Abundant and Stable Char Residues in Soils: Implications for Soil Fertility and Carbon Sequestration
Large-scale soil application of biochar may enhance soil fertility, increasing crop production for the growing human population, while also sequestering atmospheric carbon. But reaching these beneficial outcomes requires an understanding of the relationships among biochar’s structure, stability, and contribution to soil fertility. Using quantitative 13C nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, we show that Terra Preta soils (fertile anthropogenic dark earths in Amazonia that were enriched with char >800 years ago) consist predominantly of char residues composed of 6 fused aromatic rings substituted by COO– groups that significantly increase the soils’ cation-exchange capacity and thus the retention of plant nutrients. We also show that highly productive, grassland-derived soils in the U.S. (Mollisols) contain char (generated by presettlement fires) that is structurally comparable to char in the Terra Preta soils and much more abundant than previously thought (40–50% of organic C). Our findings indicate that these oxidized char residues represent a particularly stable, abundant, and fertility-enhancing form of soil organic matter.