ARPA-E projects to develop sensors for bioenergy, agriculture

By Erin Voegele | January 30, 2019

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy recently awarded nearly $6 million to four projects under its OPEN+ program for the Sensors for Bioenergy and Agriculture cohort team.

According to ARPA-E, the team will develop ultra-low energy distributed sensors to improve production efficiency in agriculture, boosting viability for bioenergy crops and reducing the energy and water requirements for agriculture more broadly.

The awards include:

Geegah LLC--$500,000: Ithaca, New York-based Geegah will develop an inexpensive wireless sensor, using ultrasound from MHz to GHz, that can measure water content, soil chemicals, root growth and nematode pests, allowing farmers to improve the output of biofuel crops while reducing water and pesticide use. The reusable device will include a sensor suite and radio interface that can communicate to aboveground farm vehicles. According to ARPA-E, the novel integration of sensing and imaging technologies could provide a low-cost solution to precision sensor-based digital agriculture.

Northeastern University--$1.63 million: Boston-based Northeastern University will develop a maintenance-free senor network to improve energy and agricultural efficiency by monitoring water content in plants. The zero-power sensors will form distributed networks that can capture, process and communicate in-field data to help farmers determine how to maximize yield. The sensors will specifically monitor water stress-related plant characteristics, relaying that data wirelessly to a control center in the irrigation system.  According to ARPA-E, the proposed technology does not consume any power in standby mode, eliminating the cost of battery replacements.

University of Colorado, Boulder--$1.69 million: The University of Colorado, Boulder will develop 3D-printed, biodegradable soil sensors that enable farmers to precisely understand crop water and fertilizer needs. These sensor nodes can be embedded in a field, to accurately and continuously monitor soil and crop health for an entire season before degrading completely and harmlessly into the soil. ARPA-E said this approach could enable real-time soil monitoring by farmers, enabling them to reduce agriculture’s energy footprint and water needs and increase soil carbon.

 University of Utah--$2.16 million: The University of Utah will develop low-pressure sensors to enable the early detection of invasive weeds and/or insects in biomass crop production, increasing the overall energy efficiency of crop production. According to ARPA-E, farmers currently lose approximately 40 percent of biomass crops due to weeds and insects that ideally need to be removed within a week of detection. Early detection could minimize loss, even with smaller applications and pesticides and herbicides, significantly increasing the economic viability of biomass generation.

Additional information is available on the ARPA-E website