Wood ash is the powdery residue remaining after the combustion of wood, such as burning wood in a fireplace, bonfire, or an industrial power plant. It is largely composed of calcium compounds along with other non-combustible trace elements present in the wood. It has been used for many purposes throughout history.
Many studies have been conducted regarding the chemical composition of wood ash, with widely varying results. Some quote calcium carbonate (CaCO3) as the major constituent, others find no carbonate at all but calcium oxide (CaO) instead. The reaction CaCO3 → CO2 + CaO is slow at 750 °C but fast at 900 °C. Some elements in wood ash: Fe 1.6-55 g/kg, Si 6-170 g/kg, Al 1.2-45 g/kg, Mn 1-20 g/kg, As 0.6-50 ppm, Cd 0.18-60 ppm, Pb 2-500 ppm, Cr 12-280 ppm, Ni 10-140 ppm, V 1.8-120 ppm. A comprehensive set of analyses of wood ash composition from many tree species has been carried out by Emil Wolff, among others.
Several factors have a major impact on the composition:
Typically between 0.43 and 1.82 percent of the mass of burned wood (dry basis) results in ash. Also the conditions of the combustion affect the composition and amount of the residue ash, thus higher temperature will reduce ash yield.
Much wood ash contains calcium carbonate as its major component, representing 25 or even 45 percent. Less than ten percent is potash, and less than one percent phosphate; there are trace elements of iron, manganese, zinc, copper and some heavy metals. However, these numbers vary, as combustion temperature is an important variable in determining wood ash composition. All of these are, primarily, in the form of oxides.
Wood ash can be used as a fertilizer used to enrich agricultural soil nutrition. In this role, wood ash serves as a source of potassium and calcium carbonate, the latter acting as a liming agent to neutralize acidic soils.
Wood ash can also be used as an amendment for organic hydroponic solutions, generally replacing inorganic compounds containing calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus.
Wood ash is commonly disposed of in landfills, but with rising disposal costs, ecologically friendly alternatives, such as serving as compost for agricultural and forestry applications, are becoming more popular. Because wood ash has a high char content, it can be used as an odor control agent, especially in composting operations.
Wood ash has a very long history of being used in ceramic glazes, particularly in the Chinese, Japanese and Korean traditions, though now used by many craft potters. It acts as a flux, reducing the melting point of the glaze.
Potassium hydroxide can be made directly from wood ash and in this form, is known as caustic potash or lye. Because of this property, wood ash has also traditionally been used to make wood-ash soap.
The ectomycorrhizal fungi Suillus granulatus and Paxillus involutus can release elements from wood ash.
Wood ash is sometimes used in the process of nixtamalization, where corn is soaked and cooked in an alkali solution to improve nutritional content and decrease risk of mycotoxins. The alkali solution has historically been made from wood ash lye.
An early leavened bread was baked as early as 6000 BC by the Sumerians by placing the bread on heated stones and covering it with hot ash. The minerals in the wood ash could have supplemented the nutritional content of the dough as it was baked. In present day, the amount of wood ash content in bread flour, as measured by the Chopin alveograph, is strictly regulated by France.
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