Articles | Volume 1, issue 1
Original research article
18 Jun 2015
Original research article |  | 18 Jun 2015

Effects of fresh and aged chars from pyrolysis and hydrothermal carbonization on nutrient sorption in agricultural soils

M. Gronwald, A. Don, B. Tiemeyer, and M. Helfrich

Abstract. Leaching of nutrients from agricultural soils causes major environmental problems that may be reduced with amendments of chars derived from pyrolysis (pyrochars) or hydrothermal carbonization (hydrochars). Chars are characterized by a high adsorption capacity – i.e. they may retain nutrients such as nitrate and ammonium. However, the physicochemical properties of the chars and hence their sorption capacity likely depend on feedstock and the production process. We investigated the nutrient retention capacity of pyrochars and hydrochars from three different feedstocks (digestates, Miscanthus, woodchips) mixed into different soil substrates (sandy loam and silty loam). Moreover, we investigated the influence of char degradation on its nutrient retention capacity using a 7-month in situ field incubation of pyrochar and hydrochar mixed into soils at three different field sites. Pyrochars showed the highest ability to retain nitrate, ammonium and phosphate, with pyrochar from woodchips being particularly efficient in nitrate adsorption. Ammonium adsorption of pyrochars was controlled by the soil type of the soil–char mixture. We found some ammonium retention on sandy soils, but no pyrochar effect or even ammonium leaching from the loamy soil. The phosphate retention capacity of pyrochars strongly depended on the pyrochar feedstock with large phosphate leaching from digestate-derived pyrochar and some adsorption capacity from woodchip-derived pyrochar. Application of hydrochars to agricultural soils caused small, and often not significant, effects on nutrient retention. In contrast, some hydrochars did increase the leaching of nutrients compared to the non-amended control soil. We found a surprisingly rapid loss of the chars' adsorption capacity after field application of the chars. For all sites and for hydrochar and pyrochar, the adsorption capacity was reduced by 60–80 % to less or no nitrate and ammonium adsorption. Thus, our results cast doubt on the efficiency of char applications to temperate zone soils to minimize nutrient losses via leaching.