Soil on the nanoscale

Seen here is dirt. Well, more specifically, it's the first nanoscale image of soil. Cornell University researcher used X-ray spectromicroscopy to study the structure and composition of soil carbon at a scale of 50 nanometers. (One nanometer is about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.) They determined that even the tiniest samples of soil taken just micrometers apart can have vastly different compositions. From the Cornell Chronicle:
 Stories April08 Soil-1 According to a study published in the April issue of Nature Geoscience, knowing the structure and detailed composition of soil carbon could provide a better understanding of the chemical processes that cycle organic matter in soil. For example, the research may help scientists understand what happens when materials in the soil get wet, warm or cool and how soils sequester carbon, which has implications for climate change.

"There is this incredible nanoscale heterogeneity of organic matter in terms of soil," said Johannes Lehmann, a Cornell associate professor of crop and soil sciences and lead author of the study. "None of these compounds that you can see on a nanoscale level looks anything close to the sum of the entire organic matter."