

Alan Page
30 Nov 1:45am

It is now two years since this page was written. We are plunging into an abyss of greed and being followed by climate change being propelled by tipping points that we knew were coming at least two years ago.

We still have not gotten off the dime in making this technology what it should be because the elite do not want to be bothered with things that will take control out of their hands (at least in the USA).

So it is up to the small farmer to make sure that they understand this technology and get it into their communities at a scale that the regulators can not stop them. As the oil peak takes hold these enclaves will be able to function while the rest of society flounders.

Instead of watching the auto industry fall apart in the USA we should be assigning them the task of mass producing small units to be sold with their cars to use the house hold waste and yard wastes to run their cars as well as coming up with 150mpg engines.

Some of the energy could be used during the day to produce local electricity and liquid fuels at night. Coal systems meed to be scaled back as fast possible so that the 14 hrs per day when the demand for power is low most of the generation can be shut down.

The time has come to stop thinking that things are going to be a carbon copy of the past fifty years – just get over it!

1 Dec 8:50am

If I followed the flash animation correctly, the H2 gain from the process can then be converted into diesel. That leads me to believe that it is initially Hydrogen and thus… can be used for other things than just diesel.
In effect, it just seems as if diesel is an initial selling point to get the product/project up and rolling.

Thus, it doesn’t actually need to replace ALL of the diesel in ‘first world’ countries, and instead, skip the conversion process all together, and just use the Hydrogen directly for fuel cells or electrical generation for electric or plug-in hybrid cars.

Point is… zoom back from the diesel.

With that, if it cleans the environment, increases crop yields, AND produces a form of energy that can ADD to our demand for it (ie, not replace it), then .. is that such a bad thing?

Could this not supply the hydrogen than it can, and then the rest of the hydrogen is made from other ‘green’ forms of energy; wind, solar, tidal, etc?

Does it need to replace it entirely? I think we’ve seen what happens when a peoples (read: planet) becomes too dependent on energy from one source.