Soil sensor technology uses biocomposites

By North Dakota State University | January 05, 2015

A technology developed at North Dakota State University creates precise in-the-ground measurement and monitoring of soil and crop conditions, which could provide opportunities for greater yields. The technology also has led to a new start-up company. The c2sensor corp., based in the NDSU Technology Incubator, has concluded a license agreement with the NDSU Research Foundation for the precision agriculture technology. 

Developed by a research team at NDSU, the sensors are constructed using NDSU's patent-pending "direct write" electronic printing techniques to print circuit and antenna patterns directly onto renewable, biobased substrates. Developed between the NDSU Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering at NDSU, the sensors are made with biocomposites so they can be left in the ground to biodegrade without harming soil quality.

The research team placed microsensors in fields at the Soil Health and Agriculture Research Extension farm in Richland County in southeastern North Dakota. Called SEED, which stands for Sensing Earth Environment Directly, the bio-degradable sensors are placed in the ground like seeds, with the potential to directly measure soil salinity, moisture, fertility and chemicals in real time.

Sensors in the future could be placed directly into the soil during the seeding process by mixing the sensors in with the seed during planting. A reading device mounted beneath an agricultural vehicle or other agricultural implements would interact with the SEED sensors.

“The NDSU-developed sensor technology licensed by c2sensor is different from current methods, which often require a combination of direct measurement such as soil sampling, or indirect measurements such as remote sensing via probes,” said Corey Kratcha, CEO of c2sensor.

Materials used to create the sensors allow them to be left in place after use, where they can degrade without leaving toxins in the soil. Wireless communication with the sensor is based on passive radio-frequency identification technology with no batteries needed.

“As the product is developed, it could assist farmers to monitor salinity levels, nutrient levels for fertilizer applications, moisture and pH levels,” said Chad Ulven, associate professor of mechanical engineering. “It could be coupled with aerial mapping via unmanned aerial vehicles or satellite imaging, giving farmers real-time soil analysis for end-of-year field work.”

NDSU researchers in microelectronics, mechanical engineering and the NDSU Extension Service who were part of the initial research team include Ulven; Cherish Bauer-Reich, Justin Hoey, Rob Sailer, Nathan Schneck and other members of the NDSU Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering; and Abbey Wick, NDSU Extension Service.

“Generating technologies that lead to start-up companies to bring discoveries to market is one of the ways that NDSU, as a student-focused, land-grant, research university, serves the citizens of the state,” said Kelly A. Rusch, vice president for research and creative activity at NDSU.

“Licensing of this sensor technology to c2sensor represents an opportunity to commercialize this research,” said Dale Zetocha, executive director of the NDSU Research Foundation. “Licensing the technology to a North Dakota company supports goals to further diversify economic opportunities in the state.”

The North Dakota Corn Utilization Council provided initial funding at NDSU for the seed sensor project. Following licensing to c2sensor, additional funding through the North Dakota Department of Commerce Venture Grant Program and the North Dakota Centers of Excellence will be utilized to further develop the sensor technology.

As a student-focused, land-grant, research university, we serve our citizens.