Effects of organic matter heterogeneity on sorption and desorption of organic contaminants by soils and sediments

Weilin Huang, Ping'an Peng, Zhiqiang Yu, Jiamo Fu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

332 Scopus citations


This review highlights the major progress over the last decade on characterization of geochemically heterogeneous soil/sediment organic matter (SOM) and the impacts of SOM heterogeneity on sorption and desorption of hydrophobic organic contaminants (HOCs) under equilibrium and rate limiting conditions. Sorption and desorption by soils and sediments are fundamental processes controlling fate and transport of less polar and nonpolar organic pollutants in surface aquatic and groundwater systems. Recent studies have shown that soils and sediments exhibit an array of HOC sorption phenomena that are inconsistent with an early partition model based on an assumption of homogeneous gel-like SOM. Increasing data have revealed that isotherm nonlinearity, varied sorption capacity, sorption-desorption hysteresis, and slow rates of sorption and desorption are characteristics for HOC sorption by soils and sediments. These phenomena have been shown to result from different types of condensed SOM that exhibit capacity limiting sorption processes. Recent findings of glass transition phenomena and the nonlinear HOC sorption by humic acids provide a scientific foundation for drawing an analogy between humic acids and synthetic organic polymers that supports a dual mode model for sorption by soils and sediments. Humic acid is glassy or rigid at temperatures lower than its glass transition temperature and exhibits relatively nonlinear sorption isotherms for HOCs. Fractionation and quantification of SOM indicate that soils and sediments contain significant amounts of black carbon and kerogen of different origins. These particulate organic materials have rigid 3-dimensional structures and are often less polar compared to humic substances. Limited studies show that black carbon and kerogen exhibit nonlinear sorption for HOCs and may dominate the overall nonlinear sorption by soils and sediments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)955-972
Number of pages18
JournalApplied Geochemistry
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2003
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pollution
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Environmental Chemistry


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