Engineer Professor Studies how Fires Impact the Carbon Cycle

Assistant Professor Rixiang Huang and graduate assistant Lingqun Zeng stand in Albany's Pine Bush Preserve where a controlled burn was recently conducted
Assistant Professor Rixiang Huang of Environmental and Sustainable Engineering and graduate assistant Lingqun Zeng stand in Albany's Pine Bush preserve. Dr. Huang is leading research on how enzymes degrade charcoal from fires. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Oct. 20, 2021) – Fires are a pervasive disturbance to many ecosystems and the global carbon cycle. Whether started accidentally by people, naturally by lightning or part of a prescribed burn by forest service professionals, fires convert tremendous amounts of biomass into CO2 and charcoal (or pyrogenic carbon) that accumulates in soils and becomes a part of the soil organic carbon pool.

UAlbany researcher Rixiang Huang, an assistant professor of environmental and sustainable engineering, is undertaking a new project that is designed to reveal how charcoal from fires decomposes over time.

Funded through a $350,398 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and in collaboration with researchers at the University of Florida and Baylor University, Huang’s project will focus on the biological pathways of this decomposition, but also consider the synergy of non-biological processes.

“Because of its abundance and unique physicochemical properties, charcoal may participate in many soil biogeochemical processes that control the cycling of important elements and soil health,” said Huang, of UAlbany’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “However, it remains poorly understood how charcoal is decomposed in soil and how charcoal may affect the soil microbial community – the main driver of soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition.”

Because microbial decomposition of SOM is catalyzed by enzymes released by microbes (exoenzymes), Huang’s project will study how charcoal interacts with exoenzymes, and which enzymes are capable of degrading charcoal. Results from this work will fundamentally advance the current understanding of the cycling of charcoal and its impact on the global carbon cycle.

“Dr. Huang’s work expands the research footprint of the College in an exciting new direction, improving our understanding of the global carbon cycle with its obvious implications for the climate,” said Kim L. Boyer, Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “We are so pleased to share another example of  “Science in Service to Society.”

The project will also provide graduate and undergraduate students an opportunity to gain interdisciplinary training in biogeochemistry, enzymology, and analytical chemistry. For example, students will have extensive hands-on experiences on many advanced analytical techniques that will be used to characterize the complex structure of charcoal and its degraded products, as well as enzyme adsorption and activity.

In collaboration with local schools and museums, Huang’s team also plans to develop K-12 and community outreach activities to increase public awareness of the role of fires in climate and soil science.