Charcoal vs. Gas – A Sustainability Question

The age-old American tradition of a backyard barbeque dates back to at least 1672 when John Lederer mentioned “barbecue” in his writings. Over the years there has been secret recipes and perfect techniques that brought about the classic question: Charcoal or Gas? While there are merits to both for taste, evenness of cooking, and cooking time, the bigger question we should be asking these days is: “Which one is more sustainable?”


What you eat

Let’s get one caveat out of the way. What you are grilling has more of an impact on your sustainable grilling event than which grill you are using. Beef has two times or more of an environmental impact than chicken or vegetables. More reading on the true cost of food:



gas grillThe charcoal vs. gas debate isn’t as clear cut as you might think. While it is fairly obvious that charcoal puts out more particulate matter when burning, it also gives off about two times more carbon dioxide emissions than propane gas. Initially then because of those points, I thought gas was more environmentally friendly, but let’s take a step back and look at the whole picture.

Continue reading “Charcoal vs. Gas – A Sustainability Question”

What to do with Wood Waste – Research & Conference

the words From lumber and paper to building and shipping, wood can be used in a wide variety of ways. But with all those different applications comes many different waste streams including wood itself as a waste product. ISTC has partnered with Western Illinois University and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus to find new markets for waste wood. Read more about the project via our news page titled “Wood Waste Market Research Could Benefit Illinois Business.”


In addition, ISTC is pleased to announce that we will be a partner sponsor for the March 18 conference (and March 17 hardwood workshop), Bringing the Urban Forest Full Circle, at Hamburger University in Oak Brook, IL.  The conference will highlight opportunities for individuals, businesses, trade groups and public entities to capitalize on the salvage and conversion of community trees into high-valued logs, lumbers and wood products. Plan to join us for this event.

button to conference

Biochar 2016

United States Biochar Initiative logoThe United States Biochar Initiative (USBI) will be hosting the Biochar 2016 conference at CH2M Hill Alumni Center on the Oregon State University Campus in Corvallis, OR on August 22-25, 2016. The special topic for this conference is “The Synergy of Science and Industry: Biochar’s Connection to Ecology, Soil, Food, and Energy”. More information about the conference can be found on their website:

Researcher Spotlight: Junhua Jiang

Photo of Junhua JiangDr. Junhua Jiang is a Senior Research Engineer in ISTC’s Applied Research on Industrial Environmental Systems Program. Jiang conducts cutting-edge research and develops interdisciplinary research programs in a range of areas, including electrochemical energy storage, nanostructured materials, electrochemical sensors, waste utilization, water treatment and purification, and green chemical processes. He joined ISTC in 2011.


Jiang graduated from China’s Wuhan University in 1997 with a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry. He conducted research as a postdoctoral fellow in London at Imperial College and in China at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics in the Chinese Academy of Sciences.


Prior to joining ISTC, Jiang worked as a staff scientist for fuel cell company NuVant Systems, and a research scientist and manager at the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center. In these roles, he conducted innovative research on fuel cell and hydrogen technology, electrolytic processes of renewable ammonia, nanomaterials, and more.


Jiang’s research interests include energy-conversion technology, fuel cells and hydrogen technology, batteries and supercapacitors, green-chemistry processes for renewable fuels and chemicals, advanced materials, electrochemical treatment, water purification and desalination, and other areas of sustainable energy. He is currently developing biochar supercapacitors for energy storage and water purification; advanced carbon materials from renewable and waste feedstocks; and nanostructured materials and components from ionic liquids.


He is also working on electrochemical detection techniques for water contaminants. Jiang holds five issued and pending patents, has authored or presented more than 100 highly-cited peer-reviewed articles and conference papers, and has obtained more than $2.5 million in research grant funds.


Check the ISTC home page periodically for more Researcher Spotlights. Thanks to Lauren Quinn for writing the original profile of Junhua for the home page!

Biochar could help stabilize landfill covers

Dr. Krishna Reddy and his team from the University of Illinois at Chicago has done extensive research on biochar in landfill covers to help reduce methane emissions. Now the question is: when biochar is added to soil, are the geotechnical properties (hydraulic conductivity, compressibility, and shear strength) of the biochar/soil mixture suitable for a landfill cover? After extensive testing, the research team discovered that biochar amendment increases soil hydraulic conductivity, decreases soil compressibility, and increases soil shear strength, all of which are desired geotechnical properties for stable landfill cover materials.


Download Reddy et al. (2015) publication


Reddy’s group is also involved with the Illinois Biochar Group (IBG), hosted by ISTC. Several of their previous research presentation videos or slides are available to watch or download in the IBG meeting archives and past events.


landfill cover - from top to bottom: 1 ft vegetative cover layer, 2 ft infiltration layer, geosynthetic drainage net (double sided), and 40 mil LLDPE geomembrane overing waste
Proposed final landfill cover design by Environmental Waste Solutions, LLC. (

Slash-and-char remediation

Biochar (via slash-and-char) could be an effective remediation strategy in agricultural soils contaminated with cadmium, lead, and zinc, according to a recent publication in Environmental Pollution by Niu et al. (2015). Slash-and-char is an ancient agricultural alternative to slash-and-burn, in which vegetation is cut, allowed to dry, converted to biochar by smoldering in simple earthen mounds or pits, and mixed into surrounding soil. The study found that biochar produced in this way could reduce metal concentration to a safe level in vegetable crops.


Download Niu et al. (2015) publication


Contaminated soils could be remediated in a different way. See what ISTC researchers have done with the Mud-to-Parks program.

New book cautions against the use of invasive biomass crops

Bioenergy and Biological Invasions CoverAcross the globe, efforts are being made to find sustainable, renewable, and economically-viable sources of energy. Here in the U.S., Congress passed a mandate in 2007 (the Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS) that requires refiners to blend an increasing quantity of biomass-derived ethanol into gasoline. The RFS stipulated that corn-based ethanol would be capped at a certain level, while fuels from so-called “advanced” biomass feedstocks would take up the slack. These feedstocks are desirable because, unlike corn, they do not compete with our national food supply and can be grown with fewer agricultural inputs on degraded land.


A number of advanced feedstocks have been trialed in the U.S., and several have been shown to produce extremely large biomass yields. However, it has been pointed out that the traits of an idealized biomass feedstock (e.g., fast growth, large biomass, ability to grow on poor-quality land) are similar to traits of invasive plant species. A new book, co-edited and co-authored by ISTC Technical Editor Lauren Quinn, explores the issue of invasiveness in bioenergy feedstocks.


Bioenergy and Biological Invasions provides in-depth coverage of the biology, ecology, and risk assessment of invasive plants, focusing on those that have been identified as potential bioenergy sources: large perennial grasses, algae, short-rotation woody crops, and others. The book also examines federal and state policies pertaining to invasive plants and bioenergy crops, and considers methods to mitigate the risks of invasion by novel feedstocks.


One of the mitigation solutions proposed in the book is the sustainable harvest of existing invasive plant populations as a source of biochar or a source of biomass for combustion or conversion to fuel products. The ISTC is a leading force in research and development of biochar as a soil amendment and for carbon sequestration, and our researchers are currently investigating novel feedstocks as sources of biochar.


The idea of harvesting existing invasive plant populations for biomass is relevant to a current collaboration between ISTC and the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to test the energy applications of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and other plants harvested from roadways. Although it is native to much of the U.S., the jury is still out on the invasion potential of switchgrass. However, ISTC researchers collaborating with IDOT have determined that switchgrass pelletized for combustion is an economical method of maximizing the energy present in this plant. In addition, alternative energy applications of switchgrass are being investigated through ISTC funding. Researchers from Eastern Illinois University, supported by an ISTC grant, performed an exploratory study on the potential for switchgrass pellets to produce syn-gas, reporting that switchgrass pellets were successfully co-gasified with wood chips in a 50/50 mix.


Biomass-based bioenergy offers one potentially sustainable way to move beyond fossil fuels, as discussed in the book and as illustrated by the innovative ISTC research highlighted here. However, as the biomass market scales up, it will be increasingly important to avoid introducing invasive species, to avoid replacing one problem with another.

Springfield Newspaper Features People, Planet, Profit Approach at ISTC

ILTimesA lengthy article in the Springfield’s Illinois Times yesterday examined the practical, progressive approach to sustainable action  at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. It is called the “Triple Bottom Line,” describing an approach to balance the interests of the planet, its people and a healthy economy — or, people, planet profits.


In the article, reporter Patrick Yeagle quotes ISTC Director Kevin O’Brien saying “We don’t want Illinois businesses to prioritize profit at the expense of the planet; that’s Texas,” O’Brien said. “Likewise, we don’t want them to forgo profit in the name of saving the planet; that’s California.”


The Times reviews some of the current research and technical assistance efforts of the Center including: making a variety of liquid fuels from plastics; supercapacitors from biochar; low-energy desalinization technology; combatting emerging pollutants; detecting water infrastructure leaks, and; shrinking waste streams to landfills.


To read the full article visit the Time’s website at


Midwest Biochar Conference

Biochar continues to fascinate researchers as a net-carbon negative fuel source and soil amenity which continues to surprise the scientific community. The Illinois Biochar Group, in conjunction with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as co-organizers, announces the 2014 Midwest Biochar Conference which will be held on August 8, 2014, in Champaign, IL. The conference will feature presentations and posters on the latest in biochar research and plenty of opportunities for discussion with those interested in all aspects of biochar work. The event will take place at the Hilton Garden Inn from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm CST, with a reception following from 4:30 – 6:00 pm.
For more information, submit an abstract, or register for the conference please visit the conference website.


Topics from last year’s conference include:
• Cook stoves
• Large scale biochar production
• Biochar’s effect on soil
• PAHs in Biochar
• Biochar supercapacitors
• Biochar as a filtration or aeration media


2013 Conference Agenda

Illinois Biochar Group logoISTC logoUSDA logo

Engineer Explains the Promise of the Other Hydrogen Fuel

AmmoniaEngineJunhua Jiang, Senior Research Engineer at ISTC is featured in two Lightning Talk presentations from 2011 now available on the Prairie Research Institute’s YouTube channel.
In one talk, Jiang deals with his work on improving electrochemical nanostructured microelectrodes for sensing nitrogen. He describes his work increasing nitrogen sensor sensitivity and using biochar nanostructures in the electrodes.
In a second talk he describes the promise of using ammonia as a transportation fuel using direct ammonia fuel cells. Jiang describes the promise of a ammonia economy, providing an inexpensive, sustainable liquid fuel that can use existing infrastructure and emits no carbon dioxide.
Also, click here for more information about the 2014 Prairie Lightning Symposium.