Thermal treatment and leaching of biochar alleviates plant growth inhibition from mobile organic compounds

Research paper by Nigel V. Gale, Tara E. Sackett, Sean C. Thomas

Indexed on: 03 Sep '16Published on: 25 Aug '16Published in: PeerJ


Recent meta-analyses of plant responses to biochar boast positive average effects of between 10 and 40%. Plant responses, however, vary greatly across systems, and null or negative biochar effects are increasingly reported. The mechanisms responsible for such responses remain unclear. In a glasshouse experiment we tested the effects of three forestry residue wood biochars, applied at five dosages (0, 5, 10, 20, and 50 t/ha) to a temperate forest drystic cambisol as direct surface applications and as complete soil mixes on the herbaceous pioneers Lolium multiflorum and Trifolium repens. Null and negative effects of biochar on growth were found in most cases. One potential cause for null and negative plant responses to biochar is plant exposure to mobile compounds produced during pyrolysis that leach or evolve following additions of biochars to soil. In a second glasshouse experiment we examined the effects of simple leaching and heating techniques to ameliorate potentially phytotoxic effects of volatile and leachable compounds released from biochar. We used Solid Phase Microextraction (SPME)–gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to qualitatively describe organic compounds in both biochar (through headspace extraction), and in the water leachates (through direct injection). Convection heating and water leaching of biochar prior to application alleviated growth inhibition. Additionally, growth was inhibited when filtrate from water-leached biochar was applied following germination. SPME-GC-MS detected primarily short-chained carboxylic acids and phenolics in both the leachates and solid chars, with relatively high concentrations of several known phytotoxic compounds including acetic acid, butyric acid, 2,4-di-tert-butylphenol and benzoic acid. We speculate that variable plant responses to phytotoxic organic compounds leached from biochars may largely explain negative plant growth responses and also account for strongly species-specific patterns of plant responses to biochar amendments in short-term experiments.