Intentional amendment of soil with charcoal (called biochar) is a promising new approach to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and increase soil fertility. However, the environmental properties of biochars can vary with production conditions, making it challenging to engineer biochars that are simultaneously optimized for carbon sequestration, nutrient storage, and water-holding capacity.
For this reason, I have undertaken a systematic study to (a) determine the pyrolysis conditions that lead to biochars with desired chemical and physical properties, and (b) find how these properties affect the water-holding capacity and nutrient adsorption in biochar-soil mixtures.
First, a library of biochars was produced in a custom-built pyrolysis reactor under precisely controlled conditions. The chemical and physical structures of the produced biochars were characterized with various analytical techniques including 13C NMR, XPS, EA and BET pore surface analysis. My results suggest that the chemical composition and pore structure of biochars are determined not just by the maximum heat treatment temperature, but also by several other factors that include the pyrolysis heating rate, treatment time at the maximum temperature and particle size.
I also tested a new approach that combines thermogravimetric reactivity measurements, diffusion-reaction theory and structural models to achieve a better characterization of the complicated multi-scale pore structure of biochars. The structural models treat biochars as porous solids having micro- and macropores of different shapes and exhibiting widely ranging pore-size distributions. Simulations results are then compared to experimental data to identify the presence of ordered or random pore networks and test their size distributions and connectivity.
I then developed a multi-solid one-dimensional model that can use experimentally determined biochar properties to predict their field performance in beds packed with soil/biochar mixtures. The model used a system of coupled partial differential equations to describe the dynamic adsorption/elution of ammonium nitrate, a model fertilizer, in columns packed with biochar/soil mixtures and perfused with aqueous solutions of the fertilizer. The PDE system was solved using orthogonal collocation on finite elements. My chromatographic model accounted for all the important processes occurring in this system, including external mass transfer between the fluid phase and the solid particles, as well as intraparticle diffusion and adsorption of the solute on the pore surface area of the sorbents. To our knowledge, this is the first chromatographic model that accounted explicitly for the presence of two solid phases with widely different pore structures and adsorption capacities. A systematic parametric study was carried out to determine the importance of each system parameter. The adsorption equilibrium parameters and the intraparticle effective diffusivity of ammonium had the most significant effect on environmental performance.
To complete the theoretical analysis, I also developed a model to describe the saturation and drainage of water from the packed column. The model accounted for all the important processes occurring in this system: (a) water exchange between the interstitial pore region and two different smaller pore regions and (b) water flow inside the larger pore region and the two different smaller pore regions. The transient mass balances led to a system of partial differential equations that was solved using block centered finite difference. A systematic parametric study determined that hydraulic conductivities and capillary pressure had the most significant effect on saturation and drainage dynamics.