Smart sensing technology to help farmers use fertiliser more effectively and reduce environmental damage has been created by bioengineers at Imperial College London.
The technology, which is described in Nature Food, could help growers work out the best time to use fertiliser on their crops and how much is needed, considering factors like the weather and soil condition.
The sensor, named chemically functionalised 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 fertilisation, 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 fertilisation.
The study identifies how this new low-cost solution could help growers yield maximum crops with minimal fertilisation, particularly for fertiliser-thirsty crops like wheat. The technology could simultaneously reduce growers’ expenses and environmental harm from nitrogen-based fertilisers – the most widely used fertiliser type.
The researchers expect chemPEGS and associated AI technology, which are currently in prototype stage, to be available for commercialisation in three to five years with more testing and manufacturing standardisation.
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