Aciddigestion of soils

There are three main reasons for digesting soils in hot acid - to determine the organic carbon content, to extract mineral elements for their total content, and to determine total nitrogen by the Kjeldahl digestion.

The first is called Tinsley's wet combustion (Tinsley, 1950), and uses a highly corrosive mixture of sodium dichromate, and concentrated perchloric and sulphuric acids. For undergraduate practical classes, the safer loss on ignition method might be considered more appropriate.

The second reason for acid-digestion is the determination of the total soil elemental content of, e.g. potassium, phosphorus or trace elements. This is seldom done for potassium in normal soil samples, mainly because 'the total K in soils is of no value as an index to the availability of K to plants, nor is it always of value in tracing the movement or accumulation of applied fertilizer K' (Pratt, 1965). The unreactive soil phosphorus is obtained by subtracting the naturally leached reactive phosphorus from the total phosphorus, and a method for determining the latter by extraction with sulphuric acid and potassium persulphate is cited by Turner and Haygarth (2000). They analysed

© 2002 CAB International. Methods in Agricultural Chemical Analysis: a Practical

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the reactive phosphate by flow injection analysis using a Tecator 5020 with autosampler, and using Method Application ASN 60-03/83 (Tecator Ltd, Sweden). The safety aspect is an important reason for avoiding, if possible, total elemental determination in soils, because the reagents often involve hydrofluoric acid (48% m/m) and perchloric acid (60% m/m). The former causes horrific burns, possibly fatal if not treated immediately, but is necessary to dissolve the potassium-bearing silica, and the latter, necessary for completely dissolving organic matter, may cause explosions if evaporated to dryness with carbonaceous materials or metals. Alkali fusion is another method for total elements in soil.

Acid-digestion is often used with composts derived from municipal wastes, sewage and slurry, where toxic amounts of heavy metals may cause problems on the land to which they are applied. It is probably more convenient to determine total elements in soils by a benchtop X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) instrument. This only requires the soil to be ground, and several reference standards of a similar soil. A Reference Materials Catalogue, Issue 5, 1999, is available from LGC's Office of Reference Materials, Queens Road, Teddington, Middlesex TW11 0LY, UK. Tel. +44 (0)20 8943 7565; Fax +44 (0)20 8943 7554.

Alkali fusion, hydrofluoric acid (HF) digestion and XRF give true total values as required for geochemical purposes, but digestion in aqua regia (see Method 5.15) gives total environmentally available concentrations, which are most meaningful for agricultural and environmental purposes. Transition metals may be more effectively extracted by using a pressured microwave digestion system such as the Anton Paar Multiwave Microwave Sample Preparation System. An example of sewage sludge analysis by this system is given at:

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