We were shocked by the number of tons of petroleum used annually to make nitrogen based fertilizers. In Austria alone 135,000 tons of pure nitrogen were sold between June 2007, and July 2008. And, over 10 million tons were sold in the 27 member states of the E.U. To put this in perspective it takes 600kg of natural gas, and/or 800kg of fuel oil to manufacture one ton of pure nitrogen in the form of ammonia.
This increases to a 1000kg fuel oil equivalent when one includes marketing, packaging, and transportation of the ammonia. And, currently there is an annual increase in fertilizer use of 2.5%.
We, 12 enthusiastic pupils, wondered if there was a way to produce this chemical which is so important for plants, without consuming petroleum products.
Organic farming is a proven way of farming for Austrians and promises job security, positive environmental management, and is growing in demand; all positives for Austrian farmers. However, to keep up with rising demand, there is a need to find a better, organic, form of fertilization for crops.
An organic alternative to nitrogen fertilizer would benefit both existing organic enterprises, but also provide an alternative to conventional, very expensive, fertilizers.
Those were our two basic reasons which motivated us to begin research with atmospheric nitrogen fixing Cyanobacteria – alias Blue Algae.
The characteristic of Cyanobacteria which was most unfavorable to our project was the the fact that most of them also produce toxic byproducts in addition to nitrogen.
However, the key word here was “most”. Of the approximately 2000 known kinds of blue algae scientists continue to discover new and non toxic varieties.
We were aided here by the Institute for Limnology at the Academy of Sciences. Without the Institute's aid we would have had much harder time beginning our study.
The Limnologists helped us, giving us 11 samples of innocuous Cyanobacteria, which after our e searches appeared to be among the most promising candidates for our tests.
From these eleven strains, we wanted to select those that would be most suitable for our goals.
We were allowed to use an empty faculty apartment for our research, as we wanted to be able to simulate to different environmental conditions for our blue algae.
We believed that one could use the waste heat from a stable to provide the necessary heat to fuel a bioreactor and so breed Cyanobacteria. For the actual designs and production of such a system was done by our colleagues at the HTL Braunau (technical high school). .
We hoped that constantly growing algae could be regularly mixed directly into liquid manure, and thus with limited effort increase manure's fertilization ability.
Another idea was that the blue algae could also be mixed directly into irrigation water in greenhouses.