Unique soil sensor technologies to reduce fertiliser use
New soil sensor technology developed at the Tyndall Institute in UCC could help reduce the use of chemical fertilisers on farms in the short and medium terms and improve water quality in Ireland’s rivers and estuaries.
Buried in the ground at a depth of 20cm, the tiny sensors – which measure around half the diameter of a human hair and are in packaging about 1cm across – communicate data about nitrates in soil wirelessly (Bluetooth and the Internet of Things) and in real time. Tiny though the sensors are, initial results indicate that, per hectare of land, only a small number will be required.
Nitrates, compounds comprising nitrogen and oxygen atoms, are essential for plant growth; however, too much of it is a pollutant and when it runs off the land into lakes, rivers, and the sea, it affects water quality and biodiversity. Traditionally, soil testing for nitrates has been done in laboratories, in test tubes, and the results give a picture of a single point in time. As a result, farmers tend to spread fertiliser in the places and quantities that they always have.
Testing the new sensors in Romania has shown that soil nitrate levels fluctuate considerably more than previously thought. This means the measurements the sensors provide could have a significant impact on how, where, and how much fertiliser is spread on farms.
A recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pointed to a continuing reduction in water quality across the island of Ireland – particularly in estuaries and coastal waters.