Carbon Sequestration Potential and Physicochemical Properties Differ Between Wildfire Charcoals and Slow-Pyrolysis Biochars

Sci Rep. 2017 Sep 11;7(1):11233. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-10455-2.


Pyrogenic carbon (PyC), produced naturally (wildfire charcoal) and anthropogenically (biochar), is extensively studied due to its importance in several disciplines, including global climate dynamics, agronomy and paleosciences. Charcoal and biochar are commonly used as analogues for each other to infer respective carbon sequestration potentials, production conditions, and environmental roles and fates. The direct comparability of corresponding natural and anthropogenic PyC, however, has never been tested. Here we compared key physicochemical properties (elemental composition, δ13C and PAHs signatures, chemical recalcitrance, density and porosity) and carbon sequestration potentials of PyC materials formed from two identical feedstocks (pine forest floor and wood) under wildfire charring- and slow-pyrolysis conditions. Wildfire charcoals were formed under higher maximum temperatures and oxygen availabilities, but much shorter heating durations than slow-pyrolysis biochars, resulting in differing physicochemical properties. These differences are particularly relevant regarding their respective roles as carbon sinks, as even the wildfire charcoals formed at the highest temperatures had lower carbon sequestration potentials than most slow-pyrolysis biochars. Our results challenge the common notion that natural charcoal and biochar are well suited as proxies for each other, and suggest that biochar's environmental residence time may be underestimated when based on natural charcoal as a proxy, and vice versa.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't