Artificial humic matter: a salvation for our soils

World Soil Day

November 30, 2021

Soils are the basis of life and climate protectors at the same time - but things are not good for them. Due to overfertilization, deforestation, salinization and overgrazing, nearly two billion hectares of arable and pasture land worldwide are affected by moderate to severe soil degradation.* The result: declining yields, lower biodiversity, declining groundwater quality, less carbon dioxide sequestration. According to IPCC reports, a critical situation has already been reached by 2030. On the occasion of World Soil Day on December 5, the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (MPICI) presents a technology that could help improve soil worldwide.

Artificial humic matter could compensate for what is lost in good soil quality due to a lack of circular economy such as sustainable crop rotations. Why? Natural humic substances are components of fertile humus soil, which they give its dark color. They are formed in the course of the decomposition process of biological material. Naturally, this process takes years. "In view of the increasingly poor soil quality worldwide, we have to be faster than nature, because in a few years 10 billion people will have to be fed and the climate crisis will also have to be dealt with," says Prof. Markus Antonietti, Director at the MPICI. The acceleration of this process has been successful. After just twelve hours, the artificial humic matter developed at the Max Planck Institute are produced in the laboratory using green chemistry. This requires biowaste such as green cuttings, leaf litter or tree bark, which are "humified" using a special cooking recipe and mimic the natural processes at an accelerated rate. The result is a product mixture comparable to natural humic substances that can then be added to soils. "Recent laboratory experiments with our Chinese partner group led by Prof. Fan Yang of Northeast Agricultural University in Harbin, indicate that artificial humic matter can improve soil quality as well as agricultural productivity quite significantly, and also contribute quite extraordinarily to carbon dioxide sequestration," says Markus Antonietti.  He adds: "The reaction takes place at higher temperatures in water and then proceeds spontaneously. So, with proper heat management, the process is very inexpensive." This technology was recently selected by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) as one of the "Top Ten Emerging Technologies in Chemistry 2021" because it could be a solution building block for the climate crisis.

"Two billion hectares of arable land actually needs two billion tons of humic substances, but then probably sequesters up to 350 billion tons of CO2 through the return of soil biology," Antonietti says. That, he adds, is equivalent to the additional amount emitted by humanity in the last ten years.

At a glance | What can artificial humic matter do?

Artificial humic matter has similar properties to natural ones and leads to the same positive effects on soil: improvement of soil quality and overall soil structure, water retention, mineral binding and increase of microbial activity in soils.

*FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations  
**IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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