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RESEARCH ARTICLE

Stability and stabilisation of biochar and green manure in soil with different organic carbon contents

Joseph M. Kimetu A B and Johannes Lehmann A C
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.

B Present address: Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy (ISEEE), Earth Sciences Building, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada.

C Corresponding author. Email: CL273@cornell.edu

Australian Journal of Soil Research 48(7) 577-585 https://doi.org/10.1071/SR10036
Submitted: 2 February 2010  Accepted: 9 July 2010   Published: 28 September 2010

Abstract

Due to its recalcitrance against microbial degradation, biochar is very stable in soil compared to other organic matter additions, making its application to soils a suitable approach for the build-up of soil organic carbon (SOC). The net effects of such biochar addition also depend on its interactions with existing organic matter in soils. A study was established to investigate how the status of pre-existing soil organic matter influences biochar stabilisation in soil in comparison to labile organic additions. Carbon loss was greater in the C-rich sites (C content 58.0 g C/kg) than C-poor soils (C content 21.0–24.0 g C/kg), regardless of the quality of the applied organic resource. Biochar-applied, C-rich soil showed greater C losses, by >0.5 kg/m2.year, than biochar-applied C-poor soil, whereas the difference was only 0.1 kg/m2.year with Tithonia diversifolia green manure. Biochar application reduced the rate of CO2-C loss by 27%, and T. diversifolia increased CO2-C losses by 22% in the C-poor soils. With biochar application, a greater proportion of C (6.8 times) was found in the intra-aggregate fraction per unit C respired than with green manure, indicating a more efficient stabilisation in addition to the chemical recalcitrance of biochar. In SOC-poor soils, biochar application enriched aromatic-C, carboxyl-C, and traces of ketones and esters mainly in unprotected organic matter and within aggregates, as determined by Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy. In contrast, additions of T. diversifolia biomass enriched conjugated carbonyl-C such as ketones and quinones, as well as CH deformations of aliphatic-C mainly in the intra-aggregate fraction. The data indicate that not only the stability but also the stabilisation of biochar exceeds that of a labile organic matter addition such as green manure.

Additional keywords: biochar, SOC stabilisation, SOM degradation, stability.


Acknowledgments

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under grant No. 0215890 and the Rockefeller Foundation under grant No. 2004 FS 104. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF. We would like to express our appreciation to field and laboratory technicians, Wilson Okila, Joseph Njeri, Wycliffe Kiilu, and Wilson Ngului who were very instrumental in the implementation of this work. We would like to thank Dr David Mbugua for coordinating the work both in the field and in the laboratory and the ICRAF-Kisumu office for logistical support. Many thanks to the Lehmann laboratory group at the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Cornell University, for their encouragement and moral support throughout this study.


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