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Project diverting exhaust into orchard looks to improve farming efficiencies | News

Piping carbon dioxide into a greenhouse to increase crop yield is one thing, but venting it into an almond orchard in hopes of boosting production?

That’s the idea on about a third of an acre off Weedpatch Highway as part of a $100,000 commercial demonstration project aimed at improving ag efficiencies by applying the fundamentals of photosynthesis.

Aside from the potential benefits to agriculture, the state-funded effort near Lamont is intended to pioneer a low-cost method of addressing climate change through carbon sequestration.

Bakersfield chemical engineer Brian Kolodji, a former oil industry gas-processing expert with three patents under his belt, has come up with a system for cooling exhaust from combustion sources and distributing it among trees he expects will grow bigger and produce more almonds as a result .

At the heart of the project is the principle in biology that plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen during photosynthesis.

There’s no yield data yet to show for Kolodji’s work, only because the orchard where he works and often camps hasn’t been exposed to CO2 gas long enough to make a difference. Even so, he and the scientists he’s consulting have little doubt the trees he’s working with will produce more nuts using less water — assuming the carbon dioxide remains long enough where it’s being applied.

“The question is, can (Kolodji) keep the elevated CO2 around the almond orchard?” said Bruce Kimball, a published researcher who spent years at the US Department of Agriculture carbon-enriching crops such as cotton, but never almonds.

Another scientist consulting with Kolodji on the work, Brian Marsh, a local farm adviser and Kern County director of the University of California Cooperative Extension office, expressed hope the work will point to a cost-effective alternative to what is otherwise the expensive process of capturing carbon dioxide and burying it deep underground, as has been proposed by several local oil producers.

Marsh acknowledged challenges ahead, from negotiating with industry emitters of CO2 for a steady supply of the gas from their smokestacks, to establishing a cost-efficient way of distributing it throughout sprawling orchards.

Suffusing crops with CO2 in a greenhouse works on a budget because the gas doesn’t easily escape. But there are obstacles to getting the gas directly from sources of industrial pollution, and doing it in the open air using a process called free air carbon enrichment — FACE.

Kolodji has applied his skills as an engineer to invent relatively simple solutions to different aspects of the problem. To start with, his system near Weedpatch Highway and East Panama Lane mimics industrial emissions by collecting exhaust from a propane generator and two vehicles that burn gasoline.

Funneling and guiding the exhaust using a system of ducts, he cools the gas with water from a children’s pool, a small pump, a sprinkler and a condenser. A variety of fans drives the CO2 through the ducts, which are connected to sensors measuring temperature, water content and CO2 concentrations.

The ducts follow a path on the ground before being hung at different elevations near to a series of almond trees. Marsh noted that he and Kolodji are experimenting with other methods of distributing CO2 through the orchard.

The orchard is owned by Paramjit Dosanjh, who has made land available to Kolodji at no cost because, Dosanjh said, he wants to be proactive.

“Unless we do it, you never know,” Dosanjh said.

Burning propane and gasoline to produce CO2 was never the long-term solution; the goal is to eventually take in exhaust from a refinery, or get it directly from an oil wellhead, either of which, Marsh said, would likely require investment in smokestack equipment and an air permit.

He emphasized that negotiations on sourcing the gas from industry sources continue. The plan is to eventually have almond growers pay for the gas, while the emitters would ideally get government incentives for diverting CO2 to an orchard whose wood will eventually be chipped up and plowed into the ground as a soil-friendly form of carbon storage.

Kolodji speaks enthusiastically about the work, as he does of a patent-pending membrane he has invented that he said collects carbon dioxide directly from the air at low cost; that membrane would not necessarily be part of the orchard project.

His hope is to prove the concept of his approach to FACE and scale it up in a way that would increase almond yield by an average of 40 percent while cutting water consumption by at least 10 percent, based on decades of research by Kimball and others. He notes that his process removes water from exhaust streams in a way that keeps CO2 close to the ground instead of allowing it to vent into the atmosphere.

Kolodji said he was thankful to many who have assisted his efforts, including Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, who supported his 2018 application for the $100,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Fong noted in an emailed statement about the grant award that a quarter of the nation’s food is grown in the Central Valley, and that the industry employs hundreds of thousands of people.

“Innovations to improve crop production must be encouraged and supported,” he wrote.

A CDFA spokesman said by email he couldn’t offer a specific assessment of Kolodji’s project, because the work continues, but that it fits into the department’s efforts to save water and provide benefits amid drought and climate change.

Spokesman Jay Van Rein wrote that the CDFA’s SWEEP program, which stands for State Water Efficiency Enhancement Program, encourages farmers to adopt and expand new and proven technologies for saving water.

“It’s one of the many things farmers are doing to help California conserve water during this severe drought,” he wrote. “This grant project is one example among hundreds we have funded where farmers are finding better ways to provide our food supply while using less water, reducing energy use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s all part of California’s comprehensive, real-world response to climate change.”

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