While nanotechnology has often been used for biomedical applications, researchers are only beginning to explore its potential in improving the environmental sustainability of agricultural practices, including the reduced use of pesticides.
In 10 seconds? Researchers are refining agricultural practices by introducing tiny nanomaterials to carry nutrients and pesticides to plants in precise doses. With this, they are aiming to improve soil health, reduce water usage, increase crop yields, and decrease carbon and nitrogen emissions. (Read the science)
Nanotech in agriculture? How does it work? Tiny nanoparticles can hold onto and carry both nutrients and pesticides and can be of great help to deliver just the right amount to different plants. For example, iron deficiency is a frequent problem for many crops, but scientists have successfully created hybrid nanoparticles that can offer an alternative to traditional iron fertilization. Also, a recent study found that 'nanopesticides' travel through the soil at different rates depending upon their size. As roots of different crops extend to different soil depths, scientists propose to create appropriate-sized nanoparticles and deliver nutrients to specific plants this way. (Read more)
Why is this useful? The standard practice of pesticide and agricultural nutrient use involves doses that can lead to the accumulation of harmful residues in the soil. Nanotechnology, on the other hand, can reduce the use of chemicals, increase yields, make agriculture more sustainable and save money. While nanoparticles have been shown to improve fertilizer uptake in plants before, this study helps us understand why nanoparticles can help in soil fertilization and how they can help curb soil, aquifer, and air pollution. (More on nanotech and sustainable agriculture)
And how did they come up with the results? For the recent study, large, glass columns were filled with soil, and pesticide-carrying nanoparticles of different sizes were washed into the soil. These can be produced through careful procedures, with distinct characteristics of size, shape, and behaviour. The nanoparticles were tracked over time and what researchers found was that they accumulated in certain depths of soil based on their size. This is important because there are important processes taking place in the root region of plants between the chemicals released by the roots and the microorganisms living there. (Read more)
This all sounds good, aren't there any dangers? Well, some concerns about the fate of nanoparticles in the environment need to be addressed. For example, a recent study has proved that carbon nanotubes can penetrate cell walls and travel from the roots to the edible parts of plants, which means further research will be needed to ensure that only safe nanomaterials are used to cultivate crops. (Find out more)
What can we expect in future? Nanotechnology will soon impact nearly all areas of agricultural practice. As nanoparticle size will affect fertilizer or nutrient uptake in plants, scientists will soon engineer specific formulations to improve crop growth. Individual crops may be monitored through nanosensors that will evaluate soil and plant conditions, allowing for a sustainable agricultural system. (Read more)
Using nanotech to stop pesticide harming neighbours' crops
Researchers at the University of Utah have collaborated with an agricultural company to produce a pesticide with very little ability to pollute the air.
The commonly-used pesticide is known for turning into gas upon spraying and polluting the air.
Sometimes, this pesticide could be carried by the wind and destroy neighbours’ crops.
Using nanotechnology, the researchers altered the original pesticide molecule to make it heavier and so, less likely to be able to be carried by the wind.