Nanotechnology and Modern Agriculture

A brief introduction of nanoparticle applications in agriculture from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station

There are currently about 7.67 billion people on Earth, and by 2050 the population is expected to increase to nearly 9.8 billion. 1  That is a lot of people who all need to eat. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, this means that we will need to increase agricultural productivity by at least 70% to achieve and maintain global food security. 2,3  Unfortunately, significant negative pressure against this goal will continue to build from a changing climate, including more frequent temperature and drought extremes. Similarly, increased activity of crop pests and pathogens due directly to an altered climate are predicted to reduce rice, wheat and maize yields by up to 25%. 2 Therefore, uncovering new strategies to improve crops’ resistance to pests is a critically important task for agricultural scientists. Finding these new strategies is an important goal of some of our nanoparticle research at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station , including collaborations with the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology . 

View of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (image by Yu Shen)

Copper, manganese and zinc are very important in protecting plant health, but the problem is they don’t move freely within the plant — if you spray them on the leaves, they won’t move down to the roots.
Dr. Wade Elmer, The Connecticut Post , August 9, 2018

You may know people who take vitamin C when they catch a cold; this antioxidant will assist in defending against peroxides and other symptoms caused by the germ. Interestingly, the same is true for plants and for diseases such as Fusarium , which is a kind of plant fungus in the soil. Some Fusarium species are very economically important due to their devastating impact on a wide range of crops, including wheat, soybean and vegetables. When plants are under stress, they need a lot more of these nutrients, just like people do. For example, we know that certain nutrients can improve plant resistance to infection; this is particularly important in the roots for fungal pathogens in the soil. 4 However, when plants are under stress, they often can’t access the amounts needed, either from the soil directly or from applications to their leaves.

Potential applications of nanotechnology in agriculture. (A) Increase productivity using nanopesticides and nanofertilizers; (B) Improve quality of the soil using nanozeolites and hydrogels; (C) Stimulate plant growth using nanomaterials (SiO2, TiO2, and carbon nanotubes); (D) Provide smart monitoring using nanosensors by wireless communication devices.(image from Fraceto et al. 2016, 5 courtesy of Open Access) 

For example, with experiments applying nanoparticles to leaves, we found the copper phosphate...