An Environmental Solution Hidden in Plain Sight

For centuries, people have recognized the value of peat. Both Sphagnum and reed-sedge peat can be used to create landscapes, materials and products for the benefit of humans. There is evidence in the historical record that humans have been using and benefitting from peat and peatlands for centuries.

Perhaps the most known historical use of peat was as a source of fuel for heating homes and cooking meals in areas where timber was not readily available. In the northern latitudes of Europe, peat was often nearby and relatively simple to access. That didn’t make it an easy exercise, though. In situ peat is often more than 90 percent water, so the first step in harvesting peat bricks for energy was to cut the peat into blocks that dried in the summer sun. The Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh understood the backbreaking work of peat sod preparation. His paintings vividly depict stooped and weary peasants cutting sod to prepare peat blocks.

Women on the Peat Moor – Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Nieuw Amsterdam, October 1883

Despite the historical prevalence of using peat for energy, peat is not a great fuel source. Pound for pound, peat produces about ⅓ the energy of natural gas. Only about ten countries use peat as part of their energy portfolio, but the actual number varies as the global appetite for energy drives need while climate concerns dampen demand. Today, Americans are most likely to encounter peat in gardens, not hearths. Garden centers and home improvement stores sell peat under names such as peat moss, topsoil and garden soil. Peat is a great source of carbon and can hold a tremendous amount of water, so in soil mixes, it positively impacts plant survivability.

There are many other uses of peat and peatlands that aren’t as apparent. Most of us aren’t aware that many of the foods we eat are grown in peatlands that were drained or converted for agricultural purposes. Rice paddies and cranberry fields are two common uses of peatlands, but the list also includes vegetables, row crops, pasturelands, timber and oil palm. The use of drained peatlands to produce food and fiber is part of the conversation surrounding climate change and is complicated by social justice concerns.

Sphagnum peat is a valuable oil sorbent. The unique physical properties of live Sphagnum mosses are retained once the moss becomes peat. If that peat is dried, the resulting material will preferentially sorb oil even in the presence of water. Sphagnum peat absorbents are used daily in shops and garages to absorb oil spills. Check out this time-lapse video of dry, loose Sphagnum peat absorbing 10 times its weight in vacuum oil. Peat is also used in environmental spills, most often as Sphagnum-filled booms that surround a spill to absorb the floating oil. The resulting spent booms can be incinerated, unlike polypropylene booms, and they have the bonus of being a natural product that does not add to water contamination if broken or released.

At APT, we transform reed-sedge peat into granular media to remove heavy metals from water. Dissolved heavy metals such as cadmium, copper, zinc and lead have a positive charge of 2+. The surface of reed sedge is populated with molecular groups with a negative charge, and they preferentially bond with heavy metals with a 2+ charge. During that bonding process, dissolved heavy metals are removed from the water and transferred onto the peat surface in a reaction called adsorption. The heavy metals, now firmly bonded onto the peat, can be disposed of or recovered, and clean water can be released.

Adsorption is the process by which a solid holds molecules of a gas or liquid or solute as a thin film. It differs from absorption, which is the process to take in or soak up by chemical or physical action

(Oxford Languages)

We also manufacture microbial carriers from reed-sedge peat for use in agriculture. Healthy soil teems with myriad microorganisms and is a drama of epic proportions. Beneficial bacteria and fungi help plants take up nutrients and water, pathogens try to rob plants of their health and vitality, disease-fighting microorganisms attack the pathogens, and a host of predator microbes are waiting in the wings to take advantage of weaknesses and opportunities. Nearly all our microbial carriers are used to deliver nitrogen-fixing bacteria to row crops. If there are sufficient nitrogen fixer populations, legume crops such as lentils and soybeans do not require synthetic nitrogen to meet their needs—less synthetic nitrogen results in fewer greenhouse gasses and cleaner groundwater.

Peat is a valuable resource that has important applications for today. Certainly, the conversation about peat’s contribution to carbon capture needs to be a part of our discussions, but we also have to acknowledge the beneficial uses of peat that help lessen our carbon footprint; many of the products that peat competes against are petroleum based.

Recognizing the nuanced, significant environmental benefits of peat naturally leads to an appeal to not throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s there, under our feet, and easily dismissed as too simple to be real. Let’s not overlook the solutions that are in plain sight.

If you’re interested in learning more about our product lines, please feel free to dive deeper into our agricultural and water treatment solutions. Or, reach out to the APT team at any time at info@americanpeattech. com or (218) 927-1888.