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ARS Home » Midwest Area » Ames, Iowa » National Laboratory for Agriculture and The Environment » Soil, Water & Air Resources Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #230704

Title: Stability of Biochar in Soil

item Laird, David

Submitted to: Book Chapter
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: 12/12/2008
Publication Date: 2/16/2009
Citation: Lehmann, J., Czimczik, C., Laird, D.A., Sohi, S. 2009. Stability of Biochar in Soil. In: Lehmann, J., Stephen, J., editors. Biochar for Environmental Management. Chapter 11. London, England: Earthscan. p. 169-182.

Interpretive Summary: Pyrolysis is a thermal chemical method of producing bio-oil (a renewable energy raw material) from biomass such as crop residues or urban yard waste, etc. Biochar is the charcoal co-product of biomass pyrolysis. Amending soils with biochar returns most of the nutrients that are harvested with the biomass to the soil, improves soil and water quality, and sequesters carbon for millennia. This book chapter summarizes current knowledge on the stability of biochar in soil environments and proposes a mathematical model for describing biochar decay rates. Scientists, policy makers, regulatory agencies, and commodity brokers need to assess the net impact of soil biochar applications on long-term reductions in emissions of greenhouse gasses. This chapter provides a framework for that assessment and identifies knowledge gaps that need to be filled to determine the quantitative impact of soil biochar applications on reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Technical Abstract: Conversion of biomass to biochar followed by application of the biochar to the soil increases the residence time of carbon (C) in the soil relative to application of the same biomass directly to the soil, and therefore can be considered over particular timescales to result in a net withdrawal of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). The stability of biochar in soil environments is of fundamental importance because stability determines how long C applied to soil as biochar will remain sequestered. In addition, biochar stability influences how long and perhaps how effective biochar is for reducing emissions from soil of other greenhouse gases such nitrous oxide and methane. Biochar stability also determines how long biochar can provide benefits to soil and water quality. The long-term benefits of biochar additions to soil on soil and water quality may include: improved nutrient retention and nutrient availability, a liming effect, reduced leaching of nutrients and other contaminants, increased water availability to plants, improved mycorrhizal activity and possibly benefits to other groups of microorganisms and their function in soil. If biochar decomposes rapidly, these aforementioned benefits would be affected in extent and duration. This chapter explores the extent of biochar stability in soils, the mechanisms controlling its decay and stability, and implications of physical export for biochar stability.