Nanotechnology: Challenges and opportunities in rolling out new tech at scale

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Nanotechnology could make agriculture more efficient and sustainable. Image Source: The Creative Drone/Getty Images
Nanotechnology could make agriculture more efficient and sustainable. Image Source: The Creative Drone/Getty Images

Related tags Sustainability Sustainable agriculture Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology – when matter is manipulated at the microscopic level – has the potential to be transformative in many fields. One of these fields is agriculture.

Nanotechnology can make a significant impact on agriculture. It can monitor soil moisture, temperature, and nutrient levels; it can help detect the presence of plant pathogens; it can be used to deliver fertilizers and pesticides more efficiently, minimising environmental impact; and it can be used to develop antimicrobial coatings for food packing.

A whitepaper released by the World Nano Foundation outlines the many benefits of nanotech on the world of agriculture. A range of universities from the UK, the US, Argentina and India are working on developing the technology.  

Thriving soil, healthy plants

Nanotechnology is an effective monitor of soil, according to the whitepaper, which can help farmers with managing their crops.

Nanoparticles can be designed to enhance soil aeration, water retention, and nutrient delivery​,” Paul Stannard, Chairman at the World Nano Foundation, told FoodNavigator.

Furthermore, nano-formulated fertilizers can be more readily absorbed by plants, reducing the amounts that remain in the soil and reducing the potential for nutrient run-off​.” Improving soil health means a greater yield for the farmer.

It can also be used to spread fertilizers and pesticides with less waste than normal, which minimises waste and reduces environmental impact.

Nanotechnology can enhance the efficiency of fertilizers and pesticides by enabling the controlled release of these substances. Nano-encapsulation or nano-formulations can ensure that the chemicals are released only when required, reducing the amount wasted and minimizing environmental impact.​”

It can even protect plants by detecting plant pathogens. “Nanosensors can be employed for early detection of plant pathogens by recognizing specific molecules or conditions associated with disease.

While the specific pathogens detected would depend on the design and specificity of the sensors, they could potentially identify a wide range of bacterial, viral, and fungal threats​.”

Can it change agriculture?

Despite its clear benefits, scaling it up to the level where it is capable of transforming agriculture will no doubt be a challenge. In terms of cost, sustainability and regulation, things are uncertain.

Scaling up the technology could be challenging, and this is what researchers are currently working on. However, it’s not clear-cut and depends on what the nanotechnology is being used for.

Cost-effective upscaling of nanotechnology for widespread agricultural use depends on the specific application​,” Stannard told us.

In some cases, mass production of nanomaterials or nanodevices could bring costs down. Partnerships between academia, industry, and governments could also support research, development, and commercialization efforts​.”

The market for nanotechnology in sustainable agriculture is expected to grow to $16.7 billion by 2025, which is a compound growth rate of 25.4%

How sustainable the production en masse​ of nanotechnology will be also depends largely on the method of production. “The sustainability of producing nanotechnology varies by method and application.

“Environmentally friendly synthesis methods, such as green synthesis using plant extracts, are being explored. Additionally, the reduced use of chemicals due to efficient nano-delivery systems can also contribute to sustainability​.”

The regulatory landscape will also need to shift, stressed Stannard, before the technology can be used at a large scale.

As nanotechnology becomes more prevalent, regulations will need to evolve to address potential health and environmental concerns. Countries may set safety standards, guidelines for testing, and labelling requirements to inform users about the presence and safety of nanomaterials in products​.”

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