Soil Chemical Properties

Major Elements

Eight chemical elements comprise the majority of the mineral matter in soils. Of these eight elements, oxygen, a negatively-charged ion (anion) in crystal structures, is the most prevalent on both a weight and volume basis. The next most common elements, all positively-charged ions (cations), in decreasing order are silicon, aluminum, iron, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium. Ions of these elements combine in various ratios to form different minerals. More than eighty other elements also occur in soils and the earth's crust, but in much smaller quantities.

Soils are chemically different from the rocks and minerals from which they are formed in that soils contain less of the water soluble weathering products, calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium, and more of the relatively insoluble elements such as iron and aluminum. Old, highly weathered soils normally have high concentrations of aluminum and iron oxides.

The organic fraction of a soil, although usually representing much less than 10% of the soil mass by weight, has a great influence on soil chemical properties. Soil organic matter is composed chiefly of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and smaller quantities of sulfur and other elements. The organic fraction serves as a reservoir for the plant essential nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur, increases soil water holding and cation exchange capacities, and enhances soil aggregation and structure.

The most chemically active fraction of soils consists of colloidal clays and organic matter. Colloidal particles are so small (< 0.0002 mm) that they remain suspended in water and exhibit a very large surface area per unit weight. These materials also generally exhibit net negative charge and high adsorptive capacity. Several different silicate clay minerals exist in soils, but all have a layered structure. Montmorillonite, vermiculite, and micaceous clays are examples of 2:1 clays, while kaolinite is a 1:1 clay mineral. Clays having a layer of aluminum oxide (octahedral sheet) sandwiched between two layers of silicon oxide (tetrahedral sheets) are called 2:1 clays. Clays having one tetrahedral sheet bonded to one octahedral sheet are termed 1:1 clays.

Cation Exchange

Silicate clays and organic matter typically possess net negative charge because of cation substitutions in the crystalline structures of clay and the loss of hydrogen cations from functional groups of organic matter. Positively-charged cations are attracted to these negatively-charged particles, just as opposite poles of magnets attract one another. Cation exchange is the ability of soil clays and organic matter to adsorb and exchange cations with those in soil solution (water in soil pore space). A dynamic equilibrium exists between adsorbed cations and those in soil solution. Cation adsorption is reversible if other cations in soil solution are sufficiently concentrated to displace those attracted to the negative charge on clay and organic matter surfaces. The quantity of cation exchange is measured per unit of soil weight and is termed cation exchange capacity. Organic colloids exhibit much greater cation exchange capacity than silicate clays. Various clays also exhibit different exchange capacities. Thus, cation exchange capacity of soils is dependent upon both organic matter content and content and type of silicate clays.

Cation exchange capacity is an important phenomenon for two reasons:

  1. exchangeable cations such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium are readily available for plant uptake and
  2. cations adsorbed to exchange sites are more resistant to leaching, or downward movement in soils with water.
Movement of cations below the rooting depth of plants is associated with weathering of soils. Greater cation exchange capacities help decrease these losses. Pesticides or organics with positively charged functional groups are also attracted to cation exchange sites and may be removed from the soil solution, making them less subject to loss and potential pollution.

Calcium (Ca++) is normally the predominant exchangeable cation in soils, even in acid, weathered soils. In highly weathered soils, such as oxisols, aluminum (Al+3) may become the dominant exchangeable cation.

The energy of retention of cations on negatively charged exchange sites varies with the particular cation. The order of retention is: aluminum > calcium > magnesium > potassium > sodium > hydrogen. Cations with increasing positive charge and decreasing hydrated size are most tightly held. Calcium ions, for example, can rather easily replace sodium ions from exchange sites. This difference in replaceability is the basis for the application of gypsum (CaSO4) to reclaim sodic soils (those with > 15% of the cation exchange capacity occupied by sodium ions). Sodic soils exhibit poor structural characteristics and low infiltration of water.

The cations of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium produce an alkaline reaction in water and are termed bases or basic cations. Aluminum and hydrogen ions produce acidity in water and are called acidic cations. The percentage of the cation exchange capacity occupied by basic cations is called percent base saturation. The greater the percent base saturation, the higher the soil pH.

Soil pH

Soil pH is probably the most commonly measured soil chemical property and is also one of the more informative. Like the temperature of the human body, soil pH implies certain characteristics that might be associated with a soil. Since pH (the negative log of the hydrogen ion activity in solution) is an inverse, or negative, function, soil pH decreases as hydrogen ion, or acidity, increases in soil solution. Soil pH increases as acidity decreases.

A soil pH of 7 is considered neutral. Soil pH values greater than 7 signify alkaline conditions, whereas those with values less than 7 indicate acidic conditions. Soil pH typically ranges from 4 to 8.5, but can be as low as 2 in materials associated with pyrite oxidation and acid mine drainage. In comparison, the pH of a typical cola soft drink is about 3.

Soil pH has a profound influence on plant growth. Soil pH affects the quantity, activity, and types of microorganisms in soils which in turn influence decomposition of crop residues, manures, sludges and other organics. It also affects other nutrient transformations and the solubility, or plant availability, of many plant essential nutrients. Phosphorus, for example, is most available in slightly acid to slightly alkaline soils, while all essential micronutrients, except molybdenum, become more available with decreasing pH. Aluminum, manganese, and even iron can become sufficiently soluble at pH < 5.5 to become toxic to plants. Bacteria which are important mediators of numerous nutrient transformation mechanisms in soils generally tend to be most active in slightly acid to alkaline conditions.

Lesson 5. Soil Classification

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