London: Researchers are using X-rays to help farmers increase yields and cut water pollution following an unexpected discovery in pea and bean crop.
Plant and Soil Scientists at Lancaster University hope to combine two new technologies to provide a rapid "same day" measurement of soil phosphorus availability, enabling farmers and growers to make more informed decisions about fertiliser application.
The move to develop this technique came about following an unexpected discovery by Dr Shane Rothwell, as part of his PhD studies at Lancaster.
Rothwell noticed that, contrary to expectations, pea and bean crop yields were sometimes decreased by up to 30 per cent when they were treated with recommended levels of lime - despite the fact that application of lime is expected to improve the availability of plant nutrients.
He demonstrated that the reduced crop growth was associated with lower plant phosphorus content but existing ways of measuring the phosphorus in soil available for plant uptake were not picking up on the problem.
Consequently, developing a test to more accurately predict soil phosphorus availability following liming would benefit farmers and the environment, preventing waste and pollution.
The new method will combine two different technologies - the Diffusive Gradients in Thin Films (DGT) technique that was developed by Professor Hao Zhang at Lancaster, and portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (pXRF).
Phosphorus is an important plant nutrient. But there is widespread concern that repeated fertiliser applications to UK agricultural soils are causing phosphorus "leakage" to the environment due to drainage below the crop rootzone and surface runoff, which can pollute waterways and cause eutrophication of streams and rivers.
"This research represents an exciting opportunity to develop new technologies that will make a real difference to how farmers manage phosphorus fertiliser applications to their crops," lead scientist Professor Hao Zhang of Lancaster University said.
This new research aims to create an effective test to plug the gap.