Compost Fundamentals

Biology & Chemistry

Aerobic Decomposition

Organic material decomposing with oxygen is an "aerobic" process. When living organisms that use oxygen feed upon organic matter, they develop cell protoplasm from the nitrogen, phosphorus, some of the carbon, and other required nutrients. Carbon serves as a source of energy for organisms and is burned up and respired as carbon dioxide (CO2). Since carbon serves both as a source of energy and as an element in the cell protoplasm, much more carbon than nitrogen is needed. Generally, organisms respire about two-thirds of the carbon they consume as CO2, while the other third is combined with nitrogen in the living cells.

Biological activity diminishes if the compost mix contains too much carbon in relation to nitrogen. Several cycles of organisms are required to burn excess carbon. This is a complex chemical process. When organisms die, their stored nitrogen and carbon become available to other organisms. These new organisms form new cells which again need nitrogen to burn excess carbon and produce CO2. Thus, the amount of carbon is reduced and the limited amount of nitrogen is recycled. Finally, when the ratio of available carbon to available nitrogen is low enough, nitrogen is released as ammonia. Under favorable conditions, some ammonia may oxidize to nitrates. Phosphorus, potash, and various micronutrients are also essential for biological growth. These are normally present in more than adequate amounts in compostable materials.

In nature, the aerobic process is most common in areas such as the forest floor, where droppings from trees and animals are converted into relatively stable organic matter. This decomposition doesn’t smell when adequate oxygen is present. We can try to imitate these natural systems when we plan and maintain our landscapes. As we learn more about the biology and chemistry of composting, we can actually hasten the decomposition process.

When carbon is oxidized to CO2, a great deal of energy is released as heat. For example, if a gram of glucose molecules is dissimilated under aerobic conditions, 484 to 674 kilogram calories (kcal) of heat may be released. If organic material is in a large enough pile or arranged to provide some insulation, temperatures during decomposition may rise to over 170° F. At temperatures above 160° F, however, the bacterial activity decreases.

There are many different kinds of bacteria at work in the compost pile. Each type needs specific conditions and the right kind of organic material. Some bacteria can even decompose organic material at temperatures below freezing. These are called psychrophilic bacteria, and although they work best at around 55°, they continue to work down to 0° F. As they work, they give off small amounts of heat. If conditions are right, this heat will be enough to set the stage for the next group of bacteria, the “mesophylic,” or middle range temperature bacteria.

Mesophylic bacteria thrive from 70° to 90° F, but just survive at temperatures above and below (40° to 70° F, and 90° to 110° F) In many backyard piles, these mid range bacteria do most of the work. However, if conditions are right, they produce enough heat to activate the “thermophilic,” or heat loving bacteria. Thermophilic bacteria work fast. Their optimum temperature range is from 104° to 160° F.

High temperatures destroy pathogenic bacteria and protozoa (microscopic one celled animals), and weed seeds, which are detrimental to health and agriculture when the final compost is used on the land.

Aerobic oxidation does not stink. If odors are present, either the process is not entirely aerobic or there are materials present, arising from other sources than the oxidation, which have an odor. Aerobic decomposition or composting can be accomplished in pits, bins, stacks, or piles, if adequate oxygen is provided. To maintain aerobic conditions, it is necessary to add oxygen by turning the pile occasionally or by some other method.


Aerobic Decomposition

Anaerobic Fermentation

Organisms Involved

Organisms to Look For

Acid/Alkalinity Issues

Why Compost | Biology & Chemistry | Compost Needs
Composter's Needs | Benefits & Uses | Conclusion

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