How nanotechnology can support agriculture
By Liam Critchley
This article highlights how nanotechnology is now finding wider application in agriculture where previously it had been treated with a degree of caution because of the extremely small size of nanoparticles and their possible detrimental effects if used in the industry. More recently, however, such fears have been overcome and nanotechnology is now providing many benefits in this vital global sector.
penetrating new markets Nanotechnology has become a global industry and has penetrated many markets over the years, including in applications where most people do not know that nanomaterials are being actively used there. There have been concerns over the small size of nanomaterials, which has stunted their growth in some market sectors, but even these are beginning to mature now. One such area especially is agriculture, which for some time was concerned with the leaching of nanomaterials into the environment. However, while more studies still need to be done, there are now a number of ways in which nanotechnology is set to support the performance of the agrochemicals used on our crops.
Nanofertilizers: delivering nutrients to plants Nanofertilizers are one area where nanotechnology can be applied to agricultural environments and is closely related to agrochemicals in general. Overall, nanofertilizers tend to take one of three forms: nano-sized nutrients; nano- coated fertilizers; and engineered nanomaterials (typically metal oxide based or carbon-based nanomaterials).The use of nanofertilizers is seen as a future way of delivering the required nutrients to a plant — this can be one or more nutrients depending on the plant, and includes micronutrients, macronutrients,
The nanomaterials being trialled not only control how the nutrients are released, they can tailor the release to specific plants and increase nutrient availability to these plants; all of these aspects could be key in going forward for the future of agriculture and the environment.
and plant growth enhancers. Nanofertilizers are essentially nanocarrier systems that can encapsulate the nutrient of interest. These nutrients can then be released in a targeted and/ or controlled manner from the nanocarrier into the soil. This enables the crops to receive the right amount of nutrients continuously, boosting plant growth and agronomic yields. Moreover, controlled release prevents the over-application of fertilizers in the field, which reduces potential run-off into local water streams, thus lowering the chances of eutrophication in the local environment.
There are different ways that this is achieved, from being encapsulated by a nano-sized film, to being incorporated into a nanoemulsion, or being encapsulated into a nanoparticle system. As it stands, there has been a lot of work done using titanium dioxide nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes, as well as some work into nano-porous zeolite materials.
The nanomaterials being trialled not only control how the nutrients are released, they can tailor the release to specific plants and increase nutrient availability to these plants; all of these aspects could be key in going forward for the future of agriculture and the environment. As it stands, there are a few issues that need to be clarified and addressed, including the phytotoxicity of the different nanomaterials and the potential for occupational exposure if a human is applying the nanofertilizer. These areas are currently being researched into and it is likely that more answers will emerge soon.
Nanopesticides: a revolutionary technology Pesticides are another conventional agrochemical that can be revolutionized by nanotechnology, only this time nanopesticides tend to be a nano- formulation of either traditional active pesticide ingredients or of inorganic nanomaterials that have pesticidal-like properties. Nano-formulations composed
of active pesticide ingredients possess distinct advantages over their standard agrochemical counterparts. For example, the active ingredients tend to have greater mobility, solubility and durability compared to conventional pesticidal ingredients. Like nanofertilisers, these active pesticidal ingredients can also be released in a targeted and controlled manner, reducing the damage to any species in the local environment that were not the intended target. There is also the potential to use active ingredients that are typically less harmful than the current pesticides in use, allowing the pesticidal process to be potentially more environmentally friendly.
There is a range of
nanomaterials that are suitable as nanopesticides, including inorganic species such as metals, metal oxides, and nanoclay- based nanoparticles, as well as organic materials that include solid lipid nanoparticles and liposomes. These nanoparticles can be used in a number of ways, from nanoemulsions, to gels of traditional pesticide ingredients, to nanocapsules and dispersions (and many more in besides). There are many different options for nanomaterials to be used as pesticidal ingredients, but their biosafety and toxicological profiles need more development to ensure that they are safe for widespread use. Additionally, the long-term effects of using nanomaterials still needs to be
Soil sampling for chemical analysis and pH testing. Such procedures provide essential information on the effects of agrochemicals on the environment and are especially important now that nanotechnology is being more widely used in agriculture.
studied, but as these materials have been around in the background of the agricultural and agrochemical industries for some time now, the hope is that these studies will mature more within the coming years and that we will see nanomaterials being used as both fertilizers and pesticides.
Other possible applications in agriculture
There are also a number of ways where nanotechnology can support agriculture but that are not directly related to agrochemicals. Two key examples include remediating the water and soil in agricultural environments and the use of nanosensors for monitoring purposes. Nanosensors, like many other sensors are being used
to analyze different aspects of the crop’s local environment in order to check that the plants are growing properly. These include the presence of any pathogens, assessing how well the crop is growing, the field conditions, and the level of pesticides in the crop environment.
Of these two areas, the remediation of soil and water shows a lot of promise, as the presence of toxic chemicals in soils and waterways represents a high risk to both humans and the natural environment and nanomaterial-based solutions that can remove various pollutants from the soil and the local groundwater have been identified. These solutions have involved on-site and off-site measures to reduce pollutants, including removing heavy metals,
metalloids, dyes and organic pollutants from the soil/water. Solutions have ranged from carbon-based nanomaterials to iron and titanium nanoparticles. They have been effective thus far because the active surface area of these nanomaterials provides a large reactive surface for the nanomaterials to react with, and detoxify, the pollutant molecules. The small size of these nanoparticles also means that they can migrate to, and neutralize, areas deep within the soil that would otherwise be inaccessible with other solutions.
Overall, there are many aspects where nanotechnology can support the agricultural sector, and this is something we may see being implemented more
and more — especially with today’s erratic weather conditions which can affect crop cycles. However, there are still some challenges associated with all the different areas that will need to be overcome, but many nanomaterials have already surpassed similar challenges, so it may not be too much of a barrier for many of these nanosystems.
Liam Critchley Freelance Chemistry and Nanotechnology Writer E: liam_critchley@hotmail. com
nkedin. com/in/liam-critchley- nanowriter/ t: https://twitter.co
(Image © iStock.co
m / Ivan-balvan)
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