N8 Agrifood researchers developing sensors to detect phosphates in soil


A new £1.8m research project led by the University of Sheffield is supporting the development of sensors to detect phosphate in soil, to help farmers increase their crop yield and reduce fertiliser use.

Phosphate is a key nutrient for crops and often used in fertilizers. However, currently it is difficult for farmers to map the phosphate content in soils as this involves sending samples to a lab.

Researchers from the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield, part of N8 Agrifood, are now developing sensors which will be able to map and monitor phosphates in soils on-site and provide real-time data to users. The project aims to help researchers and farmers understand soils whilst increasing crop yields and minimising the use of phosphate fertilizers.

With a growing world population, climate change and increasing competition for land resources, there is an urgent need to be able to analyse and monitor soils. Phosphate is a finite and non-renewable resource and there have been calls for a global effort to utilise phosphate fertilizers as efficiently as possible.

Mapping and monitoring the soil using these sensors will advance understanding of how soil composition changes over time and help target use of phosphate fertilizers to soil where it is most needed (precision farming).

The project is one of 10 UK-US collaborations jointly funded by the Fund for International Collaboration via UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), to develop the sensors and technologies to transmit data.

It’s led by Dr Adrien Chauvet, lecturer in Physical Chemistry, Sheffield alongside Professor Duncan Cameron, Director, Institute for Sustainable Food, Sheffield along and N8 Knowledge Exchange fellow, Dr Jacob Nickles from Sheffield Animal and Plant Sciences and Dr Natalia Martsinovich, lecturer in Theoretical Chemistry, Sheffield.

The USA lead is Dr Suprem Das from Kansas State University along with Professor Saugata Datta, University of Texas, San Antonio and Dr Biswajit Ray, University of Alabama, Huntsville.

The £1.8m research project will allow teams from across the UK and USA to design new data tools and dynamic models to describe and predict soil processes, organism behaviour, and their interactions.

Teams at the University of Sheffield will be involved in modelling, characterizing and testing the sensors in both controlled environments and in real soils.

Professor Cameron said: “Phosphorus fertiliser is critical for modern agriculture and is central to feeding our planet’s growing population, but phosphorus is an element in short supply and at current rates of usage, could run out in less than a century. Our research will help farmers to use phosphorus more efficiently and in so doing, secure the food supply for many generations to come.”

Soil ecosystems supply most of the antibiotics used to fight human diseases, control the movement of water and chemical substances between the Earth and atmosphere, and act as source and storage media for gases important to life, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane.

Soils are complex living ecosystems containing billions of organisms mediating myriad biological, chemical, and physical processes, interacting to cycle carbon and nutrients essential for plant growth, food and fibre production, and to remove contaminants from water.

The Institute for Sustainable Food brings together multidisciplinary expertise and world-class research facilities to help achieve food security and protect the natural resources we all depend on.

Find out more about the research done by the Institute.