Mines News

Release Date Tuesday, March 5, 2024

National Science Foundation Funding to Help Create Cleaner Fertilizer

Ava Hermes, Dr. Prasoon Diwakar, Navdeep Kaur, Zach Karg, Carson Daly, Dr. Rajesh Sani, and Dr. Tanvi Govil are leading South Dakota efforts to create a biofertilizer that would have significantly less environmental impacts than current fertilizers.

Synthetic fertilizer is one of the most essential and needed items for growing healthy crops. But what happens when synthetic fertilizers become increasingly expensive, are detrimental to human health and damage the environment?

Thanks to a $4 million National Science Foundation award, South Dakota Mines, along with South Dakota State University, North Dakota State University and Sitting Bull College, will be working to develop a more environmentally friendly microbial fertilizer. The innovation will utilize biopolymer beads encapsulated by the biofertilizer for controlled release, replacing traditional ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer.

“There are adverse impacts of excessive chemical fertilizer use,” mentioned Dr. Prasoon Diwakar, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at South Dakota Mines. “This underscores the necessity for solutions that are both climate-friendly and environmentally sustainable.”

As part of the collaboration, microbiologists in the Karen M. Swindler Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Mines will be responsible for creating the right microbial consortia. The mechanical engineering department will develop sensors that can measure the performance of the soil, the new fertilizer, its impact on soil and the gasses released by the fertilizer. The project will also utilize drones photograph the fields where the tests are being conducted.

“I believe the drones will be very useful,” Diwakar said. “Students have already started working on the drones and the sensors in addition to machine learning to comb through all of this information. Through what they develop, team will be able to assess the impact of the fertilizers and see how it’s affecting the soil health and the plant health in the future.”

This research is very pertinent to citizens of South Dakota as the state spends roughly $1 billion on fertilizers annually, said Dr. Rajesh Sani, a professor in the Karen M. Swindler Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and in the Department of Chemistry, Biology and Health Sciences at Mines. A good crop yield is vitally important to the state’s economy, he said, but fertilizers currently in use pose significant environmental impacts.

“This initiative also aligns with the growth of biomanufacturing in the state,” noted Dr. Tanvi Govil, chemical and biological engineering assistant professor.

"Training and educating the workforce, especially in South Dakota, about the multidisciplinary aspect of this project is crucial," emphasized Diwakar. "We need a to develop workforce capacity in precision agriculture."

Zach Karg, a mechanical engineering graduate student; Navdeep Kaur, a chemical engineering graduate student; Ava Hermes, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student; and Carson Daly, also a mechanical engineering undergraduate student, will also be involved in the study and the development of these biofertilizers.

“These are microbes with plant growth promotion (PGP) traits could replace chemical fertilizers,” Kaur said. She said she’s passionate about this research because of its environmental ramifications.

The mechanical engineering students are excited to leverage their expertise in developing sensors and drones, which could contribute to the improvement of soil health and monitor the performance of microbial biofertilizers.

“From a mechanical engineering standpoint, it’s important to add more technology like this to help the environment,” Hermes said.

Daly, along with Karg, said he comes from a farming background, and he’s seen all the testing that’s required to make sure the levels of nitrogen in the soil are at a healthy level.

“If we’re able to manufacture something here at this level that’s going to improve the environmental impact of fertilizers, that’s a win-win,” he said.

Karg agrees.

“I’ve seen firsthand the overuse of nitrogen in fields, trying to increase the yield of corn and wheat,” Karg said.

Karg said if the researchers can use a fertilizer that is better for the environment and increases crop yield, then they could make a large impact on environmental health 10 to 20 years down the road.


About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 98 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $70,036. For these reasons  South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram, and Snapchat.

Contact: Gray Hughes, 605-394-2554, Gray.Hughes@sdsmt.edu