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Are there really naturally occurring fulvic acids?

Synopsis by Dr. Boris V. Levinsky, PhD
June 2002

     For the last 50 years there has been a lot of confusion on the differences between humic and fulvic acids.  Studies have constantly shown that the two materials are very closely related and are from the same origin, but somehow they offer slightly different functions in the soil or plant.  Our position at TeraVita has always been that it is pointless to worry about specific ratios of fulvic and humic acids because they are so closely related and once they are both in a soluble state, they both perform an array of beneficial tasks.
       Most of this confusion has stemmed from various claims by mining operators regarding the fulvic acid content of their lignite.  It is widely known that the humic acids in lignite are bound in a very tight ball and are insoluble.  In this state, the humic acid molecules are bound so tightly that it is nearly impossible to break them apart.  It requires years (if not decades) of strong biological activity to slowly pick apart the ball and open it up so that it can perform its many biological functions.
       The caveat to this problem, however, has been the fact that fulvic acids are soluble in water and could therefore be released immediately from raw lignite and provide measurable stimulation to the crop.  Mines began rating their lignite by fulvic acid content in an attempt to justify sales to farmers.  The higher the better!  We have seen some mines promoting lignite with as much as 30% fulvic acid!  One must remember, however, that lignite is essentially a waste product for mining operations.  The mines want the high carbon fuel coal below the upper level oxidized lignite we call Leonardite.  Like any industry, piles of waste need to be dealt with and the prospect of selling it off to be applied to land was a very promising concept.
       Another problem in this debate is the fact that there is no universal standard for measuring fulvic acid content.  It has been proven countless times that by changing the type of extractant used or the concentration of extractant differing levels of fulvic acids can be obtained from the same lignite sample.

    In 1999, professor Dmitry Orlov, a world-renowed Russian specialist of Soil Sciences published an important article in the magazine "Agrology" (Pochvovedenie) N 9,  pages 1165 - 1171.  The article allows us to practically finish the ongoing scientific discussion about the "so to speak" advantages of Fulvic Acids over Humic Acids.
    This research work is based on the materials obtained by leading specialists in Russia, England and Germany in addition to his personal research and observations over the last 25 years. 
    He made the very important conclusion that natural materials such as soil, peat, lignite or other sources of Humus Acids, do not contain Fulvic Acids in the form of an independent fracture as previously thought. Those Fulvic Acids, which can be determined as a part of Humic Acids, can be moved into solution only after treatment of those natural materials (soil, lignite, peat etc.) with alkaline agents and are left there only after the precipitation of Humic Acids in an acid environment with a pH of 2. They do not represent an independent group, but are only formed in the solution as a results of external analytical procedures, executing partial hydrolysis of higher-molecular weight Humic Acids. Practically all experiments show that Fulvic Acids appear, or exactly speaking, "are determined" only after alkaline or acidic hydrolysis of the whole organic material and Humic Acids especially. Consequently, the analytically determined content of Fulvic Acids witnesses only a degree of  hydrolysation of natural Humic Acids without particular dependence of the object of their origin.

    What all of this means is that raw materials do not contain fulvic acids at all.  Fulvic acids are only formed after some form of hydrolysis process breaks apart fragments of humic acid molecules.  The conditions necessary for this process to work are outside the normal range of soil pH (must be very alkaline or acidic).  Pure water itself can facilitate a small degree of hydrolysis that creates fulvic acids.  However, a small amount of lignite, peat or soil in large amounts of water will still take weeks to release only a tiny fraction of fulvic acids.  This new research also serves to explain the commonly known fact that any sample of material (soil, peat, lignite) that is treated to extract its humic acids can be made to yield widely varying levels of fulvic acids by changing the extraction solutions and/or techniques.

    This does not undermine the value or the role of fulvic acids, but it does bring into question the value of raw products being sold with claims of "high levels" of fulvic acids.  Even though soluble products may be "creating" fulvic acids, they are still present in the final product along with the humic acids.