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Journal of Environmental Quality Abstract - Special Section: Environmental Benefits of Biochar

Characterization of Slow Pyrolysis Biochars: Effects of Feedstocks and Pyrolysis Temperature on Biochar Properties


This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 41 No. 4, p. 990-1000

    * Corresponding author(s): franz.zehetner@boku.ac.at
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  1. Stefanie Klossab,
  2. Franz Zehetner *a,
  3. Alex Dellantonioa,
  4. Raad Hamidb,
  5. Franz Ottnerc,
  6. Volker Liedtked,
  7. Manfred Schwanningere,
  8. Martin H. Gerzabeka and
  9. Gerhard Sojab
  1. a Institute of Soil Research, Univ. of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Peter-Jordan-Str. 82, A-1190 Vienna, Austria
    b Dep. of Health and Environment, Austrian Institute of Technology, A-3430 Tulln, Austria
    c Institute of Applied Geology, Univ. of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Peter-Jordan-Str. 70, A-1190 Vienna, Austria
    d Aerospace and Advanced Composites (AAC Research), A-2444 Seibersdorf, Austria
    e Dep. of Chemistry, Univ. of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Muthgasse 18, A-1190 Vienna, Austria. Assigned to Associate Editor James Ippolito


Biochars are increasingly used as soil amendment and for C sequestration in soils. The influence of feedstock differences and pyrolysis temperature on biochar characteristics has been widely studied. However, there is a lack of knowledge about the formation of potentially toxic compounds that remain in the biochars after pyrolysis. We investigated biochars from three feedstocks (wheat straw, poplar wood, and spruce wood) that were slowly pyrolyzed at 400, 460, and 525°C for 5 h (straw) and 10 h (woodchips), respectively. We characterized the biochars’ pH, electrical conductivity, elemental composition (by dry combustion and X-ray fluorescence), surface area (by N2 adsorption), water-extractable major elements, and cation exchange capacity (CEC). We further conducted differential scanning calorimetry (DSC), Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), and X-ray diffractometry to obtain information on the biochars’ molecular characteristics and mineralogical composition. We investigated trace metal content, total polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) content, and PAH composition in the biochars. The highest salt (4.92 mS cm−1) and ash (12.7%) contents were found in straw-derived biochars. The H/C ratios of biochars with highest treatment temperature (HTT) 525°C were 0.46 to 0.40. Surface areas were low but increased (1.8–56 m2 g−1) with increasing HTT, whereas CEC decreased (162–52 mmolc kg−1) with increasing HTT. The results of DSC and FTIR suggested a loss of labile, aliphatic compounds during pyrolysis and the formation of more recalcitrant, aromatic constituents. X-ray diffractometry patterns indicated a mineralogical restructuring of biochars with increasing HTT. Water-extractable major and trace elements varied considerably with feedstock composition, with trace elements also affected by HTT. Total PAH contents (sum of EPA 16 PAHs) were highly variable with values up to 33.7 mg kg−1; irrespective of feedstock type, the composition of PAHs showed increasing dominance of naphthalene with increasing HTT. The results demonstrate that biochars are highly heterogeneous materials that, depending on feedstock and HTT, may be suitable for soil application by contributing to the nutrient status and adding recalcitrant C to the soil but also potentially pose ecotoxicological challenges.

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