• Biochar;
  • steam activation;
  • nutrient retention;
  • soil fertility


The slow alteration of the surface of charred biomass (biochar) over time may contribute to an improved nutrient retention and thus fertility of tropical soils. Here, we investigated soils from temperate climates and investigated whether a technical steam activation of biochar could accelerate its positive effects on nutrient retention and uptake by plants relative to nonactivated biochar. To this aim, we performed microcosm experiments with sandy or silty soil, mixed with 2.0, 7.5 and 15.0 g/kg soil of fine (<2 mm) or coarse-sized (2–10 mm) biochar from beech wood (Fagus sp.). After initial fertilizer (NPK), ashes and excess nutrients were leached with water, and the microcosms were planted for 142 days with Italian Ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum ssp. italicum). Thereafter, leachate, soil and plant samples were analysed for their nutrient contents. The results showed that biochar additions of ≤15 g/kg soil left elevated contents of available P and N in the surface soil but reduced their uptake into the plants. As a result, total biomass production was unchanged. Different particle size and application amounts influenced these findings only marginally. Nitrate leaching was enhanced in the sandy soil (+41% for nitrate, but reduced in the silty soil −17%) and P was immobilized. Hence, the fertility of the temperate soils under study was only marginally affected by pure biochar amendments. Steam activation, however, almost doubled the positive effects of biochars in all instances, thus being an interesting option for future biochar applications.