Microchips Allow Plants To Phone In For Water
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TECH LETS PLANTS PHONE FOR WATER
By Eric Bland
May 29, 2009
Carrots might not scream when pulled from the ground, but new technology is
giving vegetables a voice in how they are raised. Microchipped plants can
now send text messages to a farmer's cell phone and ask for water.
"It's akin to a clip on earring, very thin and smaller than a postage stamp,
and is affixed to the plant leaf," said Richard Stoner, President of
AgriHouse, a company marketing the technology.
"The farmer would just need their regular cell phone service, and the plant
would send a text message when it needed water."
For areas that receive regular and plentiful rainfall, such detailed crop
monitoring might not be useful or economical. But in the western United
States, where much of the water comes from underground aquifers, conserving
water, and more importantly, conserving the electricity that pumps it to the
surface and across fields, could save farmers hundreds of thousands of
dollars each year.
Water in the open spaces of the west is valuable, but it's virtually worth
its weight in gold in outer space. The original cell phone for plants was
developed years ago by scientists working with NASA on future manned
missions to the moon and Mars.
"You need plants on future space missions," said Hans-Dieter Seelig, a
scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who worked on the
original NASA project.
"They take out waste carbon dioxide, produce breathable oxygen, and the
astronauts can use them as food," said Seelig.
During their research, the NASA scientists concluded that astronauts
wouldn't be able to take anywhere near enough food and supplies for an
estimated two-year mission to Mars. The pilots and Ph.D.'s selected for the
trip would have to spend most of their time as celestial subsistence
To reduce the amount of time and supplies necessary to grow crops,
scientists clipped sensors, wired to a central computer, to plants so
astronauts would know exactly when and how much water to give them.
During the initial NASA tests the scientists were able to reduce the amount
of water necessary to grow plants by 10 percent to 40 percent.
Sustainability in space might keep astronauts alive, and on Earth it's
likely to save farmers time and money.
"We are talking about saving hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for
farmers," using the existing wired system, said Stoner.
The existing sensors have to be connected to a power source to take readings
and transmit them over commercial cell phone towers. Stoner hopes that
future sensors can be equipped with batteries, solar panels or even
piezoelectric generators to generate the power necessary to run the sensors
Adding more sensors across wider areas will enable more detailed management
of farms, saving farmers even more, says Stoner.
Water in the western United States might be relatively cheap, but the
electric bills to pump the water from underground aquifers do add up. And
there is no guarantee that the water will remain cheap either. Being
sustainable could end up being good business.
"We can't be sustainable just in outer space," said Seelig. "That same
principle has to be applied here on Earth as well."
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