BioEnergy Research

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 454–464 | Cite as

Soil Health, Crop Productivity, Microbial Transport, and Mine Spoil Response to Biochars

  • J. M. NovakEmail author
  • J. A. Ippolito
  • R. D. Lentz
  • K. A. Spokas
  • C. H. Bolster
  • K. Sistani
  • K. M. Trippe
  • C. L. Phillips
  • M. G. Johnson


Biochars vary widely in pH, surface area, nutrient concentration, porosity, and metal binding capacity due to the assortment of feedstock materials and thermal conversion conditions under which it is formed. The wide variety of chemical and physical characteristics have resulted in biochar being used as an amendment to rebuild soil health, improve crop yields, increase soil water storage, and restore soils/spoils impacted by mining. Meta-analysis of the biochar literature has shown mixed results when using biochar as a soil amendment to improve crop productivity. For example, in one meta-analysis, biochar increased crop yield by approximately 10 %, while in another, approximately 50 % of the studies reported minimal to no crop yield increases. In spite of the mixed crop yield reports, biochars have properties that can improve soil health characteristics, by increasing carbon (C) sequestration and nutrient and water retention. Biochars also have the ability to bind enteric microbes and enhance metal binding in soils impacted by mining. In this review, we present examples of both effective and ineffective uses of biochar to improve soil health for agricultural functions and reclamation of degraded mine spoils. Biochars are expensive to manufacture and cannot be purged from soil after application, so for efficient use, they should be targeted for specific uses in agricultural and environmental sectors. Thus, we introduce the designer biochar concept as an alternate paradigm stating that biochars should be designed with properties that are tailored to specific soil deficiencies or problems. We then demonstrate how careful selection of biochars can increase their effectiveness as a soil amendment.


Biochar Microbiology Mine-impacted spoils Restoration Soil health 







Soil organic carbon


United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service


United States Environmental Protection Agency



Sincere gratitude is expressed to the support staff at involved ARS and United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) locations whose hard work made this research article possible. Parts of the information in this article have been funded through an Interagency Agreement between the United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (60-6657-1-024) and the US EPA (DE-12-92342301-1). It has been subject to review by scientists of the United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) at multiple locations and by the National Health and Environment Effects Research Laboratory’s Western Ecology Division and approved for journal submission. Approval does not signify that the contents reflect the views of the USDA-ARS or the US EPA, nor does mention of trade names or commercial products constitute endorsement or recommendation for their use.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York (outside the USA) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. M. Novak
    • 1
    Email author
  • J. A. Ippolito
    • 2
  • R. D. Lentz
    • 2
  • K. A. Spokas
    • 3
  • C. H. Bolster
    • 4
  • K. Sistani
    • 4
  • K. M. Trippe
    • 5
  • C. L. Phillips
    • 5
  • M. G. Johnson
    • 6
  1. 1.United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-Agricultural Research Service (ARS)Coastal Plain Research CenterFlorenceUSA
  2. 2.USDA-ARSNorthwest Irrigation and Soils Research LaboratoryKimberlyUSA
  3. 3.USDA-ARSSoil and Water Management Research UnitSt. PaulUSA
  4. 4.USDA-ARSFood Animal Environmental Systems Research UnitBowling GreenUSA
  5. 5.USDA-ARSForage Seed and Cereal Research UnitCorvallisUSA
  6. 6.National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Western Ecology DivisionUnited States Environmental Protection AgencyCorvallisUSA

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