NSW to helm $15m global soil science research hub

SUBSCRIBE to our fortnightly e-newsletter to receive more stories like this. Environmental remediation expert Professor Ravi Naidu will helm The University of Newcastle’s $15m new soil research facility.

A $15m global soil research facility has been launched at The University of Newcastle’s Global Centre for Environmental Remediation (GCER)

The new, state-of-the-art research facility consists of seven state-of-the-art laboratories for microbiology, wet chemistry, material science, chemical analysis, remediation and heat testing.

Professor Ravi Naidu, Global Innovation Chair and GCER director, was instrumental in establishing two exciting, soil-focused ​Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) that will make extensive use of the new facility.

CRC-HPS: Improving agricultural soils

One is the new High Performance Soils CRC (CRC-HPS), established in March 2017 to fund research aimed at improving Australia’s soils to benefit primary production.

UON’s successful bid netted it $39.5 million in federal government funding and a further $136m in contributions from industry and other partners to establish a 10-year global CRC that will bring together 42 partners to “help bridge the gap between soil science and farm management”.

Over the next decade, under Professor Naidu’s direction, CRC-HPS-funded projects spanning the fields of soil science, sensor tech, nanotechnology, big data, environmental science, social sciences, and agricultural and farm management will:

  • build upon our existing knowledge of Australian soils;
  • explore solutions to soil-related issues affecting agri-producers – such as hard-setting soils and building organic matter in depleted soils; and
  • develop and implement innovations leading to improved soils, increased productivity and greater sustainability.

A crucial part of the work will be disseminating CRC-HPS’s findings to farmers across Australia, providing practical, regionally-relevant information that helps improve the management of agricultural soils.

“Australia is a vast country, with a range of different climate and soil types, which means it is not easy to take an extension approach that works in NSW and bring it to South Australia,” Professor Naidu said. “That’s where the High Performance Soils CRC can help.

“If there is a management strategy that works in NSW, we can look at how it can be applied in South Australia.”

At the CRC-HPS launch on 7 March, UON’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation), Professor Kevin Hall noted, “The Australian agricultural industry is worth $48 billion and feeds 60 million people; however, our soils are highly vulnerable and productivity [is] at risk due to increasing soil degradation, the rising cost of nutrient inputs and competing land use,”

CRC-HPS will address key barriers to developing and sustaining high-performance soils, with the emphasis on finding ‘real-world’ solutions to complex but oft-costly soil-management issues that can be adopted across Australia’s farming community, Professor Hall said.

Healthy soil, viewed as a cross-section: the Next Gen Compost project field trials aimed to demonstrate the benefits of applying recycled organic compost mixes to soils used to grow trial capsicum and corn crops..
Healthy soil, viewed as a cross-section: the High Performance Soils CRC will fund projects aimed at improving agricultural soils.
Expert 365, Flickr CC

Cleaning up contaminated soils: CRC CARE

The new soil research facility will also act as a “one-stop-shop for environmental contaminant research”, including that by the Newcastle Uni-based Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment CRC (CRC CARE)

Professor Naidu is managing director and CEO of CRC CARE, an independent not-for-profit that conducts research into environmental contamination, develops technologies for remediating contaminated sites and soils, and provides policy guidance for assessing, cleaning up and preventing contamination of soil, water and air. 

The new labs will greatly facilitate CRC CARE’s critical environmental work, he explained, “Our team ... here is made up of scientists, engineers and mathematical modellers. The equipment we have lets us assess contaminated sites and then work out the remediation strategy in the lab.

“This is the only lab of its kind in Australia, and the world, which is very exciting.”

Though contaminated soils are more prevalent in urban areas, a challenge still exists for regional ones, Professor Naidu contended.

Potentially contaminated sites across Australia number around 160,000, with between 20 and 40 percent of these in rural areas.

They may consist of land contaminated through pesticide use, or by earlier industry. “There might have been rail tracks where at some stage they used treatment on the wooden sleepers which contained arsenic, for example,” he said.

“Cleaning up contaminated land and water costs our nation more than $3 billion every year. Aside from this, areas of potentially valuable land remain unusable and a possible health risk to the communities around them.”

About the organisations

Global Centre for Environmental Remediation

The Global Centre for Environmental Remediation (GCER) at Newcastle University “aims to safeguard people's social, economic and physical health and wellbeing by developing innovative, cost-effective and sustainable technologies and solutions that reduce the impact of pollutants on the environment”.

Cooperative Research Centres

Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are not-for-profit organisations in which researchers, industry and government collaborate on projects aimed at delivering economic and environmental benefits.

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Project: 
Next Gen Compost