New research is using repurposed straw to create a tool that can help crops retain water and nutrients.
Gang Chen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering, led the research. It uses straw left over from processing crops like rice, wheat and corn to produce hydrogels. Hydrogels are molecules that can absorb large amounts of water and fertilizers, then slowly release them as needed by crops.
Kelly Morgan, a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences professor and director of the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, commented on Chen’s research. “This is a great use of valuable resources that should be used and may be cheaper and more effective than the existing chemical water-retention products now available,” Morgan said. “I would like to see this go forward to field testing to prove the concept. Growers should not be encouraged to use these products until they are proven in the field.”
The following information about Chen’s work was provided by the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering:
Existing hydrogels used in farming are typically made from petroleum products. They can be expensive, toxic and have difficulty degrading. But the straw left over from processing various crops is rich in cellulose, which can be made into hydrogels that are biodegradable and therefore kinder to the environment. Using agricultural byproducts is a way to get the benefits of petroleum-based hydrogels without their drawbacks, and it diverts those crop byproducts from landfills or burning, which is how they’re typically disposed.
When the plant-based hydrogels are applied to farmers’ fields, their absorption abilities let them act as reservoirs to hold excess water and nutrients when fields are watered and fertilized. When the weather is dry, they release those resources to the plants that need it.
Chen’s analysis of previous laboratory and field studies showed that farmers can use far less irrigation and fertilizer and achieve higher yields by using cellulose hydrogels. The exact improvements depend on a variety of factors, but the study found increased yields ranging from 11 percent to 136 percent.
“Taking something that has long been considered a waste product and recycling it back into the agricultural economy can benefit farmers and the environment,” Chen said.
Chen’s research is a preliminary step in understanding how this tool can benefit agriculture.
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