Navigation Links
ORNL, Los Alamos pioneer new approach to assist scientists, farmers

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Nov. 19, 2009 -- Sustainable farming, initially adopted to preserve soil quality for future generations, may also play a role in maintaining a healthy climate, according to researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge and Los Alamos national laboratories.

ORNL and LANL scientists are exploring the large potential of the earth's soils to sequester carbon, with estimates claiming that new land-use practices could greatly reduce U.S. carbon emissions by as much as 25 percent. But exactly which practices are the most effective is still unclear, and a research paper published in the Soil Science Society of America Journal shines some light on this topic by introducing an easy-to-use field-portable approach to measure the carbon content of soils.

"This is a tool one could use to measure changes in soil carbon over time and try to establish whether soil carbon stocks are increasing or decreasing as a result of land-use practices," said lead author Madhavi Martin of ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division. "Although it is possible to measure these properties in the laboratory, the simplicity and portability of the device allow researchers exponentially greater flexibility to conduct their investigations."

The paper describes the adaptation of Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy, or LIBS, a technique that once made Martin something of a celebrity when she used it confirm the common origin of two separate pieces of firewood evidence that eventually led to a confession in a 2006 Texas murder case. LIBS works by measuring the light emitted when a small portion of the sample is annihilated with a laser pulse, a flash that provides an elemental fingerprint of virtually any substance under examination.

The challenge for the authors was configuring the experimental design to ensure accurate measurements of carbon regardless of soil characteristics. To accomplish this, the authors acquired a varied set of soil samples with different sand, silt and clay compositions from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and tested them against numerous laser wavelength and energies.

"We found that LIBS is a promising technique that provides a robust method for the sampling of soil carbon, relying solely on technology that can be taken to the field," Martin said. "Crop scientists, carbon managers and instrument developers should find these results encouraging."

With new techniques such as LIBS to assist them, researchers hope they can eventually identify the agricultural practices that provide the maximum benefits to farmers and the climate alike. Intensive farming is a double-edged sword as it can greatly enhance crop production in many areas of the country. Often, however, this comes at the expense of soil health in addition to accelerating the rate of climate change, according to the researchers.

Twice as much carbon is stored in the soils of the world as in the atmosphere, thanks to centuries of decomposition of plants and other organic matter. Fertile (high carbon content) soil is necessary for the growth of large healthy crops. However, fertile soil is also a favorite target of naturally occurring bacteria.

Fortunately for farmers and plants, the majority of carbon beneath our feet is physically protected from bacteria in what scientists call soil aggregates. A large portion of that carbon is concentrated near the earth's surface and therefore highly vulnerable to changes in land use. When a soil's aggregate structure is disturbed, such as through intensive farming, the organic matter it protects becomes accessible to soil microorganisms that use it as an energy source, releasing the stored carbon back into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas CO2.

"Disruption of soil structure is estimated to contribute to a 50 percent loss of soil carbon," said Chuck Garten, a soil scientist at ORNL. "When the microstructure of the soil is disturbed, it breaks down the aggregates allowing large losses of soil carbon as a result of microbial decomposition."

This lesson was learned the hard way by many American farmers when pressure for production leads to serious soil degradation through erosion and nutrient losses. Intense farming by pioneer farmers in the first 30 years of settlement depleted the organic matter in the U.S. Great Plains by more than 50 percent with soil productivity falling more than 70 percent during the same period.

Eventually, better agricultural practices were adopted and production recovered. Still, grassland and forest soils continue to lose 20 percent to 50 percent of their original carbon content within the first 40 years of cultivation while tropical climates that practice shifting cultivation or slash and burn agriculture can lose their fertility within two to three years. Farmers make up for the loss by simply moving to new fields or replenishing carbon stocks with the use of manures and other organic wastes.


Contact: Ron Walli
DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Related biology news :

1. ORNL, St. Jude track neurons to predict and prevent disease
2. ORNL, Southern Cal set sights on preventing blindness
3. Los Alamos technology strikes a chord with algal biofuels
4. Visionary concept earns La Jolla Institute scientist prestigious NIH Pioneer Award
5. Groundbreaking model of heart disease rewarded with NIH Pioneer Award
6. EMBO pioneers pension plan for internationally mobile postdoctoral researchers
7. Innerscope Research Adds to Its Advisory Board Two Pioneers in the Measurement and Application of Emotional Engagement
8. Innerscope Research Adds to Its Advisory Board Two Pioneers in the Measurement and Application of Emotional Engagement
9. Award for pioneering stem cell research to mend broken bones
10. MBL director and CEO and cell biology pioneer Gary Borisy elected to National Academy of Sciences
11. Canadian biomedical engineering pioneer receives international award
Post Your Comments:
(Date:10/26/2015)... and LAS VEGAS , ... Nok Labs , an innovator in modern authentication and ... today announced the launch of its latest version of ... platform enabling organizations to use standards-based authentication that supports ... Nok S3 Authentication Suite is ideal for organizations deploying ...
(Date:10/23/2015)... California , October 23, 2015 ... (SMI) announce a mobile plug and play integration of ... real-world tasks SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI) present ... wearable solutions for eye tracking and physiological data registration. ... SMI Eye Tracking Glasses 2w and physiological ...
(Date:10/22/2015)... 2015 About fingerprint biometrics ... individual with the database to identify and verify an ... loop. Pattern-based algorithms are used to match an individual,s ... was introduced in 1986, which is being used by ... criminal. Technavio,s analysts forecast the global fingerprint ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
(Date:11/24/2015)... ... November 24, 2015 , ... The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), ... MultiGP, also known as Multirotor Grand Prix, to represent the First–Person View (FPV) racing ... AMA members have embraced this type of racing and several new model aviation pilots ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... QUEBEC CITY , Nov. 24, 2015 /PRNewswire/ ... (the "Company") announced today that the remaining 11,000 ... Common Share Purchase Warrants (the "Series B Warrants") ... agreement were exercised on November 23, 2015, which ... Common Shares.  After giving effect to the issuance ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... ... November 24, 2015 , ... Creation Technologies would like ... to Deloitte's 2015 Technology Fast 500 list of the fastest growing companies in ... Class II medical device that speeds up orthodontic tooth movement by as much ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. , Nov. 24, 2015  PDL ... John P. McLaughlin , the company,s president and chief ... Piper Jaffray Healthcare Conference next week in New ... and will occur on Tuesday, December 1, 2015 at 9:30 ... and Presentations." Please connect to the website at least 15 ...
Breaking Biology Technology: