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Recycling in Soil
Sep 1, 2014

All organisms in nature start to decompose once they fall dead to the ground. As a result of decomposition and change, some portion of the materials in the dead tissue escapes in a gaseous state, some portion gets consumed as a source of energy and nutrition by soil dwelling microorganisms, and the remaining part is converted to humus.

Organic substances in the soil go through oxidative decomposition depending on factors such as temperature, air, humidity, and pH balance. This is a slow burning (oxidation) event of organic substances. However, oxidative decay is hindered if one of the aforementioned factors is lacking. Then, a slow decay of organic materials in soil called humification takes place.

Humification occurs in an open system in contact with air. For example, early chemical processes start with leaves changing color in autumn. The break down and partial ingestion of leaves by soil organisms follows. During this time, water soluble carbohydrates and proteins leave the leaf tissue. What remains behind are plant structures like cellulose and lignin, which are not broken down yet. Since leaf shapes are not completely deformed, species identification can still be possible at this stage. In the decay step, however, the cellulose and lignin are decomposed by various fungi species and converted to humus.

Humic substances and their properties

Humic substances are intermediate products that occur as the result of organic materials going through a series of chemical reactions. These intermediate products are humic acid, fulvic acid, and humate. Their molecular weights are around 1.000-10.000 gr/mol, 10.000-100.000 gr/mol, and 100.000-10.000.000 gr/mol, respectively. Humic acids contain weak aliphatic (carbon chains) and aromatic (carbon rings) organic acids that are soluble in water when it has a base medium but insoluble under acidic conditions.

Fulvic acids with smaller size molecular structures can reach plant roots, branches, and leaves easily because they are soluble in water under all pH conditions (acidic, neutral, and basic). Thus, trace elements such as iron, zinc, copper, manganese, and boron can be easily transported to plant tissues via fulvic acid.

Humates, however, are insoluble in water. Only the portion of a humate called ulmic acid can dissolve in alcohol.

Major functions have been assigned to humic matter in the nutrient and carbon cycle, as they are inseparable members of the ecosystem. Plants capture significantly more nutrients from humic matter than from clay minerals. Even though they can be depleted from soil by certain agricultural practices in less than 50 years, they can still remain in natural soils, outside human activity, for hundreds or even thousands of years without being degraded. This very long presence in soil enables them to continue their functions longer. According to radiocarbon dating, humates can last approximately 1140 years; and humic acid and fulvic acid last for 1235 and 870 years, respectively, in natural soils.

Positively charged nutritious elements (cations) remain in the soil by binding to negatively charged (anions) in humic matter. Because this bond is weak, useful elements for the plant can easily be exchanged with another cation, becoming free and getting absorbed by the plant. On the other side, cations such as iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, manganese, and calcium, which are hazardous to plants when taken excessively, are held in the soil, bound to humic matter and thus not causing toxicity.

Another significant feature of humic and fulvic acid is their ability to form water bridges. Water bridges facilitate the movement of nutrient ions towards roots via soil solutions.

Aside from agriculture, humic matter, with its aforementioned properties, serve humankind in the industrial, environmental, and biomedical fields.

Industrial and environmental applications

Humic matter is utilized in the staining of leather works, as wood lining paint (natural blue color), as well as water based stripping material for furniture stains. Humic matter is also used in the production of durable, resistant papers in the paper industry, to provide mechanical strength to processed ceramics, and as an additive. It is also applied as a coloring, hardening, and plasticizing agent in plastic fabrication.

Humic and fulvic acids gain significance regarding their ability to form water soluble substances with many metal compounds containing radioactive elements in their structure.

In environmental chemistry, the main role of the humic matter is to remove toxic substances, human sourced organic chemical matter, and other pollutants from water. Calcium humate, obtained from humic matter, can bind and remove nickel, iron, cadmium, and copper in addition to radioactive elements produced at nuclear power plants from water.

Humus based filters are designed to treat sewage water and mud waste. Oils, stains, poisonous phenolic substances, and pesticides are removed from sewage via these materials. In poultry, humic substances are employed to absorb and eliminate the odor of waste gases.

Biomedical applications

Drugs for the treatment of human and animal diseases are developed from humic matter. These can be used for the treatment of viral and bacterial illnesses, in the prevention of blood clots, to cure infections, and to remedy estrogen deficiencies. Clinical studies have shown that common viral diseases of children’s respiratory tracks can be treated with fulvic acid supplements. A lot of medical research has shown that humic matter, especially fulvic acids, have the ability to provide protection against cancer causing viruses. In a study, laboratory mice were given ethanol to trigger gastritis and it was determined that humic acids supplied to mice led to a significant reduction in the harm gastritis caused. The fact that humic acids can form compounds with heavy metals, such as cadmium, enables the excretion of heavy metals from organisms.

In our universe there is no place for waste. Once every particle completes its task, it is returned in a different fashion to be assigned another job. Humification is a good example to this reassignment as a complex recycling event in the soil. It is amazing to observe everything being generated from one thing and everything converted into one thing so easily and in such a crafty, balanced, and organized fashion. In fact, the power and wisdom behind the conversion of the remains of millions of different organisms into a few similar substances to be employed in different tasks are no less amazing.