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Wash U Scientist Develops Fertilizer From Tiny Particles To Keep Waterways Clean

Washington University researcher applying a fertilizer that uses aerosol and nanotechnology to apply growth-promoting chemicals to peanut plants in a greenhouse.
Washington University Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering
Washington University researcher Ramesh Raliya developed an aerosol product that applies fertilizer to crops using nanotechnology, or particles smaller than 500 nanometers.

As a child in India, Ramesh Raliya saw his father buy an increasing amount of fertilizer for their farm each year, even as the family’s fields shrank.

As a Washington University researcher, Raliya works to reduce the amount of fertilizer farmers need to use and the waste that comes from using it.

Raliya, the CEO of biotech startup Smart Aerosol Technologies, has been using nanotechnology — or tiny particles less than 500 nanometers — to develop “smart fertilizer.” It’s an aerosol product that slowly releases nitrogen and phosphorus when sprayed on the plant. That can limit the amount of nutrient pollution that flows from farm fields into streams.

“Today we have a product that if you use a pound or a couple pounds [of smart fertilizer] in an acre, that’s equivalent to what you are fertilizing with a 50-pound bag,” Raliya said.

When he came to the U.S. to study engineering and agriculture, Raliya learned that conventional fertilizer products that provide nutrients to help crops grow are very inefficient. When farmers apply fertilizer to crops, plants often take up only eight to 30 percent of the nitrogen- or phosphorus-based products, while the rest goes into the soil and causes dead zones and harmful algal blooms in local waterways.

Peanut plants at a greenhouse at Washington University in St. Louis fertilized by conventional and nanotechnology-based fertilizers.
Credit Washington University Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering
Smart fertilizer aims to be more efficient than conventional fertilizer. On the left are peanut plants that were fertilized by conventional products, and on the right are peanut plants fertilized by smart fertilizer.

By using smart fertilizer instead of conventional fertilizer, farmers can increase yields by 56 percent and reduce agricultural runoff by 60 percent, he said. Using the smart fertilizer can also increase the nutritional value of crops, which often is degraded by the heavy chemicals in most fertilizers, according to Raliya’s research.

Smart fertilizer has been tested on 10 different crops, including corn, soybeans, spinach and peanuts. Raliya has run experiments on farms in Missouri and Illinois. He plans to test the product this year in Arizona to see how it works in an arid climate.

Raliya expects the cost of smart fertilizer to be comparable to conventional fertilizers, though it hasn’t hit the market yet. He plans to soon register the product with multiple state agriculture departments, so that farmers can purchase it.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.