June 22, 2007
New leaf sensor technology could extend water resources
BERTHOUD - It may be a few years away, but a University of Colorado researcher and a Berthoud-based agri-biology development company could help provide an answer to the state's growing water shortage.
AgriHouse Inc. and Hans-Dieter Seelig, a CU aerospace engineering researcher, are collaborating on bringing Seelig's invention - which precisely measures water stress in plant leaves - to the commercial marketplace.
The device, called the Sg-1000, attaches to plant leaves and detects when they begin to wilt. Through a computer connection, a field irrigation system is signaled to bring the plants back to their ideal level of hydration.
The real-world benefits ultimately could be enormous, with farmers using just enough water to keep crops healthy without overwatering and wasting water and money.
Richard Stoner, founder and president of AgriHouse, said existing precision watering technology "keeps crops alive but is not conserving any water" when compared to the Sg-1000.
"People are saying we could save two to three waterings every couple of weeks, and that can be translated into significant savings," said Stoner, who's collaborated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on a variety of technologies, some of which have been taken aboard the space shuttle and international space station.
AgriHouse's many projects include development of an aeroponic food-growing system that needs no soil and uses minimal water and an all-natural product called Beyond that boosts plant growth and survivability.
Stoner said the Sg-1000 has the potential to be one of the company's biggest products, once it gets through the patenting process and an easy-to-use device is available for sale. "This is really plants talking to people - it's just that simple," he said.
NSF grant will help launch
AgriHouse recently received a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the technology, which it optioned through a licensing agreement with CU's technology transfer office.
Kate Tallman, a spokeswoman for the technology transfer office, said CU and AgriHouse were able to reach an agreement on any profits that might ultimately be realized from Seelig's invention. Tallman said she could not divulge the details of the agreement but noted that the company that takes on the challenge of bringing a technology to the marketplace always gets the lion's share of the royalties.
Of the university's royalties, Tallman said 28 percent goes to the researcher and 25 percent goes to the researcher's laboratory as long as he or she is connected to the university.
Tallman said the licensing agreement reached with AgriHouse is a good one for all parties. "It's really great in this particular case because it would be difficult to develop this further without a company like AgriHouse that can take it to the prototype stage," she said.
Seelig, the device's inventor, said the technology is based on its ability to measure the thickness of plant leaves. "If leaves dehydrate, the thickness of leaves goes down drastically and it's a good indication of water stress," he said.
Seelig, who received a $10,000 proof-of-concept grant last year from CU to support commercialization of the technology, is working with AgriHouse to fine-tune the device. Ultimately, Seelig said, the sensors will clip onto plant leaves and send a wireless signal from sites throughout the field. The signals could be connected to an Internet site, he said, allowing remote monitoring and watering.
Precision farming tool
Seelig said the device fits in with "precision farming" practices that aim to minimize the use of water, fertilizer, herbicides and other crop inputs by applying only what is needed. With agriculture using about 40 percent of the fresh water consumed in America, Seelig said the device could yield incredible savings, especially in water-crunched Colorado.
"You can save enormous amounts of water by utilizing this technique," he said. "(Farmers) only need a fraction of what's being used, but they don't have the feedback they need to do that," he said.
Stoner said the device has been patent pending since March and is "probably two to three years from getting a patent. I expect it'll be a year and a half before we hear anything, but we're first in line," he said.
Stoner said one possible early application may be in lowering the cost of corn production and thereby the cost of ethanol. "Ethanol has been criticized for its water use, but if we can start reducing the water that's used to grow corn we can make ethanol more affordable," he said.
Stoner said the device may launch his modest company, founded in 1992, into another level of profitability.
"It's so important for a small company to stay in business and ride out the highs and lows of business," he said. "AgriHouse is really poised to take off. We've always seen ourselves as a technology leader in this field."