IT is one of the most exciting scientific developments in recent years and now Australian researchers are finding on-farm applications for the space-age super material graphene.
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice to form an extraordinary carbon sheet, the world’s first two dimensional material.
It is the strongest material known to man, 200 times sturdier than steel, ultra-light and flexible, transparent, conducts electricity, and a perfect impermeable barrier
Graphine’s existence was known to scientists for centuries, through unintentional production from graphite pencils and other applications for graphite - naturally occuring mineral.
But researchers at Manchester University isolated graphene from graphite in experiments, winning the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their work.
Investigations into an array of applications for graphene are underway, with commercial production processes being developed to supply diverse industries - from membranes for water filtration to fuel storage, energy networks and biomedical applications to any number of composite and coating materials.
Researchers at the University of Adelaide’s Fertiliser Technology Research Centre and the Australian Research Council Research Hub for Graphene have teamed up to explore applications for graphene in fertiliser.
Micro and macro nutrients can be bonded to the surface of graphene, changing the nutrient release pattern of fertiliser, and giving its granules greater strength, said head the University's fertiliser research Professor Mike McLaughlin.
“We can tailor fertilisers to release nutrients at different rates to match plant demand,” he said.
“Also, degradation is another big issue. Basically, fertiliser can end up as dust.”
Dusty fertiliser causes emissions issues when unloading at a port, or with fugitive dust in a garden environment, and in spreaders on-farm that are designed to work with granules,” Prof. McLaughlin said.
“It’s still early days but there is no doubt that fertilisers with release rates more tailored to crop demand, and fertilisers with greater physical strength and robustness, will both improve grower efficiency of fertiliser application and efficiency of nutrient uptake.
“Successful commercialisation will depend on cost of graphene/graphene oxide and the ability to scale this process up, and integrate it into the commercial fertiliser production process.”
Graphene is still a high cost material, worth around $200 per gram. But that price will drop in the future, opening the door to agricultural applications, said the Graphene Research Hub director Professor Dusan Losic.
“Graphene could be used to provide a very controlled release of nutrients to plants, and its made from carbon, which means its not toxic and may be able to improve soil properties.
“It might be that 50 per cent of a fertiliser application is leached out in a heavy rain, so graphene could be used to prevent that release.
“It’s also important to note that South Australia has 200 million tonnes of graphite in the ground that can be used for graphene, so we have a local source for the product.”
The Fertiliser Technology Research Centre was established with funding from global phosphate and fertiliser producer The Mosaic Company, which recommitted five years’ worth of funding to the institute in 2015, with a further $8.5 million in funding.
Mosaic has an option to licence new technology developed by the research centre .
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