Science at home: International Day for Biological Diversity

Soon it will be 22 May – the United Nations’ International Day for Biological Diversity – a day to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues.

So what is biodiversity? It’s basically the variety of all the life on earth. You can look at it as the range of genes in a population, all the plants, animals and microorganisms in an ecosystem, or even all the ecosystems on our planet.

This year’s Day for Biological Diversity is all about ‘Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health’. What we eat can have an impact on our health, and to get a broad range of healthy foods into our diet, we depend on biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, both in natural systems and in agricultural systems where our food is grown.

Flinders University’s ‘green chemistry’ researchers at the Institute for NanoScale Science and Technology have recently invented a new slow-release fertiliser for crops from recycled canola oil. They’re taking the canola oil that’s a waste product of deep fried food, converting it into fertiliser, and using that to grow more food. They’ve combined the canola oil with a petroleum industry by-product, sulfur, to make a degradable polymer that coats other components in fertiliser pellets. Once the polymer-coated fertiliser pellets are on the crop, water slowly dissolves the components from the polymer, and they’re slowly released into the soil for the plants to use as needed.

An estimated 50% of fertilisers currently applied to crops are not used by the plants due to run-off – which is not good for the crop or the surrounding environment. Because the canola oil polymer fertiliser is slow-release there’s less run-off, so there’s more nutrients for the crop, and less damage to the environment. And because it’s made from waste canola oil, it’s readily available and cheap.

More testing will take place (so far it’s been trialled on tomatoes – plant ‘C’ in the image below had the new fertiliser product), but it’s hoped that this new fertiliser could be applied to a range of food crops, enabling us to have varied and healthy diets.  It may even help address sustainable food production issues.