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Soil Physic: AgEn 311



Soil aeration refers to the transport of gases through the soil air space and the exchange of gases between the soil and atmosphere. Two important gases in the soil air are CO2, which is produced as a byproduct of plant root respiration and biological activity, and oxygen which is consumed in soil by the same processes. Plant roots require O2 to function normally. The most plant species, translocation of oxygen from the leaves to the roots is inadequate to supply O2 at the required rate, and the roots must supplement their supply from the soil air.
6.1. Amount and Composition of soil air

The gas phase of soil is characterized by amount or volume and compositions. The volume fraction of gas generally decreases with depth in a soil profile due to decreasing porosity as a result of compaction, biological activity, etc., and due to increasing water content. The volume fraction of gas and water are each others complement; together they fill the available pore volume. The critical volume fraction of gas for plant roots depend on the kind of plant and many other factors. A volume fraction of gas of 5-15% is generally considered adequate. Remember the 10 to 20% proposed before. The composition of soil air also varies with depth and time. Due to free diffusion of the atmospheric components through the soil surface, the composition of the soil air near the surface is almost the same as in the atmosphere, i.e. 80% N2, with O2 and CO2 together forming the remaining 20% . With depth, the
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concentration of CO2 increases and that of O2 decreases because of biological activity in the soil (respiration of plant roots, microorganisms and soil fauna). 6.2 Equilibrium conditions for soil air Under equilibrium and isothermal conditions, the pressure of air in the gravitational field can be expressed as
M p = p o exp gz RT


If z = 1 m and T= 290 oK, equation [6.1] gives p = 0.99988 p o . Thus air pressure changes by 0.012% over a height of 1 m. If this small gradient (0.12 mbar m-1) is ignored, air pressure can be regarded as independent of height (i.e. p is uniform). This assumption applies not only to the total gas pressure, but also to the partial pressure of the different gaseous components. Therefore, soil air and the atmosphere at the soil surface are in equilibrium with each other only if the total gas pressure and the composition of the soil air are the same as in the atmosphere. 6.3 Bulk flow of gas Bulk flow of gas in soil results from a gradient of total gas pressure. This can be caused, for instance, by variation in barometric pressure of the atmosphere, displacement of soil air by infiltrating rain or irrigation water, rise of the groundwater table or temperature changes. We can ignore compression of soil air, because of the very small gas pressure differences

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encountered in soils. The bulk flow of soil air can then be expressed analogously to the transport of soil water:
f a = K a p s


where fa is the air flux density in m 3 m 2 s 1 or m s-1, and

p z is the air pressure gradient in pa m-1.

Thus, the air conductivity, Ka, has the same unit as the water conductivity ( m 2 Pa 1 s 1 ) The air conductivity depends on the volume fraction, size, continuity and geometry of the gas-filled pores. It is, therefore, highly dependent on the volume fraction of water. The air conductivity of a completely dry soil is about 50 times the water conductivity of the same soil when completely saturated, provided the porosity and pore geometry of the soil are the same in both conditions. Of course, for most soils this is not true. The factor 50 is the ratio of the viscosities of water and air

( w 1.0 mPa s, a

20 Pa s )

The intrinsic permeability of a soil for air, Kia, can be calculated by an equation similar to that used for water.
K ia = a K a

The value of Kia depends only on the geometry of the soil pores. Question 6.1. An undisturbed soil sample is first dried completely to measure the air conductivity and then saturated completely to measure the saturated water conductivity. The values found for Ka and K are 5.6 x 10-8

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and 0.11 x 10-8 m2 Pa-1 s-1, respectively. Calculate the Kia and Kiw Solution:- a. K ia = a K a = 20 10 6 Pa 5.6 10 8 m 2 Pa 1 s 1 1.1 10 12 m 2
K iw = w K w = 1.0 10 3 Pa s 0.11 10 8 m 2 Pa 1 s 1 = 1.1 10 12 m 2

6.4. Gas diffusion The composition of soil air changes due to consumption of O2 and production of CO2 as a result of respiration of soil organism and plant roots. The volume fraction of CO2 in soil air is more than the 0.03% in the atmosphere. In general the volume fractions of CO2 and O2 together are nearly constant at about 20% (generation of CO2 is the same as consumption of O2. No anaerobic respiration is assumed). Root growth and other activities of most plant are hindered if the volume fraction of CO2 is more than about 5% (O2 fraction < 15%), while the upper limit for plants is about 10% CO2. Supply of O2 and removal of CO2 atmosphere is called soil aeration. Since bulk flow of soil air contributes very little to the aeration of the root zone, exchange of O2 and CO2 with the atmosphere takes place mainly by diffusion. Ficks law can describe diffusion:
f i = Dg i s

by exchange with the


Where Dg is the diffusion coefficient for gases in the particular soil. Gas diffusion in soil due to a partial pressure gradient of one component is always accompanied by counter current diffusion of other components. The molecules diffusion in opposite directions hinder each other to such a high degree that the

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friction of the pore walls is negligible compared to the internal friction in the gas. The influence of pore sizes is, therefore, so small that it is possible to estimate that value of Dg from the diffusion coefficient, Do, of the gas mixture in free air. The value of Do only needs to be corrected for the following effects:
o Only a fraction of the cross sectional area normal to the

direction of the flux is available for diffusion. It equals the volume fraction of gas, g
o Diffusion through the pores is not in a straight line. The

increase of the effective diffusion distance due to the tortuosity of the pore space and the blocking by water of connections between pores is generally estimated at a factor of about 2, even though this tortuosity factor, , will be larger in a wet soil than in a dry soil. Taking into account the above effects yields the following estimate of
Dg 1 D g g Do 2


The flux density equation then becomes:

1 f i = g Do i 2 z


During diffusion of gases, counter current diffusion also occurs. This is because if the pressure in a gas mixture is to remain constant, the increase in partial pressure of one component must be compensated by an equal decrease in partial pressure of their components. Thus the partial pressure gradient of the one component is compensated by the reverse gradients of other

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components. These gradients cause the other gas components to move (diffuse) in an opposite direction. That is counter diffusion.

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CO2 diffusion in soil profile

The CO2 concentration in the gas phase of a soil generally increases with depth. This is one of the reasons why root development and activity is limited to the topsoil. Under average conditions in the root zone of natural soils, the production rate of
-3 -1 CO2 , CO2 , varies between 0.2 and 0.6 mg m s .

If the production rate and the diffusion coefficient of CO2 for all soil are known, the CO2 concentration as a function of depth can be calculated for relatively simple conditions, e.g. when the CO2 concentration does not change with time (steady state) and the production rate is constant throughout the root zone and zero below the root zone. At steady state, the gradient of the CO2 concentration at a certain depth must be such that all CO 2 produced below that depth is removed by upward diffusion. Thus, the CO2 flux density is the highest at the soil surface. It is somewhat easier to solve the problem if a height scale is used, rather than a depth scale, and if z=0 is taken at the bottom of the root zone. The diffusion and continuity equation are then, respectively
f CO2 = D g CO2 z z + CO2

[6.6] [6.7]


GCO2 t

f CO2

Equation 6.8 can be simplified because at steady state , G t = 0 and so

df CO2 dz = CO2 or df CO2 = CO2 dz


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Note that normal differentials can be used because, at steady state, f and are no longer time dependent, but only a function of height. If CO is assumed constant throughout the root zone,

integration of equation 6.8:

f CO2 = CO2 z + C1


where the integration constant, C1 is zero because f CO = 0 at z=0. Question 6.2 Why is f CO = 0 at z=0 (depth below the root zone)?

Solution There is no CO2 production below z=o. Hence, no CO2 has to be removed from below z=0. A downward flux also is unlikely, because there usually are layers in the subsoil which block gas diffusion, for instance a groundwater table or rocks. So, below the root zone, f CO =0

Substitution of CO z for f CO in equation 6.6 yields:

2 2

CO2 z = D g

CO2 z

or CO zdz = D g d CO


If Dg is uniform, integration yields:

CO2 z 2 = 2 D g CO2 + C 2


The integration constant, C2, can be found from the condition that
CO2 = 0 at the soil surface where z=zs (because CO2 in the

atmosphere is negligible):
C 2 = z s2 CO2

So, CO =

2 Dg


2 s



Thus the concentration CO2 is a quadratic function of height

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For a soil with a production rate of CO2 of 0.6 mg m-3 s-1, a 0.6 m root zone and = 0.3 , Do = 2x10-5 m2 s-1 and =2, equation 6.12 becomes
CO2 = 0.1 kg m 5 ( 0.6m ) 2 z 2


At the lower end of the root zone (where z=0) and below the rootzone, the concentration of CO2 is uniform at 36 g m-3. Question 6.3 Explain why the mass concentration of CO2 is

uniform below the root zone. Solution: There is no CO2 production below z=0. Hence, no CO2 has to be removed from below z= 0. A downward flux also is unlikely, because there usually are layers in the subsoil which block gas diffusion, for instance a groundwater table or rocks. So below the rootzone, f CO = 0 .

Question 6.4: Express equation 6.12 in terms of depth, z, if z=0 at the soil surface. Solution: The continuity equation for the steady state with a production term is:
df CO2 ds

= CO2

For a constant CO , integration yields

f CO2 = CO2 z + C1

Since f CO = 0 at s=0.6 m, it follows:


C1 = ( 0.6 m ) CO2

Substitution into the flux density equation yields

( z 0.6 m ) CO

= Dg

d CO2 dz

and after rearranging the integrating with Dg =uniform:

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z2 ( 0.6m ) z CO2 = D g CO2 + C 2 2

Since CO =0 at z = 0 (surface), C2 = 0. Therefore,


CO2 =

2 Dg

[(1.2m) z z ]

3 1 Hence, for g = 0.3 , CO = 0.6 mg m s , = 2 and Do = 2 10 5 m 2 s 1 ,


CO2 = 0.1 kg m 5 (1.2m ) z z 2

This equation can also be derived from equation 12 by substituting 0.6 m-s for z, since s=-z+0.6 m. Mass concentration of CO2 can be converted to partial pressures by ideal gas law.
pCO2 = RT CO2 M CO2

Using RT = 2.4 KJ mol-1 and MCO2 = 44 g mol-1, the partial pressure of CO2 at the bottom of the root zone is about 1960 Pa (1.96 kPa). This corresponds with a volume fraction of CO 2 of only about 2%, even though the maximum rate of CO2 production was assumed. Therefore, damaging concentration of CO2 production can be expected only in soils with extremely low gas-filled porosities, due to compaction, extreme wetness, etc. Question 6.4. A soil profile has a root zone of 0.7 m. At steady state, the oxygen consumption is 0.4 mg m-3 s-1 uniform throughout the root zone. Consumption of O2 below the rootzone is negligible. Calculate the partial pressure of O2 as a function of height with the following information:

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g = 0.32,

Do = 2 10 5 m 2 s 1

RT=2.4 kJ mol-1
M O2 = 32 g mol 1

and volume fraction of O2 is the atmosphere = 20% (partial pressure =20 kPa) Solution: The solution is analogous to that for CO2, except that the flux is in the opposite direction and the production is negative (consumption) again z=0 is chosen at the bottom of the rootzone where f o =0.

GO2 t


f O2 z

+ O2 = 0 and thus

df O2 dz

= O2

Integration yields f O = O z + C1 , where C1=0 because at z=0, f O =0. Now, the diffusion equation becomes:
O2 z = D g

d O2 dz

or O zdz = Dd O

2 After integration: O z = 2 D g O + C 2



pO2 for O2 (analogous to equation 13) yields

O2 z 2 =

2 D g M O2 RT

pO2 + C 2

C2 can be found from the condition pO = 20 kPa at z=0.7 m at the surface.

C2 = 2 D g M O2 RT 2 10 4 Pa + ( 0.7 m ) O2

Hence, z 2 ( 0.7m ) 2 O =

2 D g M O2 RT

[2 10

Pa pO2

From which

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pO2 =

O2 RT 2 2 z ( 0.7 m ) + 10 4 pa 2 D g M O2

For O = 0.4 mg m-3s-1, Do=2 x 10-5 m2 s-1, g = 0.32, RT=2.4 kJ mol-1


and M O = 32 g mol -1

PO2 = 17.7 kPa + 4.69 kPa m 2 z 2

From the results it is clear that the partial pressure of O 2 is a quadratic function of height, but decreases with depth. Below the rootzone, 17.7%. The above given solution to estimate the CO2 concentration as a function of height is based on the simplification that g and CO









corresponds with a volume fraction of O2 in the soil air of about

are constant through out the root zone. Besides, it is limited to steady state. In reality, the volume fraction of gas is a function of total porosity and volume fraction of liquid, which usually vary with depth. Also root activity is a function of depth. When the production term and the diffusion coefficient can be expressed as relatively simple functions of height, solutions can sometimes be found analytically for steady state conditions. If not, or if they are time-independent, one has to use numerical methods to find a solution.

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