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Modeling the impact of soil aggregate size on selenium immobilization

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Soil aggregates are mm- to cm-sized microporous structures separated by macropores. Whereas fast advective transport prevails in macropores, advection is inhibited by the low permeability of intra-aggregate micropores. This can lead to mass transfer limitations and the formation of aggregate scale concentration gradients affecting the distribution and transport of redox sensitive elements. Selenium (Se) mobilized through irrigation of seleniferous soils has emerged as a major aquatic contaminant. In the absence of oxygen, the bioavailable oxyanions selenate, Se(VI), and selenite, Se(IV), can be microbially reduced to solid, elemental Se, Se(0), and anoxic microzones within soil aggregates are thought to promote this process in otherwise well-aerated soils. To evaluate the impact of soil aggregate size on selenium retention, we developed a dynamic 2-D reactive transport model of selenium cycling in a single idealized aggregate surrounded by a macropore. The model was developed based on flow-through-reactor experiments involving artificial soil aggregates (diameter: 2.5 cm) made of sand and containing Enterobacter cloacae SLD1a-1 that reduces Se(VI) via Se(IV) to Se(0). Aggregates were surrounded by a constant flow providing Se(VI) and pyruvate under oxic or anoxic conditions. In the model, reactions were implemented with double-Monod rate equations coupled to the transport of pyruvate, O2, and Se species. The spatial and temporal dynamics of the model were validated with data from experiments, and predictive simulations were performed covering aggregate sizes 1–2.5 cm in diameter. Simulations predict that selenium retention scales with aggregate size. Depending on O2, Se(VI), and pyruvate concentrations, selenium retention was 4–23 times higher in 2.5 cm aggregates compared to 1 cm aggregates. Under oxic conditions, aggregate size and pyruvate concentrations were found to have a positive synergistic effect on selenium retention. Promoting soil aggregation on seleniferous agricultural soils, through organic matter amendments and conservation tillage, may thus help decrease the impacts of selenium contaminated drainage water on downstream aquatic ecosystems.

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