New Approach Gets Better View of Carbon Deeper Underground

New extraction and purification scheme furthers research in low-carbon natural organic matter.

The Science

How does carbon behave when it is more than 1 meter (a bit more than 3 feet) below the land surface? For scientists, this has been a frustrating question. Why? The carbon levels this far down are typically 10 to 200 times lower than in surface soils. Such low levels pose a distinct challenge for analysis. Researchers developed a new approach that extracts better results. Their approach offers insight into how carbon behaves in low-carbon sediments.

The Impact

The team obtained high-quality data using a new approach. Their work offers a way to study carbon in natural organic matter (a complex mix of compounds derived from decaying plants and other sources) in understudied low-carbon sediments.


The soils found underfoot are typically 5 to 10 percent organic carbon. However, 3 feet and more below the surface, the organic carbon levels are 10 to 200 times lower. The typical techniques to measure the chemical characteristics of such carbon just are not sensitive enough. Researchers evaluated five different types of chemical extractions to see if they could find a better way to obtain accurate measurements from two low-carbon alluvial sources, the sandy, gravely sediments along streams or rivers. Based on their results, they devised a new extraction and purification scheme. The scheme uses sequential extraction with water and sodium pyrophosphate at pH 10. They combined the extraction with purification by dialysis and solid-phase extraction to isolate fractions of sediment-associated natural organic matter. The method allows researchers to extract low levels of carbon from deeper soils. Further, the team’s work showed that carbon stability at this deeper level correlates with the carbon’s greater metal complexation, molecular weight, and aromaticity.

Principal Investigator(s)

Susan Hubbard
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory


Funding for this study was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Sustainable Systems Scientific Focus Area. This research was made possible by resources at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE Office of Science user facility.


Fox, P. M., P. S. Nico, M. M. Tfaily, K. Heckman, and J. A. Davis. “Characterization of natural organic matter in low-carbon sediments: Extraction and analytical approaches.” Organic Geochemistry 114, 12 (2017). [DOI:10.1016/j.orggeochem.2017.08.009].