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Low-cost intelligent soil sensors could help farmers curb fertilizer use

Smart sensing technology to help farmers use fertilizer more effectively and reduce environmental damage has been created by Imperial bioengineers. The technology, which is described in Nature Food, could help growers work out the best time to use fertilizer on their crops and how much is needed, considering factors like the weather and soil condition. This would reduce the expensive and environmentally damaging effects of overfertilizing soil, which releases the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and can pollute soil and waterways.

Overfertilisation has so far rendered 12 percent of once-arable land worldwide unusable and the use of nitrogen-based fertilizer has risen by 600 percent in the last 50 years. However, it is difficult for crop growers to precisely tailor their own fertilizer use: too much and they risk environmental damage and money wastage; too little and they risk poor crop yields. The researchers behind this new sensing technology say it could provide benefits for both the environment and growers.

The sensor, named chemically functionalized paper-based electrical gas sensor (chemPEGS), measures levels of ammonium in soil – the compound that is converted to nitrites and nitrates by soil bacteria. Using a type of AI called machine learning, it combines this with weather data, time since fertilization, pH, and soil conductivity measurements. It uses these data to predict how much total nitrogen the soil has now and how much it will have up to 12 days in the future, to predict the optimum time for fertilization.

The study identifies how this new low-cost solution could help growers yield maximum crops with minimal fertilisation, particularly for fertilizer-thirstyfertilization crops like wheat. The technology could simultaneously reduce growers’ expenses and environmental harm from nitrogen-based fertilizers – the most widely used fertilizer type.

Lead researcher Dr. Max Grell, who co-developed the technology at Imperial College London’s Department of Bioengineering, said: “It’s difficult to overstate the problem of overfertilization both environmentally and economically. Yields and resulting income are down year by year, and growers don’t currently have the tools they need to combat this.

“Our technology could help to tackle this problem by empowering growers to know how much ammonia and nitrate are currently in soil and to predict how much there will be in the future based on weather conditions. This could let them fine-tune fertilization to the specific needs of the soil and crops.”

The researchers expect chemPEGS and associated AI technology, which are currently in the prototype stage, to be available for commercialization in three to five years with more testing and manufacturing standardization.

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