Potentially Massive and Global Non-Pyrogenic Production of Condensed “Black” Carbon through Biomass Oxidation

Aleksandar I. Goranov, Hongmei Chen, Jianshu Duan, Satish C.B. Myneni, Patrick G. Hatcher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


With the increased occurrences of wildfires worldwide, there has been an increase in scientific interest surrounding the chemistry of fire-derived “black” carbon (BC). Traditionally, wildfire research has assumed that condensed aromatic carbon (ConAC) is exclusively produced via combustion, and thus, ConAC is equated to BC. However, the lack of correlations between ConAC in soils or rivers and wildfire history suggests that ConAC may be produced non-pyrogenically. Here, we show quantitative evidence that this occurs during the oxidation of biomass with environmentally ubiquitous hydroxyl radicals. Pine wood boards exposed to iron nails and natural weather conditions for 12 years yielded a charcoal-like ConAC-rich material. ConAC was also produced during laboratory oxidations of pine, maple, and brown-rotted oak woods, as well as algae, corn root, and tree bark. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that biomass oxidation could be producing massive non-pyrogenic ConAC fluxes to terrestrial and aquatic environments. These estimates (e.g., 163-182 Tg-ConAC/year to soils) are much higher than the estimated pyrogenic “BC” fluxes (e.g., 128 Tg-ConAC/year to soils) implying that environmental ConAC is primarily non-pyrogenic. This novel perspective suggests that wildfire research trajectories should shift to assessing non-pyrogenic ConAC sources and fluxes, developing new methods for quantifying true BC, and establishing a new view of ConAC as an intermediate species in the biogeochemical processing of biomass during soil humification, aquatic photochemistry, microbial degradation, or mineral-organic matter interactions. We also advise against using BC or pyrogenic carbon (pyC) terminologies for ConAC measured in environmental matrices, unless a pyrogenic source can be confidently assigned.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2750-2761
Number of pages12
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Feb 13 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


  • black carbon
  • condensed aromatic carbon (ConAC)
  • global carbon cycle


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