When Nebraska researchers began looking for ways to soak up nitrogen fertilizer from cropland before it could make its way to ground water, they turned the standard in absorption: disposable baby diapers.

The University of Nebraska's Dean Krull has been working on the project in a corn field near Central City, studying the effects of a polymer applied to the soil.

"This product is basically the same thing that is in those disposable diapers that absorbs that moisture," Krull said.

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The study, being done on behalf of the Central Platte Natural Resources District, seeks to gauge how much nitrogen the polymer will absorb. Otherwise, the nitrates would likely leach from fertilizer into the groundwater supply.

Krull said the effort holds enormous potential.

"We are testing a product that may have the potential of eliminating nitrogen leaching," he said.

The state authorized the NRD to monitor water quality in 1988 and much of its attention has focused on nitrates, manager Ron Bishop said.

"We have been going hot and heavy since then, and Dean has been an important part of this program," he said. "It's valuable research he conducts."

The polymer, buried in the top 3 inches of the soil, is a finely ground plastic that can absorb five times its weight in water.

The polymer was specially designed for soil application, Krull said, and is environmentally safe.

Nitrogen fertilizer is a key component for crops grown throughout the Central Platte NRD.

The roots of the crops absorb the nitrates in the fertilizer to promote growth, but once those nitrates get past the crop's roots, they eventually migrate into the groundwater supply, posing a possible health threat to people and livestock using that water.

The polymer has been used differently in Kansas, where it helped retain moisture for wheat.

"This is an unbiased, factual look at the product," Krull said.