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Saving our Soils - UK/US collaborate to preserve vital resource


Saving our Soils - UK/US collaborate to preserve vital resource
  • Ten research projects jointly funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)
  • Multi-disciplinary sensor and monitoring systems research to understand how to maintain a resource essential to life on Earth
  • Signals in the Soil to provide answers to long-held questions about soil ecosystems

‘A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself’ – Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1937 the US President wrote to state governors, including the message above, to support a Uniform Soil Conservation Law aimed at avoiding a repetition of the catastrophic soil erosion of the 1930’s dust bowl.

The statement is as true today as it was then. Soil forms over thousands of years and can be destroyed in a single event. It is a natural asset, alongside water and air, but is often overlooked, despite being the foundation of terrestrial ecosystems that support food production, economic prosperity, biodiversity, and other services that are essential for humanity.

With a growing world population, climate change and increasing competition for land resource, there is an urgent need to be able to analyse and monitor soils.

Soil ecosystems supply most of the antibiotics used to fight human diseases, control the movement of water and chemical substances between the Earth and atmosphere, and act as source and storage media for gases important to life, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane.

Ten new research projects, jointly funded by the Fund for International Collaboration via UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), will design durable new sensors for biological, chemical and/or physical signals in the soil and wireless technologies that can transmit the data through the soil.

The research teams will also design new data tools and dynamic models to describe and predict soil processes, organism behaviour, and their interactions.

Soils are complex living ecosystems containing billions of organisms mediating myriad biological, chemical, and physical processes, interacting to cycle carbon and nutrients essential for plant growth, food and fibre production, and to remove contaminants from water.

Professor Sir Mark Walport, UK Research and Innovation’s Chief Executive said: “The health of soils is crucial for sustaining life across the world. These projects will demonstrate the power of international collaboration in addressing the major global research questions in this area, developing new ways of monitoring and maintaining soils, and increasing our understanding of how ecosystems function and interact.”

NSF Director France Córdova said: “As global demands rise for food, fibers and bioenergy, and as land degradation driven by land use change, poor agricultural practices, contamination, and urbanization occurs, humans require more from diminishing soil resources.”

“This valued partnership will provide new ways to tap into and understand complex underground signals and the soil ecosystems that we all depend on.”

Through these projects, UK and American researchers will create new methods to capture, communicate and analyze soil processes in order to advance our understanding of soil ecosystems and our capacity to manage them.

Each three-year project will receive approximately £800,000 for each UK research team and $800,000 for US team. Below is a list of projects and links to grant abstracts:

  • Decoding Nitrogen Dynamics in Soil through Novel Integration of in-situ Wireless Soil Sensors with Numerical Modeling. This project will tackle the grand challenge of decoding nitrogen dynamics in the soil through four elements: hydrogel-coating solid-state ion-selective membrane (HS-ISM) based wireless nitrogen sensing technology, droplet-flow microfluidic-based sensors (DFMS) as in situ calibration, high-resolution profiling of nitrogen species and moisture level in different ecosystems, and data-driven modeling of rhizosphere nitrogen dynamics.
    USA principal investigators Baikun Li, University of Connecticut (1935599) and Md Shaad Mahmud, University of New Hampshire (1935578); UK principal investigators Dr Xize Niu, University of Southampton (NE/T010584/1) and Professor Elizabeth Shaw, University of Reading (NE/T010762/1)
  • Dynamic Coupling of Soil Structure and Gas Fluxes Measured with Distributed Sensor Systems: Implications for Carbon Modeling, This project will develop two in situ sensor systems that measure gas emissions and changes in soil structure to inform soil carbon models. It will use two sensor systems, one using fibre optic sensors the other low-power sensors coupled with in-ground mesh-network wireless sensor network.  USA principal investigators Kenichi Soga, University of California-Berkeley (1935551) and Tissa H Illangasekare (1935631), Colorado School of Mines; UK principal investigator Dr Richard Whalley, Rothamsted Research (NE/T010487/1)
  • Large Area Distributed Real Time Soil (DiRTS) Monitoring, This project will develop sensors that will be tested over a large area to monitor changes in nitrogen and moisture in soils in unmanaged land like forest and managed land such as farmland. USA principal investigator Sameer Sonkusale, Tufts University (1935555); UK principal investigators Dr Aleksandar Radu, Keele University (NE/T012331/1) and Dr Sami Ullah, University of Birmingham (NE/T012323/1)
  • Phytoelectronic Soil Sensing, This project will develop mini sensors that are grafted into plants to monitor reactions to chemical and biological changes in soil conditions around the roots. USA principal investigator Robert McLeod, University of Colorado at Boulder (1935594); UK principal investigator Professor George Malliaras, University of Cambridge (NE/T012293/1)
  • Rapid Deployment of Multi-Functional Modular Sensing Systems in the Soil, - will develop a burrowing robot with an integrated sensor system to detect key physical and mechanical signals in the soil and use machine learning to adapt the burrowing process. USA principal investigator Chloe Arson, Georgia Tech (1935548); UK principal investigator Professor Catherine O’Sullivan, University of Imperial College London (NE/T010983/1)
  • Real-time and Continuous Monitoring of Phosphates in the Soil with Graphene-Based Printed Sensor Arrays,  This project will develop graphene based sensors that connect to a Bluetooth network to monitor phosphates - USA principal investigator Suprem Das, Kansas State University (1935676); UK principal investigator Dr Adrien Chauvet, The University of Sheffield (NE/T010924/1)
  • Reverse engineering the soil microbiome:  detecting, modeling, and optimizing signal impacts on microbiome metabolic functions, This project will monitor how chemical signals produced by soil microbes shape complex soil microbial community, with the ultimate aim of using this knowledge to enhance plant health and productivity.
    USA principal investigator Linda Kinkel, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (1935458); UK principal investigator Professor Eriko Takano, The University of Manchester (NE/T010959/1)
  • Sensors UNder snow Seasonal Processes in the evolution of ARctic Soils, This project will use sensors and field measurement to track biological, hydrologic, and chemical activity under the winter and spring snowpack, in soils near a retreating glacier in Svalbard - USA principal investigators Trevor Irons, University of Utah (1935651) and Pacifica Sommers, University of Colorado at Boulder (1935689); UK principal investigators Dr James Bradley, Queen Mary University of London (NE/T010967/1) and Dr Oliver Kuras, British Geological Survey (NE/T010568/1)
  • Wireless In-Situ Soil Sensing Network for Future Sustainable Agriculture. This project will develop and use low powered sensors that stay in the soil that can be recharged wirelessly to investigate the effects of irrigation on soil health. USA principal investigator Darrin Young, University of Utah (1935632); UK principal investigators Professor Eric Yeatman, Imperial College London, (NE/T011467/1) and Professor Paul Hallett, University of Aberdeen (NE/T011068/1)
  • Detecting soil degradation and restoration through a novel coupled sensor and machine learning framework, This project will build and train a new mechanistically-informed machine learning system to turn high frequency data on multiple soil functions, such as water infiltration, CO2 production, and surface soil movement, into predictions of longer term changes in soil health including the status of microbial processes, soil organic matter (SOM) content. The team will use off-the-shelf and bespoke sensors coupled to the Swarm satellite network to create a low cost sensor array that can be deployed in remote areas - USA principal investigator Professor Jason Neff University of Colorado, Boulder,  (1935705); UK Principal investigator Professor John Quinton, Lancaster University (NE/T012307/1)

Notes to editors

About UK Research and Innovation 

UK Research and Innovation works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas. 

UK Research and Innovation is also delivering specific aspects of  the UK government’s no deal planning for EU Exit.  To keep up to date please visit our dedicated EU Exit pages

Operating across the whole of the UK with a combined budget of more than £7 billion, UK Research and Innovation brings together the seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. 

National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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