Litter quality changes during decomposition investigated by thermal analysis
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The litter decomposition process depends on the litter chemical composition, especially the ratio between more labile compounds, cellulose, and the recalcitrant lignin and waxes. Their determination is crucial to predict the process, though lignin measurement presents some limitations due to drawbacks of the different methods. Thermal analysis has been successfully applied to several organic materials in order to obtain quali-quantitative information of the chemical structure of the sample. In this work TG-DTA was used in a short-term litter decomposition study of two broadleaf forest stands of contrasting ages, and the results were compared to those obtained with a chemical method (Klason's method) commonly used to quantify cellulose and lignin. TG-DTA was applied to the litter and to the cell walls (CW) extracted from the litter, whose cellulose and lignin content was determined using the Klason's method. When applied to litter, thermal analysis showed a weak correlation with the Klason's method, though it allowed the detection of the dynamics of waxes, that increased during the decomposition and could influence the later stages of the process. Contrastingly, a good correlation between cellulose and lignin determined with the two methods was found when TG-DTA was applied to the CW. In this case TG-DTA, according to NMR data, also highlighted the changes in the CW chemical structure compared with that of the litters, in particular the loss of waxes and the decreased thermostability of aromatic components. Moreover, a new concept of quality of the decomposing litter, based on the balance between the energy stored in the litter and the energy needed to release it obtained by thermal analysis, was recently introduced. Samples of the old forest litter had an initial energetic balance more favorable than those collected in the young stand. At the end of the period, the decrease in litter quality was greater in the young than in the old forest samples, due to the combined effect of the higher degradation of thermolabile substances and the accumulation of more thermostable components. Thermal analysis seems to have a good potential in litter decomposition studies, as it can link structural and energetic changes during the process.