Charcoal a key solution to reduce fertilizer ammonia and greenhouse effect, Guelph prof says

A University of Guelph professor was part of a study that found charcoal may be a good way to reduce ammonia pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions from crop fertilizers.

Ammonia from plant fertilizers a big contributor to greenhouse effect, says prof

Adam Gillespie, an assistant professor in the school of environmental sciences at the University of Guelph said that people often associate the greenhouse effect with CO2. He says gases like nitrous oxide also have a larger impact than many know. (University of Guelph)

New research from the University of Guelph has found charcoal may be key to reducing ammonia pollution and lowering greenhouse gas emissions from crop fertilizers. 

The study found that naturally occurring charcoal in soil can effectively "soak up" harmful greenhouse gases produced by ammonia, which is often found in fertilizers and is a natural by product of decomposition. 

Adam Gillespie, an assistant professor in the school of environmental sciences at the University of Guelph, said that people often associate the greenhouse effect with carbon dioxide.

"It's not the only player. There are others and one of them is nitrous oxide," he told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

He said the release of this nitrous oxide as a by-product of ammonia is a large contributing factor to the greenhouse effect.

"So when we talk about ammonia pollution, it can also have a cascading effect, and create nitrous oxide when it's been deposited," Gillespie said.

Nitrous oxide itself is a major cause for concern as far as greenhouse gases go, because it has a higher warming potential, meaning that it has a higher capacity for holding heat. 

In addition to that, Gillespie explained, carbon dioxide is used by plants while nitrous oxide is not, so it persists a lot longer in the atmosphere.

Why is this useful?

In their experiment, Gillespie and his team members from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., looked to see if ammonia gas would stick to charcoal.

What they found was that the ammonia in fact formed a new chemical bond with the charcoal, meaning it is locked up more tightly with the charcoal and would be far more difficult to separate.

As far as the practical applications of their research, the team discovered that high ammonia-producing farming businesses like composting might even be able to use this charcoal as a way to mitigate the release of that ammonia, and prevent ammonia poisoning.

On the flip side, Gillespie says some people are using charcoal as a way to improve certain soil quality where it's nitrogen deficient.

"Maybe we can use that same idea to promote soil fertility or nitrogen retention in otherwise agriculturally poor soil," he said.

With regards to the greenhouse effect, Gillespie said the combination of this naturally occurring charcoal and ammonia in the soil can be used to mitigate greenhouse gas, since the char is able to bond with those gases before they are released into the atmosphere.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.