The race to save the reef

17 Sep 2018

UQ researchers are working with government and business partners to develop fertilisers that decrease environmental degradation and impact on areas such as the Great Barrier Reef.

Agriculture accounts for approximately 80 per cent of land use in Reef catchment areas and is the main source of excess nutrients, fine sediments and pesticides that flow to the Reef.

These nutrients are linked to outbreaks of the destructive crown-of-thorns starfish and cause growth of algae and algal blooms – another key threat for the Reef.

A collaborative project between researchers at UQ’s Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation and School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, together with the Queensland Government and industry partners, is using materials science and microbiology to develop cost-effective and environmentally sustainable alternatives to commercial fertilisers, which are a major contributor to the man-made nutrients found in the Reef.

These new formulas will reduce the amount of run-off that makes its ways to our streams and oceans, helping protect the Reef from further harm.

Agriculture and Food Sciences researcher Professor Susanne Schmidt says while farmers are aware of the need to reduce nutrients in soil, progress has been slow as there haven't been many options when it comes to fertilisers.

"Commercial fertilisers are mostly highly soluble and therefore easily lost from soil in wet tropical environments," Professor Schmidt says.

"Alternative commercial fertilisers currently available – which are either plastic-coated or have additional toxins to slow bacterial conversion – don't always deliver on the promise of reducing pollution and may actually create their own problems.

"There is no doubt that innovation in fertiliser design is needed, and this interdisciplinary collaboration between materials science engineers and agriculture and ecology experts is breaking new ground."
Professor Susanne Schmidt

The Dow Centre was established in 2014 thanks to a $10 million donation from The Dow Chemical Company, and recently received a further $4.4 million investment from Dow to continue its development of solutions that tackle threats to global sustainability.

Read more about how Dow Centre research is tackling global challenges.

Read more on UQ's Research Impact