AgTech sensor startup EnGeniousAg wins $ 1 million award from NSF

12-05-2023 | |
Nitrogen sensors
EnGeniousAg Chief Agronomist Michael J. Castellano uses a prototype sensor to measure available nitrate the sap of a corn plant. - Photo: EnGeniousAg

EnGeniousAg, LLC has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to develop low-cost instant-readout plant nitrate sensors to aid farmers in maintaining crop productivity, increasing profitability, and reducing nitrogen runoff. The EnGeniousAg in-field nitrogen sensors enable farmers to measure nitrogen levels in their crops in 3 seconds.

“EnGeniousAg sensors avoid the complex issues of trying to estimate optimal fertilizer application rates from soil nitrate tests. Variation in soil chemistry, crop genetics and other factors all complicate the job of figuring out how much of the nitrate that crop plants can access and use,” said EnGeniousAg Co-Founder James Schnable, the Gardner Professor of Agronomy at the University of Nebraska. “Our sensors measure nitrate levels in the plants themselves. We think this can do a better job of identifying the estimated 10-30% of corn acres in any given year that will not benefit from the application of nitrogen fertilizer.

Small Business Innovation Research grants are competitive funding designed to catalyze technological innovation in the private sector and increase the commercialization of federally funded research by supporting small businesses. This new investment from the National Science Foundation will enable EnGeniousAg to conduct large-scale field tests of corn grown under variable rates of fertilizer application to validate and improve the company’s predictive model for translating the amount of nitrate present in corn stalks into fertilizer application recommendations.

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Sensors measure nitrate levels in the plants

Nadilia Gomez, the Chief Technology Officer for Digital and Precision Agriculture at Iowa State University: “Farmers don’t want to waste fertilizer, it’s money down the drain. Solutions like the one provided by EnGeniousAg, can help farmers apply fertilizer where it’s needed, increasing the profitability and sustainability of their farms.”

EnGeniousAg was founded by a group of four agriculture and engineering faculty from Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The company is applying advances in microelectronic mechanical systems (MEMS), originally developed for use in “wearable” human health sensors to some of the most challenging and most pressing issues facing agriculture: the rising cost and limited availability of key crop inputs, such as nitrogen fertilizer.

Unused nitrogen fertilizer is a cost to the farmer that can diminish air and water quality

“Nitrogen fertilizer is among the costliest inputs to crop production,” said Michael Castellano, EnGeniousAg Co-Founder, and the Frankenberger Professor of Soil Science at Iowa State University. “Unused nitrogen fertilizer is a cost to the farmer that can diminish air and water quality. The EnGeniousAg sensors diagnose the nitrogen needs of every field, every year.”

The new funding from the National Science Foundation will also enable EnGeniousAg to partner with Premier Crop Systems and Soil View, two Iowa-based precision agriculture companies to conduct field tests in many different locations with different levels of nitrogen fertilizer application.

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Ed Asscheman Online editor Future Farming