Development of an in-field diagnostic tool to measure nutrients to suit crop demand and minimise risk to the environment

Lead Research Organisation: Cranfield University
Department Name: School of Water, Energy and Environment


Sustainable intensification of agriculture is a vital approach to maintain the balance between providing food for a growing global population and preserving soil as a valuable resource. Currently the state of arable intensive land is poor and the use of organic amendments such as compost, farm yard manure and other agricultural residues can provide soil organic matter required to restore soil health. Organic amendments also contain nutrients needed by crops but its availability needs to be determined accurately to meet crop demands. At the moment, samples need to be sent to laboratories for nutrient analysis and farmers need to consider it before accurately applying it to land. However in practice this does not happen and farmers bulk apply the organic amendments without fully considering its nutrient content. Bulk application of organic amendments whilst can build soil organic matter, its nutrient when becomes available and in excess of crop demands can pose a risk to contaminate the environment. A solution to this challenge would be development of an in-field diagnostic tool that can be used to determine the nutrient content of organic amendments in an accurate and precise manner.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/M009009/1 05/10/2015 31/10/2021
1878609 Studentship NE/M009009/1 31/03/2017 30/03/2020 Karolina Krystyna Golicz
Description I have been exploring the potential to use smartphones and nutrient sensitive paper strips to test agricultural soils with a goal of fine-tuning fertiliser recommendations.

I tested a number of paper strips, some showed potential for use in soil analysis, others did not.

Smartphones were shown to be successfully applied as low cost reflectometers.

Further to laboratory works, I designed an agronomic field trial, which took place in People's Republic of China, to check if the smartphone and paper strip method of soil analysis can be carried out in field conditions.

Finally, based on the collected metadata, I managed to design a streamlined process for testing of similar agricultural field test kits.
Exploitation Route The tool itself can be useful but I believe that the streamlined process for testing of similar agricultural field test kits is of particular significance as it can reduce the time similar research projects take. Also, findings relating to limitations of both smartphones and paper strips (and statistical methods used in method comparison studies) are written up as scientific papers and can be used by other researchers and practitioners to inform future research.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Title Method for soil extraction and analysis with Akvo Caddisfly (a water testing app) 
Description There is dire need for more in-field diagnostic methods for soil analysis. I have been working on re-purposing Akvo Caddisfly (a water testing app) for use in soil nitrate and phosphate analysis. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The tool can be used for in-field soil analysis, provided the method is followed closely and associated errors minimised. 
Title Use of Bland Atman plots in environmental science 
Description Bland-Altman plots are a well established statistical approach to method comparison studies in medical sciences. This statistical technique explores the agreement (mean bias) and limits of agreements between two methods as opposed to measuring the degree of correlation between them. However, B-A analysis is rarely used in environmental sciences even though it offers a much more robust way of comparing existing technologies. 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact I mined the literature, extracted data from old papers, and applied Bland-Altman plots to show the problems of utilising correlations to establish agreement between paper strips and standard laboratory techniques used in soil testing in previous studies. The results were written up as a research paper to encourage better statistical analytical approaches in the future. 
Description Student placement 
Organisation Nanjing Agricultural University
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Laboratory soil testing is a costly, time-consuming and resource-intensive process. In industrialised nations, access to soil-testing laboratories is often restricted due to laboratories being over-subscribed and farms being situated in remote locations. Thus, there is a need for fast and field-based test kits that can be easily accessible to the end-user and provide information on nutrient status of the soil to optimise crop production and minimise risk to the environment. The main purpose of the project was to develop and evaluate a smartphone-mediated method of soil analysis in order to help with fertiliser recommendations in the context of vegetable production. Water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica), a leafy vegetable common to South-East Asia, was grown in rural Jiangsu Province, People's Republic of China (PRC). Throughout five-month vegetable growth period, soil samples were taken every week and analysed with standard and smartphone-mediated methods to assess plant available nitrate and phosphate concentrations, across thirty-six experimental plots. The methods were then compared to establish if smartphone-mediated method of soil analysis could be used as a substitute of laboratory measurements. The results of the study showed that: 1. Smartphone and test-strip mediated soil analysis can be employed successfully to track changes in nitrate concentration across the plant growing season. 2. Smartphone and test-strip mediated soil analysis can be employed successfully to track changes in nitrate concentration across the plant growing season. 3. Employing smartphone tech in soil science can lead to substantial monetary savings, especially in the context of high-turnover, small-scale vegetable farming in industrialised nations. Previous studies were largely limited to laboratory conditions - by conducting the study in PRC, the method was tested in challenging (hot and humid) conditions likely to be replicated in locations where there is the greatest need for easily-accessible soil test kits i.e. the fast-growing regions of South-East Asia.
Collaborator Contribution Nanjing Agricultural University provided field sites, laboratory facilities and training in how to carry out country-specific soil tests.
Impact The objectives of the study were successfully met thanks to careful design of the study and accessibility to field sites and well-equipped soil laboratory in PRC. One of the outputs of the study was a presentation of the results during the International Graduate Student Conference at Nanjing Agricultural University in November 2018. Another output of the study is involved a publication of the results as a peer-reviewed scientific paper, which has strengthened the relationship between Nanjing Agricultural University and Cranfield University.
Start Year 2018