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Press Release

Richard Stoner
Original source:

June 142007

CU-Boulder Invention May Allow Thirsty Crops To Signal Farmers

A new technology invented at the University of Colorado at Boulder involving tiny sensors clipped to plant leaves to wirelessly monitor the water needs of crops has been optioned to AgriHouse Inc. of BerthoudColo. (Image courtesy AgriHouse Inc.)

Corn and potato crops may soon provide information to farmers about when they need water and how much should be deliveredthanks to a University of Colorado at Boulder invention optioned to AgriHouse Inc.a BerthoudColo.high-tech company.

The technology includes a tiny sensor that can be clipped to plant leaves charting their moisture contenta key measure of water deficiency and accompanying stresssaid Research Associate Hans-Dieter Seelig of CU-Boulderôs BioServe Space Technology Center. Data from the leaves could be sent wirelessly over the Internet to computers linked to irrigation equipmentensuring timely wateringcutting down on excessive water and energy use and potentially saving farmers in Colorado millions of dollars per yearhe said.

We think this is an exciting technologyand the implications for the agriculture industry are enormous said Seelig. Based in large part on Seeligôs 2005 CU-Boulder doctoral thesis in aerospace engineering sciencesthe technology was optioned to AgriHouse in March by the University of Colorado Technology Transfer Officegiving AgriHouse the exclusive right to negotiate a license with CU within 12 months.

Richard StonerAgriHouse founder and presidentsaid existing technology like soil moisture sensors used to assess a cropôs water needs do not always provide an accurate picture of existing plant and field conditions. What we are developing is a non-intrusive device that gently rests on the plants and lets them interface with the digital world he said. Basicallythis is a device that will allow plants to talk to humans and communicate their needslike when to water and apply fertilizer.Ě

Stoner is the principal investigator on a $150,000 Small Business Technology Transfer research grant awarded in May by the National Science Foundation to AgriHouse to develop the new technology. Seelig is an institutional investigator on the effort. In 2006Seelig was awarded a $10,000 proof-of-concept grant for his research from CUôs Technology Transfer Office.

Less than one-tenth the size of a postage stampthe sensor consists of an integrated-circuit chip that clips to individual plant leaves and collects and stores informationwhich can be wirelessly transmitted to selected computersSeelig said.

The computersfor examplecould instruct individual pivot irrigation systems used widely on Coloradoôs eastern plains to dispense set amounts of water to particular cropsautomatically turning the motors that drive them on-and-off and conserving water and energy in the processhe said.

Farmers today rely on standard practices that include a good eye and a green thumb said Stoner. But this new system can tell a farmer precisely when a plantôs water uptake potential is at its peakwhich could conceivably decrease the number of watering days for certain crops by up to a day or two each week.Ě

Economists estimate that agricultural activity accounts for about 40 percent of the total freshwater use in the United States. About 60 percent of all crops in the United States are irrigated using water from lakesreservoirswells and rivers.

Stoner likened the plant communication aspect of the invention to a scene in the 1986 comedy musical filmLittle Shop of Horrors when a giant carnivorous plant tells humans to feed me.Ě This technology allows plants to sayėwater me Ě he said.

High eastern plains water-use has led to lawsuits against Colorado for violations of interstate water compactsincluding a recent $30 million payment to Kansas for overuse of the Arkansas Riversaid Seelig. A recent U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit against Colorado and Nebraska for overuse of Republican River water threatened to shut down all Colorado wells impacting the river if solutions for reducing irrigation water are not found. Farmers irrigate nearly one-half million acres on the eastern plains from the Ogallala Aquifer that directly impacts the Republican Riverhe said.

The researchers have been experimenting with cowpeaa legumebut believe the new leaf-sensor technology would be transferable to a variety of cropsincluding cornwheatpotatoessugar beets and pinto beans. In the futureit might also be applicable to monitoring large swaths of urban grass like city parksStoner said.

This device is very preciseand will allow a plant to receive just the right amount of water said Seelig. If a plant can tell a water valve when to open and when to closefarmers are going to save a lot of money.Ě

The CU Technology Transfer Office pursuespackages and licenses intellectual property generated from university research and provides assistance to facultystaffstudents and businesses interested in licensing or investing in CU technology.

The technology invented by Seelig at BioServea NASA Research Partnership Center for the commercialization of spacewas originally designed for use in conserving water for plant growth during long-term space flight.

In 1997Stoner and AgriHouse teamed up with BioServe and NASA on plant-growth experiments and hardware shipped to Russiaôs Mir Stationexperiments which led to the development by AgriHouse of a commercialall natural crop-boosting product known as Beyond.Ě AgriHouse has received two NASA Small Business Innovation Research contracts in recent years to develop and manufacture high performance food production systems for Earth and spacesaid Stoner.

Facultystaff and students at BioServe have designedbuilt and flown 35 life sciences and biomedical research payloads on 25 space shuttle flights and on International Space Station missions.