New Nitrate Sensors Improve Traditional Measurement Methods

April 23, 2021

Iowa State agronomy researchers teamed up with electrical engineering specialists on campus to create a new sensor that measures soil nitrate at a far faster and more frequent rate than traditional measurements. A new paper on the research will soon be available in the Soil Science Society of American Journal and can be found here.

“We know that the amount of nitrate in the soil can vary by plus or minus 100 percent in one day,” said Iowa State Agronomy professor Michael Castellano, who recently helped author the published research on these sensors.

Traditional methods of measuring soil nitrate can take days, so by the time a farmer gets their results from the lab, the readings may be completely inaccurate, and it is critical to know the nitrate of the soil for management decisions, not to mention how weather factors into the equation.

Soil nitrate not only effects management decisions, it also is the main source for crop uptake of nitrogen, the substrate for nitrous oxide and impacts water quality. Accurate nitrate data is critical to understanding of our ecosystem and virtually all predictive models when it comes to crop production are based on the amount of nitrate in the soil.

These new sensors were placed in fields, and were able to measure soil nitrate every 10 seconds for 60 days, which Castellano said was a bit of overkill, but they wanted to be able to measure as often as someone would want, as nitrate is critical to so many components of crop production and more. 

“As farmers increasingly use crop models to predict their nitrogen needs, these sensors could play an important role in that,” Castellano said. “They can play an important role in helping estimate nitrous oxide emissions for carbon markets as well.”

The hope is in the next year or two these sensors could be commercially available to help crop producers make informed management decisions.


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