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  • Writer's pictureConnor Moran

Smart Soil Sensors could Reduce Environmental Damage from Fertilizers

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

The agriculture industry is a breeding ground for technological innovation. Modern farms and other agricultural operations work much differently than they used to do in the past.

Professionals in the industry are typically willing to adopt new technologies for various reasons. Tech can help increase operational efficiency and allow farmers to get more work done in a short period.

One recent innovation is expected to help farmers reduce the amount of fertilizer they use for crops. More food is being produced because the population is growing, and it all relies on fertilizer.

Bioengineers from Imperial College London, in the United Kingdom, recently developed a low-cost smart soil sensor. It’s referred to as a chemically functionalized paper-based electrical gas sensor, also known as chemPEGS.

The chemPEGS sensor measures levels of ammonium in soil. Ammonium is a compound converted to nitrites by soil bacteria. The technology behind the sensor is a type of artificial intelligence (AI) called machine learning (ML). The sensor uses ML, weather data, pH levels, time since fertilization and soil conductivity measurements to function properly.

ChemPEGs use this data to predict how much nitrogen the soil has and indicates how much there will be in the next 12 days. Agriculture professionals who use the sensor can better predict the optimum time to fertilize the soil.

The ultimate goal is to allow farmers to limit the amount of fertilizer they use while yielding the maximum amount of crops. Consider how some plants are more fertilizer-thirsty, such as wheat. The technology is so revolutionary because it can save farmers money while also reducing the environmental damage fertilizers cause.

How fertilizers impact the environment

Fertilizer is considered any substance added to soil to promote plant growth, and it’s become a necessary component in agriculture operations, especially as we’ve industrialized. There are many varieties of fertilizers, including mineral, organic and industrial. Most contain three essential nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Unfortunately, the nitrogen does not all go toward the crops themselves. In fact, only 50% of nitrogen from fertilizers is used by plants in an agricultural field.

Nitrogen loss is a problem for the environment, as it can end up entering the atmosphere and bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, streams and oceans. It’s also worth noting that nitrogen-based fertilizers are most commonly used in modern agriculture.

Some microorganisms in soil can transform nitrogen into other nitrogen-containing gases known as greenhouse gases (GHGs). An increased level of GHGs entering the atmosphere contributes to global warming, ultimately leading to climate change. Also, nitrous oxide, a GHG, is even more potent than carbon dioxide.

When fertilizers are not properly managed, they can cause:

  • Oxygen depletion

  • Algae blooms and weed growth

  • Ammonia toxicity

  • Fecal organisms

  • Nitrates

  • Odors and gases

All these elements negatively impact the surrounding environment. Nitrogen-containing fertilizers are a double-edged sword — they are necessary for plant growth, but excess nitrogen can enter the air, causing a slew of adverse effects on humans and animal life.

Using chemPEGs to reduce fertilizers’ environmental impacts

Rather than overusing nitrogen-based fertilizers, professionals in the agriculture industry can consider adopting the chemPEGS described above. Determining the proper amount of fertilizer is a complex task. Too much can harm the environment, but too little carries the risk of poor crop yields.

Poor crop yields can weaken the food supply chain when millions are struggling with food insecurity and businesses are facing supply chain shortages and disruptions.

Additionally, there’s been a shift in how businesses operate. Companies across all sectors are trying to adopt more sustainable practices to positively affect the environment because more consumers are adopting eco-friendly lifestyles.

The ML-powered chemPEGS can be revolutionary for the agricultural industry. Farmers will be able to reduce the amount of fertilizer used to produce crops without compromising what they harvest. Growers can fine-tune their fertilizing practices to the specific needs of their crops and what outcomes they’re looking to achieve.

“It’s difficult to overstate the problem of overfertilization both environmentally and economically,” says Max Grell, a researcher from the Imperial College London. “Our technology could help tackle this problem by empowering growers to know how much ammonia and nitrate are currently in the soil, and to predict how much there will be in future based on weather conditions.”

As more technologies evolve and emerge, it’s only natural that industries consider adopting them to improve their operations worldwide. Growers have a responsibility to the general public and the environment — the chemPEGs sensors will help them produce maximum crop yields while also reducing the amount of fertilizer that harms the environment.

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