Scientists from New Zealand and the United States have made a discovery which could lead to new ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector.
They have worked out how reactive nitrogen could be chemically converted to unreactive di-nitrogen gas, without forming harmful greenhouse gases.
Agriculture contributes more of the harmful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide than any other sector worldwide, primarily through nitrogen fertilisation.
Nitrous oxide is 330 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and 10 times more effective than methane. It also moves into the stratosphere and destroys ozone.
Dr Rebecca Phillips, from Landcare, said the research set the stage for alternative ways control gas emissions on farms, and an alternative to excess nitrogen polluting groundwater.
She said agriculture contributed more greenhouse gases than any other sector, primarily because of fertilisers and livestock excreta.
"There are ways of converting that nitrogen that would normally get lost into the air or down into the water in a new way.
"Once we do more research we want to find ways we can cultivate that in soil so that we can create conditions where nitrogen can become less harmful for the environment."
Dr Phillips said the key was neutralising the nitrogen to make it safer.
Scientists will test different natural compounds in soil, organic matter and in plant matter to see whether they could be used to neutralise nitrogen in this way.
Dr Phillips said it was not an overstatement to describe the research findings as a possible breakthrough.
Their findings have been published in the latest edition of Nature Scientific Reports. The research was carried out by scientists from Landcare Research in New Zealand, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and University of Connecticut in the United States.
Landcare Research has submitted a grant proposal to continue the work.
"As soon as we get the go-ahead on these funds we launch into it full steam and will want to see something substantive within the next year and a half.
"Something we can go to farmers with and say we think we have some possible avenues we can take."