New hub to develop next-gen smart fertilisers for Australian farmers


A new research hub based at the University of Melbourne is working to significantly increase the efficiency of fertilisers through the development of new ‘smart fertilisers’ aimed at saving farmers money and reducing impacts on the environment.

The multidisciplinary Hub for Smart Fertilisers will apply plant and soil science, chemistry and chemical engineering to develop new biochemical inhibitors and ‘smart fertilisers’ to increase the efficiency of nitrogen use by up to 20 per cent, meaning farmers can use less fertiliser.

The Hub is a partnership between the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University, Incitec Pivot Fertilisers and Elders Rural Services Australia, and involves representatives from key agricultural businesses and development corporations including Ausveg, Bonaccord Ingram, Food and Fibre Gippsland, Grains Research and Development Corporation, and Sensand.

Food and agribusiness are critical to Australia’s economy, employing more than 550,000 people, with $67 billion of added annual gross value and $41 billion in exports. Increased efficiency and productivity are essential to the sector’s international competitiveness and profitability with primary producers facing rising costs and declining prices.

Current nitrogen fertilisers lose 50-80 per cent of nitrogen to the environment, contributing to economic loss and negative environmental impacts.

The Hub seeks to transform nitrogen efficiency in intensive agricultural production by developing new knowledge about the way plants take up nitrogen fertilisers, creating smarter fertiliser products and analysing big data to create better tools for agriculture businesses to manage their fertiliser use.

Hub Director and leader of the Soils and the Environment Research Group at the University of Melbourne Professor Deli Chen said the Hub has already made significant progress towards its goals of both individual farm profitability and environmental sustainability.

“The Hub’s research will have real-world impact for farmers, but also help reduce the environmental impact of this critical industry,” Professor Chen said.

“We have already had a new nitrification inhibitor patent approved, developed the framework of a smart engineering coating and eco-friendly metal-phenolic networks (MPNs). We have established a new bio-fertiliser research theme and industry placement programs.

“We are also developing evidence-based estimates of environmental and health costs of nitrogen losses and the social benefits of new fertilisers which will be an important source to inform government policy, industry and the community.”

Incitec Pivot Fertiliser’s (IPF) Vice President of Agronomy and Innovation Charlie Walker said the Smart Fertiliser Hub was central to IPF’s soil health strategy.

“The Hub aims to drive significant yield increases per unit of nitrogen used by Australian farmers by addressing key loss mechanisms,” Mr Walker said.

“IPF prides itself on its ability to develop strong industry partnerships like this one as well as developing collaborations with world-class researchers that create practical and beneficial solutions for the agricultural sector.”

Dean of Agriculture, Food and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Melbourne Professor John Fazakerley congratulated the Hub on bringing together novel and cutting edge multidisciplinary science and associated funding from across the universities, industries and the Australian Research Council to address the challenge of increasing food production and also reducing damage to the environment.

Dean of the School of Agriculture, Biomedicine and Environment and Co-Director of AgriBio at La Trobe University Professor Shaun Collin said the hub is an exciting program of collaborative research and training that will inform how plants capture nutrients and the impacts this information will have on fertiliser design.

The Hub’s $11.35 million funding includes an investment of $4.95 million from the Australian Research Council, $3.8 million from Incitec Pivot Fertilisers, $2 million from the University of Melbourne, $100,000 from La Trobe University and $500,000 from Elders Rural Services Australia.


Visit the ARC Research Hub for Smart Fertilisers