Eisenstadt, Colleagues Use ‘Signals in the Soil’ to Reduce Fertilizer Run-off

William Eisenstadt is part of team which has recently been awarded an NSF EAGER grant for a Signals in the Soil (SitS) project which aims to utilize remote sensors and drones to detect nitrogen levels in soil, enabling more precise and accurate fertilizer applications. The team is led by principal investigator J.C. Claussen from Iowa State University (ISU), and also includes two researchers from UF Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE), E.S. McLamore and Melanie Correll.

The EArly Grant for Exploratory Reserach (EAGER) award provides $150k towards developing a system to detect excess nitrogen in soil using novel ‘bury and forget’ sensors, developed with special flexible graphene electrodes, fabricated using laser inscribing and inkjet printing techniques. The sensors are coupled to ultra-low power wireless sensing hardware and are then deployed for up to eight months. Sensor data is coupled with remote sensing (drones) to combine with predictive crop models for predicting long-term effects.

The project is unique in that it represents the convergence of nano sensors, IoT, and soil biogeochemistry. As the abstract states,

“This project will facilitate rapid studies for improving empirical model parameters (crop coefficients), as well as to validate assumptions in remote sensing (links between yellowing leaves and nutrient stress) and in-situ soil sensors (nutrient fate and transport). In addition to testing the developed sensor systems, this project will establish strategies and best practices for the development, testing, and deployment of soil nutrient sensors that can be reproduced anywhere for sensor testing and/or hypothesis testing, leading to improved models and observation networks to manage soil health. Such sensor networks and resultant models are expected to lead to precision agriculture where fertilizers are spread onto specific locations of the field in a metered fashion only when needed.”

The hope behind this research is that more accurate and precise application of nitrogen-based fertilizer will yield less nitrogen run-off, the problem of excess nitrogen finding its way into drinking supplies and natural bodies of water. Excessively high nitrogen levels is linked to the development of algae blooms and other serious ecosystem disruptions. Knowing exactly when and where to apply fertilizer, and how much, should go a long way towards helping farmers to reduce excessive run-off from their fields.

Read the complete award here.