Reconstructing soil from waste
Creating safe and productive soil from waste materials is the aim of ongoing work by scientists at The University of Plymouth. We spoke to the project’s principal investigator, Professor Mark Fitzsimons, to find out more.
Scientists and researchers from the University of Plymouth are researching how new bespoke soils can be created from scratch, using waste materials available locally. If successful, their findings could boost agricultural productivity while minimising waste.
The €2.5million ReCon Soil project, headed by the University’s Professor Mark Fitzsimons, started in April 2021. It builds on previous work by Mark and his department initially studying soils at the Eden Project created from waste materials, and latterly the FABSoil project. The latest project runs until June 2023 and is supported by €1.8 million from the European Regional Development Fund via the Interreg France (Channel) England programme.
“We have some really interesting data from the Eden Project study in terms of how that soil performed in the medium and long term,” says Professor Fitzsimons. The following FABSoil project built on those findings. It involved research into the creation of soil and how to optimise fabricated soil, including using biochar – a charcoal like substance created from burning organic material in a process called pyrolysis.
Finding the perfect soil 'recipe'
The ReCon Soil project is taking that work a step further, with partners in the UK and France testing three new soil ‘recipes’ made from locally-sourced construction waste, dredged sediments and agricultural by-products. The test soils will be investigated in laboratory-scale studies before further field trial work is carried out in the UK and France.
“Our earlier work focussed on the soil mix used at the Eden project, but if we want to roll the model out nationally and internationally, we need to think about availability of materials. We want to establish principles of what makes a healthy soil and its ideal ingredients.”
The aim is to produce soils capable of storing carbon, while also minimising the carbon produced to form that soil, by using local materials.
“Secondly, we are testing the different soil mixes in terms of their ability to support healthy growth, which has an application in agriculture and for growers. We have ways to monitor soil performance and the health of crops grown.
“Finally, we are exploring the changes needed in terms of regulation and management of waste to ensure we achieve balance between environmental gains and potential risk. That also involves communication, training and engaging the community locally and internationally in the development of that resource.”
Huge potential for reconstructed soil
Professor Fitzsimons hopes the work proves that soil made from waste is a safe growing medium which can perform just as well, if not better, than natural soils. It can then be used to create new growing opportunities or enhance existing farmland, alongside other sustainable farming practices.
“The benefit of making a soil is that you can moderate it to your advantage, whereas with natural soil you are limited to what you already have. The potential benefits of a stand-alone reconstructed soil, or as an amendment, are huge.”
For more information about the ReCon Soil project, visit: https://bit.ly/3lcQ473
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