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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service


Location: Soil and Water Management Research

Title: Biochar’s role as an alternative N-fertilizer:Ammonia capture)

item Spokas, Kurt
item Novak, Jeffrey - Jeff
item Venterea, Rodney - Rod

Submitted to: Plant and Soil
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 7/19/2011
Publication Date: 1/6/2012
Publication URL:
Citation: Spokas, K.A., Novak, J.M., Venterea, R.T. 2012. Biochar’s role as an alternative N-fertilizer:Ammonia capture. Plant and Soil. 350(1):35-42.

Interpretive Summary: Biochar is the name given to a special type of black carbon (or charcoal) that is created for the purpose of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, or carbon sequestration. Biochar’s role as a carbon sequestration agent, while also providing substantial soil quality improvements when applied to soil has been receiving significant attention across all portions of our society. This has lead to significant publicity and potential confusion over the material. The purpose of this paper is to review the recent observations of ammonia sorption (or trapping) by biochar and what this could mean for the agricultural use of this material. These recent observations support the idea of the potential use of biochar as an improved management tool for reducing the environmental damage associated with nitrogen fertilizer use. This information is important to farmers and policy makers and will assist scientists and engineers in developing improved agronomic systems.

Technical Abstract: Biochar’s role as a carbon sequestration agent, while simultaneously providing substantial soil fertility improvements when used as an amendment, has been receiving significant attention across all sectors of society, ranging from academia, industry, governmental, as well as the general public. This has lead to significant hype and potential confusion over the material, as well as its ability to be an amendment for soil fertility and carbon sequestration improvements. One sparsely explored area that biochar could have a significant impact is on the soil nitrogen cycle. Taghizadeh-Toosi et al. (this issue) has examined ammonia sorption on biochar as a mean of providing a nitrogen-enriched amendment. A new twist on this paradigm was the longevity of ammonia trapping; it was sequestered in a stable form for at least 12 d under air laboratory air flow. Furthermore, the authors observed an increased 15N uptake by plants grown in soil amended with this ammonia-enriched biochar, indicating that the 15N was not irreversibly bound, but, was plant-available. Their observations add credence to utilizing biochar as a carrier for nitrogen fertilization, while potentially reducing the undesired environmental consequences of nitrogen losses through gas emission, overland flow, and leaching.

Last Modified: 05/29/2017
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