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Biochar elemental composition and factors influencing nutrient retention

James A. Ippolito, Kurt A. Spokas, Jeffrey M. Novak, Rick D. Lentz, Keri B Cantrell
Biochar for environmental management: Science, technology and implementation 2015 Ch.7 pp. 136-161
Panicum virgatum, barley, biochar, biomass, biosolids, calcium, carbon, carbon sequestration, cation exchange capacity, cattle manure, cellulose, chlorides, coconuts, coir, corn, economic valuation, elemental composition, feedstocks, food waste, hardwood, hazelnuts, hemicellulose, lignin, magnesium, mineral content, minerals, nitrogen, nutrient retention, nutrients, oxygen, pH, peanuts, pecans, phosphorus, potassium, pyrolysis, rice straw, softwood, soil conditioners, sugarcane bagasse, sulfur, surface area, swine, temperature, turkeys, wheat
Biochar is the carbonaceous solid byproduct of the thermochemical conversion of a carbon-bearing organic material, commonly high in cellulose, hemicelluloses, or lignin content, for the purposes of carbon sequestration and storage. More specifically, the thermal conversion process known as pyrolysis occurs when carbon-containing substances are introduced to elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen at varying residence times, yielding biochar. Several pyrolysis techniques employed to produce biochar differ in the temperature of reaction and residence time in the reactor. Different reactor residence times are described as slow (hours to days), fast (seconds to minutes), and flash (seconds). Fast or flash pyrolysis typically occurs around 500oC with residence times less than 500 milliseconds to 1 second and produces relatively greater gas yields with a concomitant decrease in biochar yield (~ 12%). Slow pyrolysis temperatures have ranged from 350 to 750oC but with residence times ranging from minutes to days. Slow pyrolysis yields a greater quantity of biochar (between 25 to 35%). Pyrolysis temperature and type may be varied to maximize the desired biochar end-product. In general, increasing pyrolysis temperature tends to increase biochar total carbon, potassium, and magnesium content, pH, and surface area, and decrease cation exchange capacity. Slow pyrolysis, in general, tends to produce biochars with greater nitrogen, sulfur, available phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, surface area, and cation exchange capacity as compared to fast pyrolysis. In addition to altering temperature and time, the importance of feedstock source needs to be recognized when utilizing biochar in situations such as a soil conditioner. Over the last 10 years biochar research and use has expanded exponentially and so have the feedstocks utilized. Biochars have now been created from corn, wheat, barley and rice straw, switchgrass, peanut, pecan, and hazelnut shells, sugarcane bagasse, coconut coir, food waste, hardwood and softwood species, poultry and turkey litter, swine, dairy, and cattle manure, and biosolids to name a few. Feedstock source influences end-product characteristics, and in general most plant-based biochars containing elevated carbon content and lesser quantities of necessary plant nutrients as compared to manure-based biochars. It has been demonstrated that the mineral content of the feedstock has a significant effect on product distribution, with higher amounts of chloride salts reducing the amount of the solid biochar product. In addition, chloride and other inorganic salts also impact the chemical composition of the liquid, gas, and char pyrolysis products, potentially producing products with higher economic values. Existing studies indicate that even the trace amounts of minerals present in the various biomass sources and feedstock mixtures do have an impact on the chemical compositions of the products. Furthermore, both temperature and residence time, along with feedstock source or mixtures of sources, affect end-product characteristics.