Sensing phosphate content in soil to improve crop yield

University of Sheffield develops sensors to monitor phosphates in soil
Researchers from the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield in the UK have developed sensors that will be able to map and monitor phosphates in soils on site and provide real-time data to users. (Pixabay)

Phopshate is a considered a key nutrient for crops and is often used in fertilizers. But short of sending soil samples to a lab, it is difficult to determine the amount of phosphate in soil.

Researchers from the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield in the UK have developed sensors that will be able to map and monitor phosphates in soils on site and provide real-time data to users. The project aims to help researchers and farmers understand soil composition while increasing crop yield and minimizing the use of phosphate fertilizers. 

The project hopes to address global efforts to preserve phosphate as a non-renewable resource. It is one of ten UK-US collaborations jointly funded by the Fund for International Collaboration via UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), to develop the sensors and technologies to transmit data. 

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Under the project, teams across the UK and USA will design new data tools and dynamic models to describe and predict soil processes, organism behavior, and their interactions. Teams at the University of Sheffield will model, characterize, and test the sensors in both controlled environments and in real soils. 

Professor Duncan Cameron, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield, said: “Phosphorus fertilizer is critical for modern agriculture and is central to feeding our planet’s growing population, but phosphorus is an element in short supply and at current rates of usage, could run out in less than a century. Our research will help farmers to use phosphorus more efficiently and in so doing, secure the food supply for many generations to come.

Soil ecosystems supply most of the antibiotics used to fight human diseases, control the movement of water and chemical substances between the Earth and atmosphere, and act as source and storage media for gases important to life, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane.

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