Researchers from Iowa State University and the University of Florida are working on a new system of “bury-and-forget” soil sensors and remote wireless data-collection networks that could help reduce the nitrogen fertilizer that leaves farm fields. Fertilizer run-off can promote harmful algae blooms that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says can create toxins, endanger human health, kill fish and wildlife, rob water of oxygen, and otherwise create environmental trouble.
Currently, soil data collection relies on taking soil samples and sending them to labs for analysis – a process which is slow, expensive, and imprecise.
“If we had a better predictive model, we could have better remedies for farmers,” says project leader Jonathan Claussen, an Iowa State assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “A better model could tell them they can use less fertilizer.”
The low-cost, flexible sensors are based on inkjet-printed and laser-treated graphene circuits and are designed to detect ammonium and nitrate ions in soil. The engineers will build the sensors, connect them to a wireless network, test how deep the sensors can be buried while maintaining network connections, build a test bed facility using tomato plants as a model crop, and collect high-resolution nitrogen data from the soil while monitoring plant growth.
“Such sensor networks and resultant models,” the researchers wrote in a summary of their project, “are expected to lead to precision agriculture where fertilizers are spread onto specific locations of the field in a metered fashion and only when needed.”
The project is supported by a two-year, $300,000, “Signals in the Soil” grant from the National Science Foundation. The engineers hope to collect enough data and demonstrate enough potential to successfully compete for more funding and additional research.