New equipment for soil aggregate research available for use

Published on
September 23, 2022

Soil aggregates (little “clumps” in the soil) are important for many soil functions. Still, their nature and behaviour are not yet fully understood. Wageningen University & Research has developed a new apparatus to improve research into such soil aggregates. The new equipment will make analyses faster and easier and is available for all scientists working with soil aggregates.

Despite their important role, the nature and behaviour of soil aggregates are not yet fully understood and are often the subject of research projects. A better understanding could be of great importance to provide insights for soil management that enhances soil functions influenced by aggregates. But existing methods to analyse water-stable aggregates are labour-intensive and difficult to perform and cannot always provide enough flexibility to address current research questions.

Analysing faster and easier

For this reason, scientists from the Soil Science Cluster of Wageningen University & Research combined forces to develop new research equipment. Guusje Koorneef, PhD candidate in Soil Chemistry and Chemical Soil quality: “We aimed to develop an apparatus to meet all wishes of soil scientists. It was designed by researchers and technicians from several chair groups and constructed by our colleagues of the Tupola Technical Department in 2019.” The apparatus was tested and the appropriate laboratory protocol was developed in the subsequent 2.5 years.

What are soil aggregates?

At first sight, soil may often seem to consist of uniform matter. But looking more closely, you will notice that it is built of little “clumps” that together form a coherent structure that facilitates the migration of air, water, roots and soil organisms through the soil. These clumps are called “aggregates”. They consist of soil minerals (e.g. clay particles) that are bound to organic components (e.g. plant roots or humus) so that they remain together after wetting. The 3D structure provided by aggregates is important for many soil functions, such as protection from erosion, carbon sequestration and habitat provisioning to soil biota like bacteria and fungi.

This summer saw the official opening of the equipment. Koorneef: “This apparatus has greatly improved the sample throughput and the standardisation of the procedure of analysing aggregates. And because of this, aggregates can now be analysed in larger-scale studies to answer more questions”. Piet Peters, a technician at the Soil Physics and Land Management Group, adds: “The apparatus not only makes the analysis of aggregate quicker but also easier. Explaining and practising the previous method could easily take a day; now I can explain the procedure in one hour.”

Available for soil aggregate scientists

During the testing phase, the apparatus has successfully been applied to 225 samples in Koorneef’s research on the influence of organic farming on soil carbon and aggregates. Now, the apparatus is available for all scientists working with soil aggregates. When interested in using the equipment, you are welcome to contact Piet Peters of the Soil Science cluster.