Smart farming approach reduces nitrogen pollution

June 28, 2023
Researchers are testing the use of a copper-based hydrogel that would capture excess nitrate waste from fertilizer runoff, transforming it into ammonia for reuse.

A new farming system developed by research could help reduce nitrogen pollution in runoff, according to a press release from the University of Texas at Austin.

The smart farming system uses a copper-based hydrogel that captures excess nitrate waste from fertilizer runoff and transforms it into ammonia – a critical element in fertilizers – that can then be reused. In tests, the system had the ability to match or increase crop yields over traditional methods while also minimizing environmental impacts.

The smart farming system (SSFS) produced wheat and rice plants that grew taller with bigger leaves, compared with other methods, with less nitrogen runoff.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the copper-based gel film not only produces ammonia from nitrate waste but also senses nitrogen levels in the soil. This detection capability helps determine the optimal time to drain nitrate, a nitrogen compound that is important for plant growth but can be a pollutant, from the soil to convert to ammonia, keeping it from escaping and contaminating the surrounding environment.

“We designed this system and showed that it can grow the same or more crops without overusing nitrogen, which can contaminate groundwater and lead to harmful greenhouse gasses,” said Guihua Yu, a professor of materials science in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and Texas Materials Institute.

In addition to environmental impacts, excess use of nitrogen fertilizers can also stunt the growth of crops, defeating their purpose of improving production. By simultaneously producing ammonia and monitoring nitrogen levels, this new technology improves crop growth by helping plants take in and use nitrogen more efficiently.

The researchers’ next step will be to infuse artificial intelligence into this farming platform. By doing that, they aim to expand the range of crops they can work on and further scale up fertilizing operations.