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Vol. 85, No: 5, 2011, Pages: 869 - 82

Qualitative analysis of volatile organic compounds on biochar

Spokas KA, Novak JM, Stewart CE, Cantrell KB, Uchimiya M, Dusaire MG, Ro KS

United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Soil and Water Management Unit, Saint Paul, MN, USA.


Qualitative identification of sorbed volatile organic compounds (VOCs) on biochar was conducted by headspace thermal desorption coupled to capillary gas chromatographic-mass spectrometry. VOCs may have a mechanistic role influencing plant and microbial responses to biochar amendments, since VOCs can directly inhibit/stimulate microbial and plant processes. Over 70 biochars encompassing a variety of parent feedstocks and manufacturing processes were evaluated and were observed to possess diverse sorbed VOC composition. There were over 140 individual chemical compounds thermally desorbed from some biochars, with hydrothermal carbonization (HTC) and fast pyrolysis biochars typically possessing the greatest number of sorbed volatiles. In contrast, gasification, thermal or chemical processed biochars, soil kiln mound, and open pit biochars possessed low to non-detectable levels of VOCs. Slow pyrolysis biochars were highly variable in terms of their sorbed VOC content. There were no clear feedstock dependencies to the sorbed VOC composition, suggesting a stronger linkage with biochar production conditions coupled to post-production handling and processing. Lower pyrolytic temperatures (?350C) produced biochars with sorbed VOCs consisting of short carbon chain aldehydes, furans and ketones; elevated temperature biochars (>350C) typically were dominated by sorbed aromatic compounds and longer carbon chain hydrocarbons. The presence of oxygen during pyrolysis also reduced sorbed VOCs. These compositional results suggest that sorbed VOCs are highly variable and that their chemical dissimilarity could play a role in the wide variety of plant and soil microbial responses to biochar soil amendment noted in the literature. This variability in VOC composition may argue for VOC characterization before land application to predict possible agroecosystem effects.

Keywords:sorbed volatile organic compounds (VOCs) on biochar,hydrothermal carbonization,land application to predict possible agroecosystem effects.


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