Kansas State will be part of an interdisciplinary research collaboration between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, which will conduct 10 research projects to better understand soil ecosystems and feed the world.
The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, will take place in Alabama, Texas and the United Kingdom.
Suprem Das, assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, is the principal investigator for the three-year project.
The goal of the approximately $800,000 project is to create durable sensors to continuously monitor phosphates in the soil, which are a critical fertilizing material.
“…By 2050 the world’s population will be nine billion — that’s kind of the projection,” Das said. “We are driven by techno-industrialization, urbanization. So the land is fixed, and the population is growing and urbanization is growing — that means the agricultural land is shrinking.”
Consequently, the only sustainable way to feed the growing world population is to increase productivity, Das said.
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Growing crops requires three important components: phosphate, nitrogen and potassium.
Currently, if farmers want to get their soil tested for these, they must send it to a lab facility, such as K-State’s, which can potentially take weeks to get results.
“That’s for a single test,” Das said. “The farmer wants to know how the phosphate is changing over time … so the idea of this project is to build the platform, kind of probing the phosphate level in the soil.”
Additionally, results from tests of this nature only tell you the levels in a certain area and depth of soil, which is often not representative of the field as a whole.
Das said having the technology to know phosphorus levels in the soil would potentially improve the practice of what is called “precision” farming.
“Right now farmers just put fertilizer everywhere, because we do not know [where exactly to put it],” Das said. “Instead of applying the fertilizer everywhere, you apply wherever it’s necessary.”
Das, whose background is in nanotechnology, hopes that the use of graphene and plastic can make the technology cheap enough to be accessible to farmers.
“Graphene [is] a so-called wonder material, because it’s really wonderful,” Das said. “We use additive manufacturing techniques to use graphene to make these sensors … economic.”