Liang Dong, associate professor of Iowa State University’s Electrical and Computer Engineering department, was part of the team that recently won a $472,363 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) award for the project titled, “Miniature, Low-Cost, Field Deployable Sensor To Advance High-Phenotyping For Water Use Dynamics.” Dong works with Project Director Michael Castellano, Iowa State associate professor of agronomy and William T. Frankenberger Professor in Soil Science, and Co-Project Director Patrick Schnable, distinguished professor in Agronomy and director of Iowa State’s Plant Sciences Institute (PSI).
Dong’s group develops two wearable plant sensors to measure water transport dynamics and water content in plants. The first sensor is to track transpiration (water leaving the plant) from a leaf. This tool uses graphene oxide manufactured on a tape permeable to both gas and water, which can be easily attached to plants. Graphene is a water-vapor-sensitive material that converts water vapor to electrical signals. The second wearable sensor measures leaf water content using a new Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems technology developed in Dong’s lab.
Castellano and Schnable will use the wearable sensors to characterize maize water use efficiency across different weather and soil environments. The team plans to deploy hundreds of sensors to demonstrate the sensors’ ability to discriminate among maize genotypes for plant water transport dynamics. They will leverage the Genomes to Fields maize-phenotyping program that spans multiple locations, from Arizona to New York.
“Two wearable sensors developed in this project will advance plant sciences and agricultural research in a manner similar to how wearable human body sensors have advanced human health and biomedical sciences,” Dong said. “These new sensors will lead to a new understanding of crop physiology, improving irrigation efficiency and testing crops for diseases and pesticides.”
PSI at Iowa State University provides Dong’s group the initial funding to start this water sensor research through the PSI Faculty Scholars Program. The Iowa State University Research Foundation has also granted an option to commercialize the tape-based sensor technology to EnGeniousAg – an Ames startup company co-founded by Dong, Patrick Schnable, Castellano and James Schnable (son of Patrick Schnable), an assistant professor of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The company designs, manufactures and deploys low-cost, instant readout, field-based agricultural sensors for crops, soils and water, thereby improving agronomic management practices, increasing grower profitability and sustaining the environment.