Farming in the future: Utah State University lab develops nanotech fertilizer

A research team at Utah State University has developed a nanotech fertilizer that's more efficient than traditional fertilizer.

A research team at Utah State University has developed a nanotech fertilizer that's more efficient than traditional fertilizer. (Utah Water Research Laboratory)

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LOGAN — Imagine a fertilizer infused with nanotechnology that could cut greenhouse gas emissions and result in higher efficiency for farmers, who would use up to 75% less of traditional fertilizer.

It might sound like something out of a science-fiction movie, but that's exactly what researchers at Utah State University have created.

The research, conducted through the university's Utah Water Research Laboratory, was published in December in the journal Nature Food, according to information from the school. Yiming Su, an assistant professor in USU's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, led the study.

"Traditional fertilizer and pesticides have long been associated with high levels of greenhouse gas emission and severe environmental pollution," according to the study. "Nano-enabled fertilizers and pesticides work by transforming traditional agrochemicals into a nano formula that delivers nutrients in a more targeted fashion. This makes the fertilizers and pesticides more efficient and lowers the environmental impact."

Su said nanotech fertilizer efficiency varies by crop or plant, but many of their plants have needed 30% less of the nanotech fertilizer than traditional fertilizer. Some of their plants, though, have needed only half as much nanotech fertilizer, and some have used 75% less nanotech fertilizer than traditional fertilizer, he said.

"So if we can really cut down 75%, it's really beneficial to both economic and environmental impacts," Su said.

It's not yet ready for widespread use. However, there is strong evidence that "the innovation of nano-enabled agrochemicals represents a significant step forward in the pursuit of sustainable agriculture and food production," according to the research.

Su said next steps include making the nanotech fertilizer cost-effective, so that farmers can eventually use it on a large scale. The lab is designing the nanotech fertilizer to be safe and green, he said, and he hopes that more people than just farmers will use it.

"We're kind of at a very critical point," he said. "If we can increase the efficiency of the nano formula ... I think it's the way to go."

Fertilizer isn't the only application for nanotechnology. Su said another major focus of the lab is developing nanotech that would remove contaminants and salinity from water, making it safer for drinking and for irrigation.

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