The Effect of Different Biochar Characteristics on Soil Nitrogen Transformation Processes: A Review

Donna Davys, Francis Rayns, Susanne Charlesworth, Robert Lillywhite

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For the last 30 years, interest has focused on biochar and its potential to store carbon in soil to mitigate climate change whilst improving soil properties for increased crop production and, therefore, could play a critical role in both agricultural sustainability and broader environmental aims. Biochar, a carbonaceous product, is formed from organic feedstock pyrolysised in the absence of air and, therefore, is a potential means of recycling organic waste. However, different feedstock and pyrolysis conditions result in a biochar with a range of altered characteristics. These characteristics influence nitrogen transformation processes in soil and result in the metabolism of different substrates and the formation of different products, which have different effects on agricultural yield. This paper reviews how the production of biochar, from varying feedstock and pyrolysis conditions, results in different biochar characteristics that influence each stage of the nitrogen cycle, namely processes involved in fixation, assimilation, mineralisation and denitrification. The nitrogen cycle is briefly outlined, providing a structure for the following discussion on influential biochar characteristics including carbon composition (whether recalcitrant or rapidly metabolisable), mineral composition, surface area, porosity, cation exchange capacity, inhibitory substances and pH and so on. Hence, after the addition of biochar to soil, microbial biomass and diversity, soil porosity, bulk density, water-holding capacity, cation exchange capacity, pH and other parameters change, but that change is subject to the type and amount of biochar. Hence, products from soil-based nitrogen transformation processes, which may be beneficial for plant growth, are highly dependent on biochar characteristics. The paper concludes with a diagrammatic summation of the influence of biochar on each phase of the nitrogen cycle, which, it is hoped, will serve as a reference for both students and biochar practitioners.
Original languageEnglish
Article number16446
Number of pages20
Issue number23
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2023

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  • biochar
  • nitrogen fixation
  • mineralisation
  • denitrification
  • soil amendment


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