Global study to improve soil management and achieve food security

A Keele chemist has been awarded a major grant to investigate soil monitoring techniques to help improve the rising problem of food security.

Dr Aleksandar Radu will work alongside colleagues from the University of Birmingham and Tufts University in Massachusetts, USA, to test and improve a wireless sensor called Distributed Real Time Soil monitoring network (DiRTS), which will be used to measure levels of chemicals in soil ecosystems.

The research project will have a variety of real-world applications, including improving soil fertility, increasing crop productivity, managing greenhouse gas fluxes, and protecting the water and environment.

The project, which gets underway in January 2020, will see the sensors being developed at Keele before being tested at the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR).

The partnership brings together the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA), and three United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) research councils. Together, the researchers are working to address one of the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century: Managing the nitrogen cycle.

Soil management has also been highlighted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals as an important role to end world hunger and achieve food security by improving soil nutrition and quality.

Dr Radu and his colleagues hope to improve food security through their work, as well as developing techniques for managing a particular species of plant nutrients which can also be a pollutant in high levels.

Dr Radu said: “This is an exciting opportunity for a chemist to join forces with biogeochemists, and electrical and computer engineers to develop sensing platforms that have the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the transformation of key plant nutrients in our soils.

“This will not only help farmers to optimise fertilisation of fields, thus saving costs and protecting the environment, but will also train the next generation of scientists and engineers so they are capable of developing multidisciplinary solutions for solving complex, real-life problems.”