Potential mechanisms for achieving agricultural benefits from biochar application to temperate soils: a review
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- Atkinson, C.J., Fitzgerald, J.D. & Hipps, N.A. Plant Soil (2010) 337: 1. doi:10.1007/s11104-010-0464-5
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Natural organic biomass burning creates black carbon which forms a considerable proportion of the soil’s organic carbon. Due to black carbon’s aromatic structure it is recalcitrant and has the potential for long-term carbon sequestration in soil. Soils within the Amazon-basin contain numerous sites where the ‘dark earth of the Indians’ (Terra preta de Indio, or Amazonian Dark Earths (ADE)) exist and are composed of variable quantities of highly stable organic black carbon waste (‘biochar’). The apparent high agronomic fertility of these sites, relative to tropical soils in general, has attracted interest. Biochars can be produced by ‘baking’ organic matter under low oxygen (‘pyrolysis’). The quantities of key mineral elements within these biochars can be directly related to the levels of these components in the feedstock prior to burning. Their incorporation in soils influences soil structure, texture, porosity, particle size distribution and density. The molecular structure of biochars shows a high degree of chemical and microbial stability. A key physical feature of most biochars is their highly porous structure and large surface area. This structure can provide refugia for beneficial soil micro-organisms such as mycorrhizae and bacteria, and influences the binding of important nutritive cations and anions. This binding can enhance the availability of macro-nutrients such as N and P. Other biochar soil changes include alkalisation of soil pH and increases in electrical conductivity (EC) and cation exchange capacity (CEC). Ammonium leaching has been shown to be reduced, along with N2O soil emissions. There may also be reductions in soil mechanical impedance. Terra preta soils contain a higher number of ‘operational taxonomic units’ and have highly distinctive microbial communities relative to neighbouring soils. The potential importance of biochar soil incorporation on mycorrhizal fungi has also been noted with biochar providing a physical niche devoid of fungal grazers. Improvements in soil field capacity have been recorded upon biochar additions. Evidence shows that bioavailability and plant uptake of key nutrients increases in response to biochar application, particularly when in the presence of added nutrients. Depending on the quantity of biochar added to soil significant improvements in plant productivity have been achieved, but these reports derive predominantly from studies in the tropics. As yet there is limited critical analysis of possible agricultural impacts of biochar application in temperate regions, nor on the likelihood of utilising such soils as long-term sites for carbon sequestration. This review aims to determine the extent to which inferences of experience mostly from tropical regions could be extrapolated to temperate soils and to suggest areas requiring study.