Biochar-Induced Changes in Soil Hydraulic Conductivity and Dissolved Nutrient Fluxes Constrained by Laboratory Experiments
Barnes, Rebecca T.
Gallagher, Morgan E.
Masiello, Caroline A.
The addition of charcoal (or biochar) to soil has significant carbon sequestration and agronomic potential, making it important to determine how this potentially large anthropogenic carbon influx will alter ecosystem functions. We used column experiments to quantify how hydrologic and nutrient-retention characteristics of three soil materials differed with biochar amendment. We compared three homogeneous soil materials (sand, organic-rich topsoil, and clay-rich Hapludert) to provide a basic understanding of biochar-soil-water interactions. On average, biochar amendment decreased saturated hydraulic conductivity (K) by 92% in sand and 67% in organic soil, but increased K by 328% in clay-rich soil. The change in K for sand was not predicted by the accompanying physical changes to the soil mixture; the sand-biochar mixture was less dense and more porous than sand without biochar. We propose two hydrologic pathways that are potential drivers for this behavior: one through the interstitial biochar-sand space and a second through pores within the biochar grains themselves. This second pathway adds to the porosity of the soil mixture; however, it likely does not add to the effective soil K due to its tortuosity and smaller pore size. Therefore, the addition of biochar can increase or decrease soil drainage, and suggests that any potential improvement of water delivery to plants is dependent on soil type, biochar amendment rate, and biochar properties. Changes in dissolved carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) fluxes also differed; with biochar increasing the C flux from organic-poor sand, decreasing it from organic-rich soils, and retaining small amounts of soil-derived N. The aromaticity of C lost from sand and clay increased, suggesting lost C was biochar-derived; though the loss accounts for only 0.05% of added biochar-C. Thus, the direction and magnitude of hydraulic, C, and N changes associated with biochar amendments are soil type (composition and particle size) dependent.