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article imageFirst Nanoscale Image of Soil Reveals an 'incredible' Variety

By Bob Ewing     Apr 28, 2008 in Science
Cornell researchers have for the first time been able to take a nanoscale look at soil, at a scale of 50 nanometers (1 nanometer equals the width of three silicon atoms)
If you scoop up soil in your hand and take a close look, it may seem to be pretty uniform with very little going on. However, when you look at soil's organic carbon closely, it has an incredible variety of known compounds.
Cornell researchers, for the first time, taken, at a scale of 50 nanometers (1 nanometer equals the width of three silicon atoms), that up close look. Prior to this, nanolook, handfuls of soil humus (or the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil microorganisms) looked remarkably similar.
The University press release says that a study published in the April issue of Nature Geoscience states that knowing the structure and detailed composition of soil carbon could provide a better understanding of the chemical processes that cycle organic matter in soil.
A nanoscale image of a carbon distribution map in a soil microaggregate.
A nanoscale image of a carbon distribution map in a soil microaggregate.
The research may, for example, help scientists understand what happens when materials in the soil get wet, warm or cool and how soils sequester carbon, which has implications for climate change.
"There is this incredible nanoscale heterogeneity of organic matter in terms of soil," said Johannes Lehmann, a Cornell associate professor of crop and soil sciences and lead author of the study. "None of these compounds that you can see on a nanoscale level looks anything close to the sum of the entire organic matter."
The soil measurements (actually, images produced by a highly focused X-ray beam) were made at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory using an X-ray spectromicroscopy method developed by physicists at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. The method allowed the researchers to identify forms of organic carbon in the samples.
The composition of organic carbon in soils from North America, Panama, Brazil, Kenya or New Zealand proved remarkably similar within each sample, however, the researchers found that within spaces separated by mere micrometers, soils from any of these locations showed striking variation in their compositions. For example, the compounds that "hang on the right and left of a clay mineral may be completely different," said Lehmann.
In addition, the researchers were able to identify the origins of some of the nano-sized compounds, determining that some of them, for example, were microbe excretions and decomposed leaves.
It was also possible to recognize patterns of where types of compounds are likely to be found at the nanoscale.
"Now we can start locating certain compounds," Lehmann said. "We find black carbon as distinct particles in pores, whereas we find microbial products smeared around surfaces of minerals."
The method now allows researchers to break soil down, separate compounds, conduct experiments on individual compounds and better understand the interactions
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.
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