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No Laughing Matter

Abertay University is supporting the University of Plymouth in a £1 million project which could reduce the impact of global warming by decreasing the levels of nitrous oxide – ‘laughing gas’ – produced by the earth’s soil.

The ground-breaking project has been made possible thanks to new state-of-the-art technology installed at Plymouth’s School of Earth, Ocean and Environmental Sciences and £1.138 million funding from the Agri-food Committee of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Plymouth is also working closely with the Scottish Informatics, Mathematics, Biology and Statistics soil research group (SIMBIOS) at the University of Abertay Dundee, as well as Rothamsted Research and the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research.

If soil becomes partially saturated it gives off the ‘greenhouse gas’ nitrous oxide. The levels are not sufficient to harm crops but the gas enters the atmosphere and adds to the global warming problem.

The research will use the new ‘Pore-Cor’ software, developed at the University of Plymouth, which allows the structure of soil to be studied in ‘virtual reality.’ Brand new laboratories have been built and a ‘lysimeter’ constructed in which simulated rainfall is passed through large soil blocks.

Peter Matthews, Reader in Applied Physical Chemistry and the university’s Environmental and Fluid Modelling Group, explains: "We have assembled a team of ten of the top researchers across the UK to tackle this problem. By the end of the project, we should know much more about how saturation, fertilising and compaction of both arable and grassland soil alters the amount of nitrous oxide it gives off.”

A sophisticated soil compression apparatus is currently being constructed and will be installed at Rothamsted Research (iHarpenden, Herts). The compacted soil samples will then be sent to experts at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, near Okehampton, who will monitor the amount of gas given off. Other samples will be subjected to X-ray ‘CT scanning’ by SIMBIOS and the results will be modelled and interpreted at Plymouth and compared to results from the Plymouth soil blocks.

Professor Iain Young of SIMBIOS comments: “In a single handful of soil, there are more individual organisms than the total number of human beings who have ever lived. Many of these still haven’t even been identified by science, much less the huge complexity of the way they interact. Our sophisticated x-ray tomography equipment allows soil to be studied from the inside without disrupting its delicate internal ecosystems.”

The government is already instructing farmers on optimum tillage regimes within the Single Payment Scheme, and these results will strengthen the scientific basis of the advice being issued.

Kevin Coe | alfa
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