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Nanotechnology to Grow Food

Nanotechnology research in the agriculture industry is leading to interesting developments in the use of pesticides and the application of fertilizers. These developments may reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers by targeting their application at the exact time and place they are needed.

One big concern in growing food is the use of pesticides. Put simply, you have to kill the bugs that damage crops without killing the people who eat the crops. Researchers are working on pesticides encapsulated in nanoparticles that release pesticide only in an insect’s stomach, minimizing the contamination of plants themselves and the risk to people.

Another development in the area of agriculture is a network of nanosensors and dispensers that can be deployed throughout a food crop. The sensors recognize when a plant needs nutrients or water, before a farmer can see any sign that the plant is suffering.

The dispensers then release fertilizer, nutrients, or water as needed, optimizing the growth of each plant in the field one by one. To make this a reality, you need to be able to build millions of inexpensive sensors.

Researchers have been looking at this problem for several years. Hewlett Packard Labs is working on a worldwide solution. The HP program is called Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE). Their goal is to create a global network of sensors that is inexpensive, resistant to damage, and incredibly sensitive.

The first sensor that will be tested is a motion and vibration detector embedded in a silicon chip built with three layers. If the chip moves, the movement of the wafer suspended in the middle can be measured. The next logical candidates for sensors are those to detect light, temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity.

HP’s experience with inkjet printer cartridges may prove helpful as they package technology into an integrated unit. Their memristor technology could also provide logic and memory in a small sensor package that could be powered with a very small amount of energy.

One big challenge is to reduce the size of these sensors. Also, to truly be able to provide a global system of sensors, their cost must be miniscule because trillions would be needed.

Today the state of this technology is not ready for prime time because the detectors are expensive and turn in many false alarms. When these problems are solved, such sensors could help in food production in many ways.

Eventually, sensors could be added to mobile phones. Then food science workers out in the field could wave their cell phones over a head of lettuce and the phone could sense the presence of salmonella or dangerous levels of pesticides.

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