Opportunities and challenges in the use of coal fly ash for soil improvements – a review

Shaheen, Sabry M., Hooda, Peter S. and Tsadilas, Christos D. (2014) Opportunities and challenges in the use of coal fly ash for soil improvements – a review. Journal of Environmental Management, 145, pp. 249-267. ISSN (print) 0301-4797


Coal fly ash (CFA), a by-product of coal combustion has been regarded as a problematic solid waste, mainly due to its potentially toxic trace elements, PTEs (e.g. Cd, Cr, Ni, Pb) and organic compounds (e.g. PCBs, PAHs) content. However, CFA is a useful source of essential plant nutrients (e.g. Ca, Mg, K, P, S, B, Fe, Cu and Zn). Uncontrolled land disposal of CFA is likely to cause undesirable changes in soil conditions, including contamination with PTEs, PAHs and PCBs. Prudent CFA land application offers considerable opportunities, particularly for nutrient supplementation, pH correction and ameliorating soil physical conditions (soil compaction, water retention and drainage). Since CFA contains little or no N and organic carbon, and CFA-borne P is not readily plant available, a mixture of CFA and manure or sewage sludge (SS) is better suited than CFA alone. Additionally, land application of such a mixture can mitigate the mobility of SS-borne PTEs, which is known to increase following cessation of SS application. Research analysis further shows that application of alkaline CFA with or without other amendments can help remediate at least marginally metal contaminated soils by immobilisation of mobile metal forms. CFA land application with SS or other source of organic carbon, N and P can help effectively reclaim/restore mining-affected lands. Given the variability in the nature and composition of CFA (pH, macro- and micro-nutrients) and that of soil (pH, texture and fertility), the choice of CFA (acidic or alkaline and its application rate) needs to consider the properties and problems of the soil. CFA can also be used as a low cost sorbent for the removal of organic and inorganic contaminants from wastewater streams; the disposal of spent CFA however can pose further challenges. Problems in CFA use as a soil amendment occur when it results in undesirable change in soil pH, imbalance in nutrient supply, boron toxicity in plants, excess supply of sulphate and PTEs. These problems, however, are usually associated with excess or inappropriate CFA applications. The levels of PAHs and PCBs in CFA are generally low; their effects on soil biota, uptake by plants and soil persistence, however, need to be assessed. In spite of this, co-application of CFA with manure or SS to land enhances its effectiveness in soil improvements.

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