Could Nanofarming Revolutionize the Way We Think About Growing Food?
In thinking about the big problem of food shortage in the world, perhaps you should think small, real small, like at-the-molecular-level-kind-of-small. NanoFARM, a combined effort of Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Kentucky, the University of Vienna, and Aveiro University in Prague, is looking at how tiny particles can potentially “revolutionize how farmers grow their food.”
The group is working on ways to come to understand nanoparticles in plants. The hope is that understanding nanoparticles will lead to the creation of nanomaterials that can directly target pests, as well as add nutrients to the plants.
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The age of Nanofarming is here, folks.
NanoFARM; a research consortium formed between Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Kentucky, the University of Vienna, and Aveiro University in Prague; is studying the effects of nanoparticles on agriculture. The four universities received grants from their countries’ respective National Science Foundations to discover how these tiny particles—just 4 nanometers in diameter—can revolutionize how farmers grow their food.
“What we’re doing is getting a fundamental understanding of nanoparticle-to-plant interactions to enable future understandings,” says CEE Professor Greg Lowry, the principal investigator for the nanoFARM project. “With pesticides, less than 5% goes into the crop—the rest just goes into the environment and does harmful things. What we’re trying to do is minimize that waste and corresponding environmental damage by doing a better job of targeting the delivery.”
The teams are looking at twin goals: How much nanomaterial is needed to help crops when it comes to driving away pests and delivering nutrients, and how much could potentially hurt plants or surrounding ecosystems?
Applied pesticides and fertilizers are vulnerable to washing away— especially if there’s a rainstorm soon after application. But nanoparticles are not so easily washed off, making them extremely efficient for delivering micronutrients like zinc or copper to crops.
“If you put zinc salt in water it will dissolve rapidly,” says Ph.D. student Xiaoyu Gao, who has been with NanoFARM since its inception. “If you put in zinc oxide nanoparticles instead, it might take days or weeks to dissolve, providing a slow, long-term delivery system.”
Gao researches the rate at which nanoparticles dissolve. His most recent finding is that nanoparticles of copper oxide take up to 20-30 days to dissolve in soil, meaning that they delivered nutrients to plants at a steady rate over that time period.
“In developing countries like China and India, a huge number of people are starving,” says Gao. “This kind of technology can help provide food and save energy.”