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Application of nanomaterials in precision agriculture to optimise nitrogen use efficiency and increase global food security

School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

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Dr I Lynch , Dr S Ullah , Dr P Zhang , Mr A Witteveen No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

The global agriculture sector is facing a wide spectrum of challenges such as stagnation in crop yields, notoriously low nutrient use efficiency (NUE), poor soil health, shrinking arable land and water availability etc. Moreover, changing climates (elevated CO2, increasing temperatures and changing soil moisture) will make ensuring food security harder and uncertian; they are likely to reduce yields for many primary crops in future, while increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration can enhance growth [1]. Nanotechnology offers great potential to tailor fertilizer delivery and targeting, and improve the nutrient use efficiency to boost plant productivity and simultaneously reduce environmental quality deterioration [2].

Nitrogen (N) is the most limiting nutrient for plant production; however, N use efficiency (NUE) by plants is very poor. Only ~45% of N fertilizers applied in global agricultural systems are used by plants, with the rest being lost into water or emitted into the air from soil. Due to the low efficiency, farmers apply excessive fertilizers to farmland to ensure plant production, which wastes N resources, causes groundwater pollution and release greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion [3]. Application of nanotechnology in agriculture using engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), such as nanofertilizers, has great potential to improve crop production by enhancing NUE and reducing N-pollution. ENMs are extremely small materials whose width is much less than a human hair. Nanofertilizer means either a fertilizer produced in the nanoscale or an ENM used to deliver fertilizer. A key concept of nanofertilizers is using smaller quantities to achieve high crop production. Although it is very exciting, most of the current studies only focus on plant growth but without considering the resulting environmental consequences of ENMs utilisation (e.g., nutrient retention and emission). In terms of N, some studies have shown that ENM carriers may improve the NUE by plants, but the consequences of using ENMs on the whole N cycling including mineralization (a process to transform N into the forms available for plant uptake) and denitrification (a process that transforms N into gaseous forms emitted into air) are unknown. Thus, most current studies are phenomenological and lack of mechanistic understanding of how the “nano” aspect affects NUE and greenhouse gas production. Another obstacle is emerging concerns of potential adverse effects on environmental health, as this technology hasn’t been evaluated in real agriculture production systems and must be assessed as part of a responsible sustainable agricultural development strategy.

This MIBTP CASE PhD project will carry out a comprehensive study to understand the interaction of ENMs with N with the following specific aims:

1) to generate a library of ENMs which can increase NUE;

2) to study the effect of ENMs on retention of different forms of N fertilizers and N emission and built a database of the effects of ENMs on N cycling in order to reduce agriculture-related pollution;

3) to understand the association between ENM physicochemical properties and their effects on N cycling;

4) to demonstrate the utility of the optimal ENM parameters in hydroponic culture.

The CASE partner is Saturn Bioponics, a company offering advanced and commercially viable hydroponic systems and solutions for several greenhouse crops including lettuce, pak choi, herbs, strawberries and baby-leaf. After 8 years of research and data collection, it has been revealed to have remarkable commercial potential for sustainable high density production [4, 5]. Data collected showed that strawberry plants in this system can deliver optimal yields and better quality (cleaner product, shelf life, taste and health related compounds) with substantially less environmental impact [6]. Therefore, commercial demand for this system is increasing [7], as it could be a necessary solution to answer growers needs and consumers expectations.

The optimised ENMs will be tested in Saturn Bioponics real world systems and the resulting data will delivering an unprecedented level of mechanistic understanding of the effect of ENMs on NUE and N cycling to address this critical issue. Given the global economic importance of nanotechnology and its potential to revolutionise global agriculture production by enhancing food production whilst reducing losses of N into water and air, the findings from the project will be of considerable interest (inter)nationally to a wide range of industries, government policy makers, regulatory bodies, environmental protection groups and the general public.

Funding Notes

Studentship includes: fees, a tax free stipend of at least £15,009 p.a (to rise in line with UKRI recommendation); a travel allowance in year 1; a travel / conference budget; a generous consumables budget and use of a MacBook Pro for the duration of the programme.

Funded via the Midlands Integrative Biosciences Training Partnership:


[1] Wheeler T and von Braun J. Climate Change Impacts on Global Food Security. Science 2013, 341 (6145), 508.

[2] White JC and Gardea-Torresdey J. Achieving food security through the very small. Nature Nano 2018, 13, 627.

[3] Lassaletta L, Billen G, Grizzetti B, Anglade J, Garnier J. 50 year trends in nitrogen use efficiency of world cropping systems: the relationship between yield and nitrogen input to cropland. Environ. Res. Lett. 2014, 9, 105011.

[4] Briggs, H.R., Tallontire, A.M., Dougill, A.J Exploring the contribution of vertical farming to sustainable intensification from the point of view of the innovator and the farmer, 2019.

[5] Committee on Climate Change - Land use: Reducing emissionsand preparing for climate change - November 2018.

[6] Stefanini, 2019, Saturn Bioponics in-house data.

[7] Vertical farms are on the up and up. The Times, 2020.

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