Articles | Volume 3, issue 4
SOIL, 3, 177–189, 2017
SOIL, 3, 177–189, 2017

Original research article 23 Oct 2017

Original research article | 23 Oct 2017

Quantitative imaging of the 3-D distribution of cation adsorption sites in undisturbed soil

Hannes Keck1,2, Bjarne W. Strobel2, Jon Petter Gustafsson1, and John Koestel1 Hannes Keck et al.
  • 1Department of Soil and Environment, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, P.O. Box 7014, 750 07 Uppsala, Sweden
  • 2Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Thorvaldsensvej 40, 1871 Frederiksberg C, Denmark

Abstract. Several studies have shown that the distribution of cation adsorption sites (CASs) is patchy at a millimetre to centimetre scale. Often, larger concentrations of CASs in biopores or aggregate coatings have been reported in the literature. This heterogeneity has implications on the accessibility of CASs and may influence the performance of soil system models that assume a spatially homogeneous distribution of CASs. In this study, we present a new method to quantify the abundance and 3-D distribution of CASs in undisturbed soil that allows for investigating CAS densities with distance to the soil macropores. We used X-ray imaging with Ba2+ as a contrast agent. Ba2+ has a high adsorption affinity to CASs and is widely used as an index cation to measure the cation exchange capacity (CEC). Eight soil cores (approx. 10 cm3) were sampled from three locations with contrasting texture and organic matter contents. The CASs of our samples were saturated with Ba2+ in the laboratory using BaCl2 (0.3 mol L−1). Afterwards, KCl (0.1 mol L−1) was used to rinse out Ba2+ ions that were not bound to CASs. Before and after this process the samples were scanned using an industrial X-ray scanner. Ba2+ bound to CASs was then visualized in 3-D by the difference image technique. The resulting difference images were interpreted as depicting the Ba2+ bound to CASs only. The X-ray image-derived CEC correlated significantly with results of the commonly used ammonium acetate method to determine CEC in well-mixed samples. The CEC of organic-matter-rich samples seemed to be systematically overestimated and in the case of the clay-rich samples with less organic matter the CEC seemed to be systematically underestimated. The results showed that the distribution of the CASs varied spatially within most of our samples down to a millimetre scale. There was no systematic relation between the location of CASs and the soil macropore structure. We are convinced that the approach proposed here will strongly aid the development of more realistic soil system models.

Short summary
Several studies have shown that the cation adsorption sites in soils are heterogeneously distributed in space. In many soil system models this knowledge is not included yet. In our study we proposed a new method to map the 3-D distribution of cation adsorption sites in undisturbed soils. The method is based on three-dimensional X-ray scanning with a contrast agent and image analysis. We are convinced that this approach will strongly aid the development of more realistic soil system models.