The Van Trump Report

Researchers Develop System to Capture and Reuse Nitrate Waste

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) have developed a new “smart” farming system that aims to solve a key problem in modern agriculture – the overuse of fertilizers. In tests, the system had the ability to match or increase crop yields over traditional methods while also minimizing environmental impacts.

The system uses a copper-based hydrogel that captures excess nitrate waste from fertilizer runoff and transforms it into ammonia that can then be reused. As part of the project, the researchers worked with agricultural experts to compare their work to traditional farming methods. The smart farming system produced wheat and rice plants that grew taller with bigger leaves, compared with other methods, with less nitrogen runoff.

The results of their tests, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show 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 from the soil to convert to ammonia, keeping it from escaping and contaminating the surrounding environment. Nitrate is a nitrogen compound that is important for plant growth but can be a pollutant.

Excess use of nitrogen fertilizers can also runs the risk of stunting crop growth. By simultaneously producing ammonia and monitoring nitrogen levels, the researchers say the 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. The project is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences Office, the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research from the Welch Foundation and the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award. The full paper is HERE.

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