Amendments of waste ochre from former coal mines can potentially be used to increase soil carbon persistence

Mark Edward Hodson, Mahmuda Islam, Matty Metcalf, Amy Wright

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There is an increasingly urgent need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Increasing C storage in soils has been discussed as a possible method of achieving this. Regardless of whether increasing soil C would result in reduced atmospheric C or not, increasing the amount of organic carbon (OC) stored as organic matter in soils is widely regarded as leading to agronomic benefits such as increased water retention and resistance to erosion. Fe oxides adsorb OC in soil, protecting it from degradation. In this study we investigated the use of waste ochre (Fe oxy-hydroxide) that precipitates from the drainage of former coal mines as a soil amendment to increase C storage in soils via reduced C lability. In preliminary batch experiments, ochres reduced the release of OC from soils into solution. In plant growth with wheat (var. Skyfall, RAGT) experiments 5 Wt% amendments of ochre to soils significantly reduced the concentration of hot water extractable OC by approximately 16% and OC lost from the soils in leachate by approximately 43%. Above ground plant biomass was significantly reduced by approximately 50% in the amended soils. There was no evidence for increased uptake of potentially toxic elements in the plants from the ochre-amended soils compared to the study controls but Olsen P extractable phosphate was decreased by the ochre amendments. In subsequent experiments with agronomically realistic additions of KH2PO4 there was no difference in plant biomass between the study controls and the ochre-treated soils suggesting that reduced plant growth was due to reduced P availability; C lability was still significantly reduced. Furthermore, the ochre amendments helped retain this phosphate in the soil. These results indicate that Fe oxide amendments to soil may be a viable way of changing soil chemistry in order to increase the amount of OC retained in soils. Further experiments investigating the impacts of the ochre amendments on greenhouse gas emissions and soil biology are required followed by field trials where the impact of more variable soil moisture and temperature effects can be assessed and crops grown to harvest. A full Life Cycle Analysis could then be performed. Given the relatively limited quantities of former coal mine ochres available in the UK and the carbon footprint of transporting materials prior to adding them to soils, similar experiments to those reported here, taking into account chemical and mineralogical variations, are warranted to determine the global stock pile of Fe-rich wastes that could potentially be used to reduce C lability in soils.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105618
Number of pages11
JournalApplied Geochemistry
Early online date6 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023 The Authors


  • Fe oxide
  • C sequestration
  • labile C
  • climate change mitigation
  • geoengineering
  • waste

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