July 30, 2011
Diamond-Like Carbon For Lower Energy Plowing

Imagine farm fields plowed with synthetic diamonds.

Less friction, less power, less fuel plowshares coated with diamond-like carbon (DLC) slide through the soil like a hot knife through butter. As a result, the tractors pulling them need less power and fuel. In some tests the power required has been reduced by more than 30 percent.

Does this sound like a good development? Not so fast. If tilling becomes cheaper we'll get more tilling and therefore more soil run-off.

Even better: eliminate tilling altogether. Not only is energy saved but the vast bulk of soil run-off is halted. One purpose for tilling is to control weeds. But other methods to do that are available. Genetically modified crops that can survive weed killers do not need tilling. An article by Francis M. Epplin, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University, highlights price changes and technological changes that have made no-till farming more cost competitive.

The second factor is a reduction in the price of glyphosate. Generic glyphosate became available in 2000 after the original patent expired. The price of glyphosate (four pounds of emulsifiable concentrate per gallon) has declined from a U.S. average of $45.50 per gallon in 1999 to less than $20 per gallon in 2007. This reduction in cost for controlling summer weeds in continuous monoculture no-till winter wheat is less than half of what it was in 1990 and substantially less when adjusted for price inflation. The development and adoption of glyphosate-resistant varieties of corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton has also advanced the adoption of no-till. The development and improvement of no-till grain drills and air seeders that increase the likelihood of good soil-to-seed contact in a variety of residue and soil conditions has also advanced the adoption of no-till. An additional factor is the price of diesel fuel increased from less than $1 per gallon in 2002 to more than $2 per gallon in 2006. This price change increases the relative cost of tillage, and tips the economic balance scales in favor of no-till.

Organic no-till with cover crops and other methods of weed control are in use as well.

One of the great hopes of agriculture is development of perennial grains which do not have to be planted each year. A National Geographic article on the potential for perennial grains describes the scale of the problem the world faces with soil erosion with plowed field farming.

No-till farming and other conservation practices have reduced the rate of soil loss in the U.S. by more than 40 percent since the 1980s, but it's still around 1.7 billion tons a year. Worldwide, one estimate put the rate of soil erosion from plowed fields at ten to a hundred times the rate of soil production. "Unless this disease is checked, the human race will wilt like any other crop," Jackson wrote 30 years ago. As growing populations force farmers in poor countries onto steeper, erodible slopes, the "disease" threatens to get worse.

So diamonds for lower energy till farming? Sounds like a good idea at first glance. But I think we need to move away from the plow rather than make it better.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 July 30 05:21 PM  Energy Conservation

PacRim Jim said at July 31, 2011 12:10 AM:

Which raises the question, Which is faster, a hot knife through room-temperature butter or a room-temperature knife through hot butter?

Baric said at July 31, 2011 6:33 AM:

The diamonds adorning the fingers of married women everywhere might be labeled as flawless, but compared to the gems at Argonne National Laboratory, they might as well be raw stones.

Using the most immaculate diamonds in the world, scientists from Argonne and elsewhere are creating a powerful, next generation X-ray laser that will shine new light on some of the smallest and most complex materials on Earth, potentially leading to new drugs or medical treatments for a broad range of diseases and conditions.

Read more here:
[FuturePundit deleted the link because it is not to an article about Argonne's work]

bbartlog said at July 31, 2011 6:40 AM:

The room temperature knife through hot butter is faster, since that's already melted and there is no delay (however slight) as the butter is melted.

As regards plowing (or not) and erosion, this is another one of those things that will end up putting the people of the third world farther behind the first. With shorter time horizons and poor institutions, they are likely to make far worse long term decisions than the peoples of Europe and America when it comes to depleting limited topsoil resources. I see the US becoming the breadbasket of the world (to a greater extent than it already is), but what does most of the third world have to offer us in return?
I wonder what the Chinese do about this. They've been practicing agriculture for millenia on more or less the same land. I would suppose they don't plow much. Rice I guess is a crop that does not involve plowing.

Phillep Harding said at July 31, 2011 8:06 PM:

Need to keep and further develop all tools. (Keep in mind the gene transfers taking place between unrelated plant species.)

Amanda K said at August 3, 2011 11:53 PM:

So, using the same reasoning if we soften our butter we'll use more. Just because we can till more easily doesn't mean more land will be tilled; nor does tilling really lead to run-off. that's more an issue of waterways in agricultural fields. Current rich soil deposits are often areas where run-off accumulated long ago. Tilling doesn't just get rid of weeds, it loosens compacted soils, especially clay soils, allowing better water penetration, better seed germination and deeper and larger root growth. Furthermore it puts those ground up weeds into the soil composting into nutrients.

Will diamond-like plowshares be cost-effective? probably. The rest of the arguments are bunk.

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