New J-WAFS Grants Support Researchers to Make Agricultural Practices More Sustainable

Two new J-WAFS Solutions commercialization grants will support novel technologies that aim to improve the economics and resiliency of farming.

MIT is known for its thriving innovation ecosystem: Numerous programs and funding mechanisms have evolved to ensure that new technologies and business models developed on campus can move beyond it to benefit the world.

Among them is the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), which brings its mission-driven concern for the safety, supply, efficiency, and accessibility of the planet's water and food systems to MIT's innovation ecosystem through the J-WAFS Solutions grant program. The program provides one-year, renewable, commercialization grants aimed to support MIT principal investigators in scaling up early stage technologies that are poised to have a measurable, international impact, and bring tangible economic and societal benefits to the communities where they are deployed. It provides the essential support that entrepreneurially-minded members of the Institute's research community need to leverage bench-scale innovations into start-up-ready technologies.

The program is supported by Community Jameel and administered in partnership with the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. This month, J-WAFS is distributing the call for submissions for fall 2019 funding. At the same time, J-WAFS has announced recent J-WAFS Solutions grants for two technologies aimed at increasing the resiliency of farmers and the ecosystems within which they operate.  

Precision agriculture for smallholder farmers

The challenge of yield gaps — the difference between farmers' yields and what is attainable for a given region — is well documented, especially in the Global South, where the majority of the agricultural landscape is occupied by smallholder farmers.

Many factors contribute to these yield gaps, though one of the primary causes is soil nutrient deficiency. With global population on the rise and consumption patterns changing, closing yield gaps is a critical avenue for sustainably feeding these growing numbers of people. The use of fertilizers can help solve the challenges posed by soil nutrient deficiency, but fertilizer can be prohibitively expensive for some smallholder farmers and also can, if misapplied, have a negative environmental impact.

The use of sensors that accurately detect soil nutrient needs can help. Analyses show that appropriate application of fertilizer will increase the crop productivity. When sensors provide accurate information to farmers right at the farm, they can more efficiently use expensive fertilizer and avoid inefficient under or overuse.  Reducing overuse then saves money and reduces the environmental impact of runoff.

An interdisciplinary team of MIT researchers has received a J-WAFS Solutions grant to commercialize an affordable sensor that they have developed, one that is aimed at accessibility and ease-of-use. They call it QuantiSoil; it is a sensor that can indicate soil nutrient levels and deficiencies related to the type of crops grown, providing information in an easily digestible manner.  This on-site soil analysis system uses printed ion-selective electrodes, combined with an electrochemical reader, to obtain actionable soil health information.

The "QuantiSoil: Commercialization of an On-Site Analysis System for Smallholding Farmers" project team consists of A. John Hart, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Chintan Vaishnav, senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management and academic director of the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, as well as Michael Arnold, a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. J-WAFS Solutions funding is supporting the scale-up of this sensor technology and field trials that will be conducted in 2019.

Sticky sprays to reduce runoff

Kripa Varanasi, associate professor of mechanical engineering, received a 2017 grant to support the development of a new mechanism that, when used for the application of agricultural pesticides, helps the droplets adhere more effectively to leaf and fruit surfaces.

The project, "Reducing Runoff and Environmental Impact of Agricultural Sprays," has now received a renewal grant that will support further field testing and refinement of the technology for use on farms. When farmers spray their fields with pesticides or other crop treatments, only a very small percentage of the spray sticks to the plants. This means that a high proportion of the material rolls off of plants, lands on the ground, and becomes part of the runoff that contributes to the pollution of soils, surface water, and groundwater.

The novel technology developed by Varanasi and his team addresses this problem through the use of two different polymers that affect the electric charge of a spray. When two oppositely-charged drops meet on a leaf surface, they more effectively stick to the plant. Early field trials have shown that this technology can significantly reduce the amount of pesticides needed for specific crops. Once commercialized, the spray technology could reduce the environmental impact of agriculture sprays and also prove more cost effective for farmers.

Though the J-WAFS Solutions program is a critical support for entrepreneurially-minded MIT faculty and students, the mission is about more than innovation. The technologies developed through this program, like QuantiSoil and the agriculture spray under development by Varanasi and his team, are more urgently needed than ever as humankind adapts to a rapidly expanding and evolving population on a changing planet and advancements in our water and food systems technologies become critical tools for resiliency.


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