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Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5013

Development of Acid Functional Groups and Lactones During the Thermal Degradation of Wood and Wood Components

By David W. Rutherford, Robert L. Wershaw, and James B. Reeves III

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Scientific Investigations Report
2007-5013 PDF (3.8 MB)

Black carbon (pyrogenic materials including chars) in soils has been recognized as a substantial portion of soil organic matter, and has been shown to play a vital role in nutrient cycling; however, little is known concerning the properties of this material. Previous studies have largely been concerned with the creation of high-surface-area materials for use as sorbents. These materials have been manufactured at high temperature and have often been activated. Chars occurring in the environment can be formed over a wide range of temperature. Because it is extremely difficult to isolate black carbon once it has been incorporated in soils, chars produced in the laboratory under controlled conditions can be used to investigate the range of properties possible for natural chars.

This report shows that charring conditions (temperature and time) have substantial impact on the acid functional group and lactone content of chars. Low temperatures (250°C) and long charring times (greater than 72 hours) produce chars with the highest acid functional group and lactone content. The charring of cellulose appears to be responsible for the creation of the acid functional group and lactones.

The significance of this study is that low-temperature chars can have acid functional group contents comparable to humic materials (as high as 8.8 milliequivalents per gram). Acid functional group and lactone content decreases as charring temperature increases. The variation in formation conditions expected under natural fire conditions will result in a wide range of sorption properties for natural chars which are an important component of soil organic matter. By controlling the temperature and duration of charring, it is possible to tailor the sorption properties of chars, which may be used as soil amendments.

Version 1.0

Posted March 2008

Suggested citation:

Rutherford, D.W., Wershaw, R.L., and Reeves III, J.B., 2008, Development of acid functional groups and lactones during the thermal degradation of wood and wood components: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2007–5013, 43 p.




Methods and Materials


Char Preparation

Elemental Analysis

Boehm Titration

Diffuse Reflectance Mid-Range Infrared Spectroscopy

Development of Acid Functional Groups and Lactones

Compositional Changes in Chars



Pine Wood

Pine Bark

Trends in Compositional Change and Implications for Development of Acid Functional Groups


References Cited

Appendix 1. Results of Boehm Titrations

Appendix 2. Diffuse Reflectance Mid-Range Infrared Spectra


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