Biochar application to hardrock mine tailings: Soil quality, microbial activity, and toxic element sorption

Applied Geochemistry
By: , and 



Waste rock piles from historic mining activities remain unvegetated as a result of metal toxicity and high acidity. Biochar has been proposed as a low-cost remediation strategy to increase soil pH and reduce leaching of toxic elements, and improve plant establishment. In this laboratory column study, biochar made from beetle-killed pine wood was assessed for utility as a soil amendment by mixing soil material from two mine sites collected near Silverton, Colorado, USA with four application rates of biochar (0%, 10%, 20%, 30% vol:vol). Columns were leached seven times over 65 days and leachate pH and concentration of toxic elements and base cations were measured at each leaching. Nutrient availability and soil physical and biological parameters were determined following the incubation period. We investigated the hypotheses that biochar incorporation into acidic mine materials will (1) reduce toxic element concentrations in leaching solution, (2) improve soil parameters (i.e. increase nutrient and water holding capacity and pH, and decrease compaction), and (3) increase microbial populations and activity. Biochar directly increased soil pH (from 3.33 to 3.63 and from 4.07 to 4.77 in the two materials) and organic matter content, and decreased bulk density and extractable salt content in both mine materials, and increased nitrate availability in one material. No changes in microbial population or activity were detected in either mine material upon biochar application. In leachate solution, biochar increased base cations from both materials and reduced the concentrations of Al, Cd, Cu, Pb, and Zn in leachate solution from one material. However, in the material with greater toxic element content, biochar did not reduce concentrations of any measured dissolved toxic elements in leachate and resulted in a potentially detrimental release of Cd and Zn into solution at concentrations above that of the pure mine material. The length of time of effectiveness and specific sorption by biochar is variable by element and the toxic element concentration and acidity of the initial mine material.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Biochar application to hardrock mine tailings: Soil quality, microbial activity, and toxic element sorption
Series title Applied Geochemistry
DOI 10.1016/j.apgeochem.2014.02.003
Volume 43
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Toxic Substances Hydrology Program, National Research Program - Central Branch
Description 14 p.
First page 35
Last page 48
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