Roles of phosphoric acid in biochar formation: Synchronously improving carbon retention and sorption capacity

Ling Zhao, Wei Zheng, Ondřej Mašek, Xiang Chen, Bowen Gu, Brajendra K. Sharma, Xinde Cao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Pretreatment of biomass with phosphoric acid (H3PO4) for biochar production was expected to improve carbon (C) retention, porosity structure, and the sorption ability of biochar. This study investigated the interaction of phosphorus with the C structure to elucidate the mechanisms by which H3PO4 simultaneously captured C and created micropores. Sawdust was soaked in diluted H3PO4 and dried for pyrolytic biochar generation at 350, 500, and 650°C. Results showed that H3PO4 pretreatment resulted in 70 to 80% of biomass C retention in biochar, compared with only about 50% remaining without pretreatment. The specific surface area and total pore volume of the H3PO4-pretreated biochar were 930 m2 g-1 and 0.558 cm3 g-1, respectively, compared with < 51.0 m2 g-1 and 0.046 cm3 g-1 in the untreated biochar. The volume of micropores (< 10 nm) increased from 59.0% to 78.4-81.9%. The presence of H3PO4 shifted the decomposition temperature to a lower value and decreased the energy required for biomass decomposition. Micropore formation was via the insertion of P-O-P into the C lattice, leading to swelling and amplification of amorphous form and lattice defect of the C structure, as evidenced by Raman spectrum and small-angle X-ray scattering analysis. The crosslinking of P-O-P and C bonds resulted in greater biomass C retention in biochar. This biochar-phosphorus composite had a much higher sorption ability for Pb than the unmodified biochar, which was possibly dominated by phosphate precipitation and surface adsorption. This study provided a simple method to improve biochar properties and explored the multiple benefits of H3PO4 in biomass pyrolysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)393-401
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Environmental Quality
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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