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Plant sensors promise savings

Large-scale industrial farms and greenhouses could potentially cut water use by up to 25% while racking up energy savings through less irrigation with a novel plant sensor technology built by newly formed Albuquerque startup Microceres LLC.

Two researchers from the University of New Mexico’s Biology Department launched the company last year after developing the technology through a joint project with Sandia National Laboratories. The UNM biologists – professor David Hanson and then post-doc research and development scientist Patrick Hudson – worked with laboratory scientists to apply “micro-needle” technology previously developed by Sandia to measure water and health metrics in plants.

Microceres’ handheld multi-plant impedance probe, or Multi-PIP device, takes readings on water levels and other metrics from sensors attached to plants. (Courtesy of Microceres Llc)

From the start, the partners envisioned applying the technology to industrial agriculture through “wearable” microsensors attached to crops in a wireless network that could constantly read water levels and conditions in real time for growers to better schedule irrigation for optimal plant growth. They spent two years developing, testing and proving the system before making the leap to commercialization.

“I was the lead investigator for the project for UNM, and I was convinced within the first six months that it would work and it should become a commercial product,” Hanson told the Journal. “But we spent another year and a half to further develop it, and to investigate whether people would be willing to buy it and if we could find partners to help us build it.”

Hanson and Hudson licensed the intellectual property last year as joint UNM and Sandia technology and then approached Albuquerque-based custom electronics development company Next State Systems to create the first commercial prototype.

Microceres biologists Patrick Hudson, left, and David Hanson attach sensors to tomato plants at the Santa Fe Community College greenhouse.

That first system is now available for agricultural researchers, with an initial sale already finalized with the University of Florida for testing on citrus crops, Hanson said. More contracts are now under negotiation with a vertically integrated agricultural company, and for a pilot testing project with Masson Farms in southern New Mexico, which operates greenhouses in Las Cruces and Radium Springs.

And this year, the UNM researchers established a new partnership with Next State Systems, which has taken a controlling interest in Microceres to further develop the technology into a networked sensor system for broad distribution on crops in large-scale agricultural operations.

“We did the engineering and heavy lifting to develop the initial product for them that’s now available for crop research on individual plants,” said Next State founder and CEO Brian Henderson. “Through that process, we developed a working relationship and decided to pull closer together. Originally, the idea was to build and sell the product to Microceres for them to sell it to customers, but we really hit it off and decided to join forces to develop and sell more products throughout the agricultural industry space.”

Microceres’ current commercial prototype is specifically designed for research purposes, such as investigation of plant varieties, growth conditions and crop production. It’s a bit bulky, and it attaches to a single plant, although it includes multiple, networked sensors to measure water levels and other things on the host plant and a few surrounding ones.

Brian Henderson

“The device is placed on top of the plant and does no damage to it,” Hanson said. “We run an electronic signal through the plant and then measure the impedance, or resistance, in the different plant tissues, which tells us how much water and ions are in the plant. We’ve extensively compared those readings to other standard measures and it lines up very well.”

Through the measurements, growers can determine the best irrigation practices for optimal plant growth, improving the quality and quantity of crops.

The next step is to miniaturize the sensors into tiny devices for attachment on hundreds or thousands of plants in growing operations.

“The current product is a monolithic device with multiple channels for one or two nearby plants,” Henderson said. “We’re now working to turn that single-plant device into a distributed wireless sensor network with battery-powered sensor nodes for large-scale, industrial agricultural operations and farms. It will include long-lasting batteries to allow growers to leave the entire network of sensors in the field for a whole growing season without having to re-charge or change out the batteries.”

Next State is now supporting Microceres as a subsidiary operation, using its modern electronics laboratory to build the new microsensor prototype while also supplying the person power for technology development, business administration and marketing efforts, Henderson said.

It will take a few technology iterations to optimize the manufacturing process to scale up to large-volume production.

“We need to lower the production costs enough for it to make sense for large-scale agricultural deployment,” Henderson said.

For large farms and greenhouse operations, Hanson estimates potential water savings of up to 25% by applying optimal irrigation that cuts down on water use. That, in turn, could significantly decrease energy costs by running irrigation systems less often.

“There’s potential for significant environmental benefits and energy savings,” Hanson said.

The current Microceres plant sensor is attached with clamps to plants for research purposes. The company is now building microsensors that will be attached to hundreds of thousands of plants in large agricultural operations.

To build out the next-generation miniature sensor network, Next State and Microceres have jointly applied for a $6 million federal grant under the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, SCALEUP Program. ARPA-E is an agency within the U.S. Department of Energy that funds high-potential, high-impact energy technologies at the early stages before private investors are willing to step in.

The initial UNM-Sandia research project that led to Microceres’ microsensors was funded by ARPA-E, which uses its SCALEUP initiative to continue building ARPA-E-backed technologies that have demonstrated significant progress and impact potential. Microceres is now a semifinalist in the upcoming round of grants, which will be awarded in January, Hanson said.

With ARPA-E funding, it would take about a year to develop a market-ready microsensor network for deployment, Henderson said. Without SCALEUP funding, it will take longer, but the company partners are determined to plow forward, using commercial sales of Microceres’ current research-focused product to generate funds.

Once the microsensor network is available, the company will focus first on high-value growing operations, such as ornamental plant crops, winery grape vineyards, and cannabis, because improved crop quality and quantity can provide a major boost in those areas, Henderson said.

Edible crops could also benefit a lot, because optimal irrigation can help tease out maximum flavor in fruits and vegetables through targeted water-stressing techniques, which force plants to apply more of the nutrients needed for high-quality growth.

“We think there’s a huge market for this technology,” Hanson said.

Kevin Robinson-Avila covers technology, energy, venture capital and utilities for the Journal. He can be reached at krobinson-avila@abqjournal.com.

 

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