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Bentonite clay with different nitrogen sources can effectively reduce nitrate leaching from sandy soil

  • Zahid Hussain ,

    Roles Writing – original draft (ZH); (TC)

    Current address: Department of Development Studies, COMSATS University Islamabad (CUI), Abbottabad Campus, Abbottabad, Pakistan

    Affiliation Yunnan Key Laboratory of Pollution Process and Management of Plateau-Lake -Watershed, Yunnan Research Academy of Eco-Environmental Sciences, Kunming, China

  • Tang Cheng ,

    Roles Data curation, Funding acquisition (ZH); (TC)

    Affiliation Yunnan Key Laboratory of Pollution Process and Management of Plateau-Lake -Watershed, Yunnan Research Academy of Eco-Environmental Sciences, Kunming, China

  • Muhammad Irshad,

    Roles Conceptualization, Supervision

    Affiliation Department of Environmental Sciences, CUI, Abbottabad Campus, Abbottabad, Pakistan

  • Riaz Ahmed Khattak,

    Roles Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation The Brains Institute, Peshawar, Pakistan

  • Chen Yao,

    Roles Software

    Affiliation Yunnan Infrastructure Investment Co. Ltd., Kunming, China

  • Di Song,

    Roles Visualization

    Affiliation Yunnan Key Laboratory of Pollution Process and Management of Plateau-Lake -Watershed, Yunnan Research Academy of Eco-Environmental Sciences, Kunming, China

  • Muhammad Mohiuddin

    Roles Formal analysis

    Affiliation Department of Environmental Sciences, Kohsar University, Murree, Pakistan


Nitrate (NO3-1) leaching from soils results in the lower soil fertility, reduced crop productivity and increased water pollution. The effects of bentonite clay mixed with various nitrogen (N) fertilizers on NO3-1 leaching from sandy soils haven’t been extensively studied. Therefore, the present lysimetric study determined NO3-1 leaching from bentonite [0, 2 and 4% (m/m)] treated sandy soil under three N sources (calcium nitrate [Ca(NO3)2], ammonium chloride [NH4Cl], and urea [CO(NH2)2] at the rate of 300 kg N ha-1). Results showed that bentonite markedly reduced NO3-1 release in the leachate, while 4% bentonite retained higher NO3 in the soil. The NO3-1 leaching from sandy soil varied with N sources as Ca(NO3)2 > NH4Cl > (CO(NH2)2. At early stages of leaching, higher concentrations of NO3-1 were detected in leachate with both NH4Cl and Ca(NO3)2, but leaching of NO3-1 increased with urea at later leaching stages. The amount of total NO3-1 retained in soil was conversely related to the amount of NO3-1 in the leachate. This study indicated that soil amendment with bentonite could efficiently mitigate NO3-1 leaching from sandy soil and hence prevent N fertilizer losses and groundwater pollution.

1. Introduction

Growing populations and changing diets require an increase in agricultural production which may lead to an increase in the use of fertilizers. As such, food demand and fertilizer use have been forecasted to double or triple by 2050 [1]. Chemical N fertilizers and organic manures are often applied to the soil in higher amounts for higher agriculture production, which may lead to the N losses due to removal from the cropped fields into the water bodies [2] and/or emission into the atmosphere [3, 4]. Of the applied N for crops, only 40–50% is being incorporated into the agricultural products [5] and the remainder N is subjected to the substantial losses [6]. The rainfall intensity and irrigation water influence the NO3-1 loss in the soil profile [7, 8]. The N fertilizers, used either as urea or ammonium form, are biochemically converted to NO3-1 which is susceptible to leaching from soil-plant system and enter groundwater bodies [2]. Therefore, an effective technology is required to prevent NO3-1 losses from sandy soils.

Soil NO3-1 is originated from both organic and inorganic N sources. Leaching and drainage studies found that NO3-1 is the major form of N occurred in the soil water [810]. A number of factors including plant characteristics, seasonal and climatic changes, and soil properties govern NO3-1 leaching from soils [11, 12]. The specific factors include soil texture, soil N concentration, amount of applied N, type of fertilizer, precipitation amount and intensity, soil water holding capacity, types of crops, root length and N demand of next crop [13, 14]. Leaching of NO3-1-N is more common than leaching of NH4-N since both NO3-1-N and soil are negatively charged [15]. Over application or un-timely application of animal manures or commercial N fertilizers result in the nutrient imbalance in soils which lead to the increased N leaching rates, especially of NO3-1, into groundwater [12, 16]. Sandy soils, due to low water holding capacity [17], allow NO3-1 to leach down into the groundwater faster than the soils having fine textures, such as clay loams [13, 15]. Thus, leaching of NO3-1 through soil profile can potentially contaminate surface and groundwater [18]. Sandy soils with low organic matter may facilitate leaching of 10–15 mg L-1 of NO3-1 to groundwater [19]. About 20–25% of this NO3-1 may enter surface water via buffer streams and wetlands causing eutrophication of water bodies [20, 21].

The increasing unsustainable agricultural use of N fertilizers results in NO3-1 leaching into ground waters [22, 23] and runoff into surface water ecosystem producing unfavorable consequences [24], which adversely affect water quality [22, 25]. The increasing potential of contamination of water resources is linked with the inefficient management of N fertilizer when compared with the natural systems [2628]. The concentration of NO3-1 above 10 mg L-1 in drinking water are considered as harmful for human health [29]. Higher NO3-1 consumption has been affiliated with various illnesses, e.g., methemoglobinemia has been proven due to ingestion of over nitrate concentrations in water [30, 31]. The endogenous NO3-1 may chemically be transformed to carcinogenic N compounds leading to adverse effects of colorectal cancer [32] and bladder cancer [33]. Therefore, developing an effective technology to retain nutrients in soils is imperative to prevent NO3-1 leaching from soils. Soil amendments have been considered as management practice to reduce NO3-1 losses from sandy soils [34]. Bentonite, an alumina-siliceous clay material, has not been previously utilized to control NO3-1 leaching.

Bentonite, like other clays, are hydrous aluminosilicates with fine colloids of < 2 mm of soils [35]. Clays are composed of fine-grained clays minerals and crystals such as quartz, carbonates and oxides [35] and are considered to retain contaminants by anion and cation exchange processes and prevent leaching into groundwaters. Due to effective adsorption capacities, bentonite clay has been used for multiple purposes. Bentonite is also used to remove dyes, radioactive waste, purification of viral RNA and wastewater [3638]. Bentonite application as amendment enhanced soil fertility by increased soil carbon and potassium [39], while improved water holding capacity of sandy soils under drought stress [40]. Bentonite application to sandy acidic soil improved soil fertility by increasing availability of macro-nutrient (up to 30%) to plants [41]. Fertilizers, if used in combination with nano-dimensional adsorbents increase nutrient use efficiency and reduce nutrient leaching into groundwaters [42], Clay amended sandy soil significantly reduced N and P leaching by 20% to 60% [43]. Leaching of NH4-N was reduced by 70% from a mixture of biochar, urea and bentonite plus sepiolite clay [44]. However, it is still unclear that how the type of fertilizer and application of bentonite clay to soils can mitigate NO3-1 leaching.

A reduction in the NO3-1 leaching was expected when clay material was applied to the soil. Reports evaluating the interactive effects of bentonite material and N sources on the reduction of NO3-1 leaching from sandy soils are scanty. Therefore, the objective of the present study was to investigate the influence of bentonite on NO3-1 leachability from a sandy soil after application of calcium nitrate [Ca(NO3)2], ammonium chloride [NH4Cl], and urea [CO(NH2)2] as three N sources.

2. Materials and methods

2.1 Lysimeter experiment

A leaching experiment was conducted in the Soil Science Laboratory at COMSATS University Islamabad, Abbottabad Campus, Pakistan following the idea of Zhao et al. [45]. For this purpose, PVC columns, with 0.60 m length and 0.15 m diameter, were installed to run the experiment. The bottles used for collecting leachate were installed on the floor. Filter papers were placed on porous bottom of the columns to prevent soil leaching. The columns were connected with bottles using small pipes for the collection of leachate. The connecting pipes were kept airtight to prevent evaporation from the leachate bottles. Locally collected sandy soil samples from agricultural land (0–12 cm depth) were utilized for the experiment. Bentonite material was commercially purchased and then air-dried. Both the soil and bentonite were analyzed for physico-chemical properties before the experiment. After air drying, 46 kg of the soil was added to each column (0.50 m length). The air-dried clay was applied at the rate of 0, 2 and 4% to the sandy soil packed in a PVC column. Three treatments of nitrogen (N) fertilizers namely calcium nitrate [Ca(NO3)2], ammonium chloride [NH4Cl], and urea [CO(NH2)2] were applied to the soil. Based on the bulk density of soil (1.3 g cm-1), each fertilizer was applied at 300 kg N ha-1. Initially, as the soil was dry, the amount of first water application was kept higher so that enough water may drain out to collect the leachate. For later leaching events, the leaching fraction (LF) was calculated by dividing the drained water by applied water. Then, the tap water was applied at leaching fraction of 0.3~0.4. Leachate was collected within 24 h after each water application. A total of five leaching events were covered, that is, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th and 10th day. The graphical display of the experiment is illustrated in [Fig 1].

2.2 Laboratory analysis

Chemical analyses of soil, bentonite and tap water were carried out before experiment. Soil samples were air-dried and sieved via 2 mm sieve. The soil and air-dried bentonite material were tested for pH and electrical conductivity (EC) in 1:5 (w/v) soil-water suspensions by a pH meter (Model: HANNA HI 8520) and EC meter (Model: 4320 JENWAY), respectively [46]. The soil was saturated for overnight, weighed and then the water holding capacity (WHC) of the soil was calculated by the difference in the weight of soil [47]. The bulk density of soil was determined using cylindrical cores. The soil sample was weighed and placed in the oven at 105°C for 8 to 12 hours until the weight was constant. Bulk density was then calculated in the same way as described by Grossman and Reinsch [48].

The post-experiment soil was sampled in two layers (0–25 and 25–50 cm) from the PVC columns and was thoroughly mixed. A 10 g soil sample was shaken in 100 mL distilled water for 1 h and then the suspension was filtered. Moisture content in the soil samples was adjusted by oven drying few grams of soil. The leachate collected from 5 events was analyzed for NO3 concentration. The NO3-1 concentration in pre- and post-experiment soil, bentonite and leachate was determined by UV spectrophotometer (Model: LI-UV-7000) at 220 nm [49]. All the reagents/chemicals of Sigma Aldrich, Germany, were utilized during the experiment.

2.3 Statistical analysis

Data were statistically analyzed by OriginLab 2021 for graphical presentation. The three-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was performed on Sigmaplot. The three factors were taken as bentonite (0, 2% and 4%), N fertilizer sources ([Ca(NO3)2], [NH4Cl] and [CO(NH2)2]), and leaching events (1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th and 10th day) with three replications. A post hoc Tukey test was also performed to determine the significant difference between the levels of factors.

3. Results

3.1. Pre-experiment chemical analysis

Bentonite clay, soil and water were analyzed for chemical properties before experiment, which are presented in Table 1. Analysis revealed that soil had highest NO3-1 concentrations, compared to bentonite clay. The tap water had low concentrations of NO3-1. The electrical conductivity (EC) of bentonite was highest compared to soil and water samples, but still it fell below the category of non-saline (EC<4 dS m-1). However, the pH of bentonite was lower (pH<7) making it more acidic as compared to soil and water.

Table 1. Nitrate, electrical conductivity (EC) and pH of bentonite clay material, soil and tap water.

3.2. Effect of bentonite and N sources on NO3-1 leaching

Impact of bentonite clay mixed with different N sources on NO3-1 leaching is illustrated in [Fig 2]. Results showed NO3-1 concentration decreased by 12 to 19% in the leachate, irrespective of the source of N with increasing bentonite rates. The significantly highest reduction (20–25%) in NO3-1 leaching was recorded with Ca(NO3)2 with 4% bentonite as compared with CO(NH2)2 and NH4Cl at similar bentonite rates. At early stages of leaching, the leachate showed higher concentrations of NO3-1 in leachate with both NH4Cl and Ca(NO3)2, but leaching of NO3 increased with urea sources at later leaching stages [Fig 3]. Total NO3-1 loads were higher in soil with urea and Ca(NO3)2 treated soil at 4% bentonite as compared to NH4Cl [Fig 4]. The incubation of soil with bentonite (4%) reduced NO3 content by 7%, 20% and 8% with Ca(NO3)2, NH4Cl and CO(NH2)2 treated soil, respectively [Fig 5].

Fig 2. Average amount of leachate nitrate from bentonite treated sandy soil (from day 1 to day 10).

N, A and U indicate Ca(NO3)2, NH4Cl and CO(NH2)2, respectively. Bentonite clay was applied at the rate of 0%, 2% and 4%. *, ** and *** show significant differences at P<0.05, P<0,01 and P<0.001, respectively.

Fig 3. Nitrate leaching in bentonite amended sandy soil using Ca(NO3)2 (a), NH4Cl (b), and CO(NH2)2 (c) with 0%, 2% and 4% bentonite during five leaching events (days). *, ** and *** show significant difference at P<0.05, P<0,01 and P<0.001, respectively.

Fig 4. Residual nitrate loads (g) in soil after leaching events (days) at 0%, 2% and 4% bentonite with Ca(NO3)2 (N), NH4Cl (A), and CO(NH2)2 (U).

*, ** and *** show significant difference at P<0.05, P<0,01 and P<0.001, respectively.

Fig 5. Nitrate concentration in 4% bentonite clay mixed sandy soil after discrete incubation with Ca(NO3)2 (N), NH4Cl (A) and CO(NH2)2 (U), *, ** and *** show significant difference between treatments at P<0.05, P<0,01 and P<0.001, respectively.

3.3. Statistical analysis

A three-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was performed on NO3-1 leaching with 3 N sources, 3 levels of bentonite and 5 leaching events [Table 2]. Analysis showed that there was significant difference (P<0.001) within N sources, bentonite levels and leaching events (days). There was statistically significant (P<0.01) interaction among all the factors. The Tukey test revealed significant (P<0.05) difference between 0% and 2%, and 0% and 4% bentonite with all N sources on NO3-1 leaching, but the difference was not significant between 2% and 4% bentonite with all N sources [Table 2].

Table 2. Summary ANOVA on effect of bentonite and N sources on NO3-1 leaching at different leaching events.

4. Discussion

Results showed that irrespective of the source of N, the NO3-1 leaching consistently decreased with increasing bentonite application showing the sequences of fertilizer type as: Ca(NO3) 2 > NH4Cl > CO(NH2)2 [Fig 2]. Form of N leached from the soil columns was closely related to the type of fertilizer applied to the soil [50]. The NO3-1 fertilizers appeared to be more sensitive to the leaching, especially in sandy soils [51] and also to the denitrification [52] as compared to urea or ammonium fertilizers. Also, NO3-1 leaching is substantially higher in free-drained soils [53], such as sandy soil with macropores used in the present study.

Application of bentonite decreased NO3-1 leaching, regardless to the rate of application. The [NO3-1] decreased with increasing bentonite treatments level. Whereby higher NO3-1 concentration was observed in NO3-1 and NH4 containing fertilizers during the initial leaching [Fig 3]. Urea form of N showed consistent increases in NO3-1 concentrations in water collected in later leaching stages [Fig 3]. This could be associated with increased nitrification process in soils under unsaturated conditions [54], which might have resulted in increased NO3-1 leaching at later stages. Accumulation of NO3-1 was more in the soil sampled from the lower layer of the column after a leaching process, showing the sequence as CO(NH2)2 > NH4Cl > Ca(NO3)2.

The amount of total NO3-1 retained in soil was termed as nitrate loads conversely related to the amount of NO3-1 in the leachates [Fig 4]. An enhanced application of bentonite significantly retained NO3-1 in the soil columns. A higher amount of NO3-1 was retained in the soil amended with 4% bentonite. The application of bentonite clay enhanced soil moisture and improved macro-aggregate development [55] which improved soil quality through structural development, by increased exchange of anions and cations [56] and helped in reduced leaching while promoting nutrient retention [57].

Enrichment of sandy soils with bentonite increased the porosity and altered the pore-size distribution [58]. The interactions of bentonite with biochar and urea improved soil properties by diffusing soil moisture which controlled the mobility of nutrients within soils [59], thus with high water retaining capacity, increased exchange capacity, swelling, thermal stability and slow-releasing characteristics, bentonite offers valuable solution to reduced nutrient leaching from loose soils.

Higher quantity of NO3-1 was retained in urea treated soil followed by nitrate and ammonium containing fertilizers [Fig 4]. Such retention could be attributed to the transformation of NO3-1 in urea contained soil after few days of incubation. Across all N sources, the application of bentonite (4%) markedly limited the release of NO3-1. After incubation, bentonite contents reduced the magnitude of NO3-1 among fertilizers as follow: 7% in Ca(NO3)2, 20% in NH4Cl and 8% in urea treated soil [Fig 5]. The soil having negatively charged sites attracts more positively charged NH4 as compared to the negatively charged NO3-1, and therefore the NH4 has been considered to be a less mobile in soils, than NO3-1 [60, 61].

The effect of bentonite on the leachability of NO3-1 varied with different N fertilizers. The NO3-1 leaching consistently decreased with increasing bentonite application showing the sequences of fertilizer type as: Ca(NO3) 2 > NH4Cl > CO(NH2)2 [Fig 2]. Addition of Ca as Ca(NO3)2 increased the adsorptive capacity of bentonite at low pH (5–6), while higher concentration of NO3-1 ion due to the addition of calcium nitrate as N source resulted in increased adsorption of NO3-1 at bentonite clay surfaces [62]. The mechanism can be further explained by Ca hydrolysis, which resulted into the formation of less soluble Ca(OH)2, releasing more H+ ions, thus acidifying the media [Eq 1] [63]. Under low pH, the anion exchange capacity of bentonites in significantly increased which offers more positive sites to attract NO3-1 on its surface [Eq 2], which increased the retention of NO3-1 ions on soil colloids due to adsorption phenomenon [Eq 3]. This ultimately reduced NO3-1 leaching from sandy soil and showed lower NO3-1 concentrations in leachate. The entire process can be explained as follows, where A is dissociated anion and X is the soil colloidal surface (1) (2) (3)

Surface charge of variable charge clays varies with changes in pH of soil solution, therefore, at low pH, the anion exchange capacity exceeds cation exchange capacities which retain more NO3-1 on its surfaces [64], while increasing the mobility of NH4 in such conditions. However, the mobility of both N forms can be maintained by adjusting the rates of Ca(NO3)2 and urea along with bentonite clay under field conditions. The study suggested that bentonite amendment with Ca(NO3)2 as N sources could effectively mitigate NO3-1 leaching from sandy soils.

5. Conclusions

It is concluded that N sources and bentonite application were important factors affecting the NO3-1 leaching from sandy soil. Application of N sources enhanced NO3-1 leaching from the sandy soil. The NO3-1 leaching decreased in the order of Ca(NO3)2 > NH4Cl > urea. Bentonite substantially reduced NO3-1 in the leachate. Urea showed higher NO3-1 at the later leaching events. Higher contents of NO3-1 were retained in the soil with 4% bentonite. Higher NO3-1 contents were accumulated in the lower part of the soil column after a leaching process. This experiment suggests that bentonite clay chemistry with added Ca(NO3)2 provide better understanding of anion exchange capacity to retain higher NO3-1 concentrations in soil, thereby decreasing NO3-1 leaching from sandy soil. Further research is suggested to investigate the effects of different clay types on the dynamics of nitrate under field conditions.


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