New imaging approach views soil carbon at near-atomic scales

New imaging approach views soil carbon at near-atomic scales

Credit: CC0 Public Domain.

The Earth’s soils include more than three times the amount of carbon than is found in the atmosphere, but the procedures that bind carbon in the soil are still not well comprehended.

Improving such understanding might help scientists establish methods for sequestering more carbon in soil, consequently keeping it out of the atmosphere where it combines with oxygen and functions as a greenhouse gas.

A new research study explains a development method for imaging the physical and chemical interactions that sequester carbon in soil at near atomic scales, with some surprising results.

The research study, “Organo-organic and Organo-mineral Interfaces in Soil at the Nanometer Scale,” was published Nov. 30 in Nature Communications

At that resolution, the researchers showed– for the first time– that soil carbon communicates with both minerals and other kinds of carbon from organic materials, such as bacterial cell walls and microbial by-products. Previous imaging research study had just pointed to layered interactions between carbon and minerals in soils.

” If there is a neglected system that can assist us keep more carbon in soils, then that will help our climate,” said senior author Johannes Lehmann, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Teacher in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Soil and Crop Sciences Section, in the College of Farming and Life Sciences. Angela Possinger Ph.D. ’19, who was a college student in Lehmann’s lab and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Tech University, is the paper’s first author.

Given that the resolution of the new method is near atomic scale, the scientists are not particular what substances they are taking a look at, but they suspect the carbon discovered in soils is most likely from metabolites produced by soil microorganisms and from microbial cell walls. “In all probability, this is a microbial graveyard,” Lehmann said.

” We had an unanticipated finding where we could see user interfaces in between various forms of carbon and not just in between carbon and minerals,” Possinger said. “We might begin to take a look at those interfaces and try to comprehend something about those interactions.”

The strategy revealed layers of carbon around those natural user interfaces. It also showed that nitrogen was a crucial gamer for facilitating the chemical interactions in between both organic and mineral user interfaces, Possinger said.

As a result, farmers might improve soil health and mitigate environment modification through carbon sequestration by considering the form of nitrogen in soil changes, she said.

While pursuing her doctorate, Possinger worked for years with Cornell physicists– including co-authors Lena Kourkoutis, associate professor of used and engineering physics, and David Muller, the Samuel B. Eckert Teacher of Engineering in Applied and Engineering Physics, and the co-director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science– to help develop the multi-step method.

The scientists planned to utilize powerful electron microscopes to focus electron beams down to sub-atomic scales, but they discovered the electrons modify and damage loose and intricate soil samples. As a result, they had to freeze the samples to around minus 180 degrees Celsius, which reduced the damaging effects from the beams.

” We needed to establish a technique that essentially keeps the soil particles frozen throughout the process of making extremely thin slices to take a look at these small user interfaces,” Possinger stated.

The beams could then be scanned across the sample to produce pictures of the structure and chemistry of a soil sample and its complicated user interfaces, Kourkoutis said.

” Our physics coworkers are blazing a trail globally to enhance our ability to look extremely carefully into material homes,” Lehmann said. “Without such interdisciplinary partnership, these developments are not possible.”.

The new cryogenic electron microscopy and spectroscopy method will permit scientists to probe an entire range of user interfaces between soft and difficult materials, including those that play functions in the function of batteries, fuel cells and electrolyzers, Kourkoutis said.

More information:
Organo– organic and organo– mineral user interfaces in soil at the nanometer scale, Nature Communications(2020).1038/ s41467-020-19792 -9

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