New technology senses nitrate levels in plants and water

A newly-developed technology will allow farmers to test exactly how much nitrate is in a plant. 

EnGeniousAg is a new company started by Iowa State Agronomist Michael Castellano and University of Nebraska agronomist James Schnable.  They’ve created a sensor that quickly measures nitrate levels in plants or in water.

Schnable says when farmers need to make a decision on adding nitrogen now, it’s a slow and tedious process that involves sending soil samples to a lab and waiting for results.  Schnabel says his sensors eliminate waiting for test results. “Yes, it takes about three seconds, so not perfectly instant but compared to waiting a few days, it feels like instant.”

Schnable says the prototype allows farmers to see the nitrate level right on the sensor, but the product being developed will interface with the farmer’s smartphone. “You do not want to be writing down hundreds of these measurements and where you took them, so the production model connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth, and so you’re capturing the GPS position and the time of all of those measurements, so it’s much easier to translate that back into, okay, what do I need to do as far as fertilizer or other side-dress applications.”

Schnable says it’s easy to detect nitrates if that is the only thing present, but they’ve developed the sensor to pick out the nitrates from the many other things inside the plant or water.

Schnable says he will be recruiting farmers for a larger-scale beta test of the sensor technology and hopes to bring it to market in 2024.

James Schnable discusses nitrate sensor technology with Brownfield’s Larry Lee

  • Bravo. A few qeustions. Is it possible that these consumable sensors could get into the food harvested from the plant?
    Can they make sensors for phosphorous and potassium also?

    • Good question akamai. As an observer at this point, it doesn’t appear the probe that gets inserts into the corn stalk stays in the corn stalk. The leads might accidentally break off, but humans aren’t consuming that part of the corn plant anyway. I think there was some confusion in the article/interview about the sensor being “consumable”. As I understand it, it is not a single use sensor. It can be used many times before it needs to be replaced. I believe James called it consumable because it has the ability to be replaced when it does wear out over time, but I don’t believe it’s meant to be replaced after each use. Great question about phosphorous and potassium. You might need a different probe or you could train an algorithm to read different plant nutrient levels from the same sampling instance. Perhaps in a future version.

    • Thanks! To your first question, it is hard to envision this would happen as the sensors, including the consumable bits, are part of a device the person measuring nitrogen carries through the field to make measurements. It isn’t left in the field where it could cause problems at harvest. To your second, yes we are exploring the potential to measure phosphorous using the same technology and potentially integrated into a single device with the nitrate sensor in the future.

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