Groundbreaking’ Soil Sensors From UT Dallas Bioengineers Could Help Combat Climate Change, Food Insecurity

September 3, 2023


Soil quality isn’t just a concern for farmers and policymakers—it also matters on a personal level. The health of our soil affects everything from the food we eat to the air we breathe. But thanks to bioengineers at UT Dallas, new soil sensors could help improve soil productivity on a global scale.

Bioengineers at the University of Texas at Dallas have developed sensors that monitor multiple soil parameters, including total soil carbon, to provide farmers with accurate, real-time, continuous data to improve soil health and productivity.

“This is the equivalent of having a wearable health sensor on your body that tells you in real-time what’s happening. Think of it as a wearable for the soil,” Dr. Shalini Prasad, department head of bioengineering and the Cecil H. and Ida Green Professor in Systems Biology Science in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, said in a statement. “We are excited about the potential for our soil sensors to provide more accurate testing of living soil in its ecosystem.”

In a statement, UT Dallas calls the sensors “groundbreaking.”

Electrochemical soil testing

From left: Paul Rice BS’18, MS’22, Dr. Shalini Prasad and biomedical engineering doctoral student Mohammed Eldeeb demonstrated the sensors on campus last fall.

The sensors apply electrical stimulation to the soil and measure chemical reactions to the voltage, UTD said. Prasad’s team described the testing of soil using electrochemical sensors in an article published in June 2022 in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society.

The technique developed by the researchers measures pH, moisture, volumetric bulk density, and the two main soil carbon pools—levels of soil organic matter and carbonaceous soil minerals — as well as total soil carbon.

Partnering with Soil in Formation

UTD said that Prasad, who has developed wearable sensor technology to monitor various human health conditions such as diabetes, received research funding through a two-year UT Dallas Intellectual Property Assignment/Sponsored Research Agreement to look into the use of electrochemical methods to assess soil health for industry partner Soil in Formation (SIF), a public benefit corporation.

In January, SIF sponsored additional research to advance the technology, including technology to capture additional soil parameters, UTD said.

The school’s Intellectual Property Assignment/Sponsored Research Agreement model provides an industry sponsor the opportunity to own the intellectual property that results from a sponsor-funded research project, the university said.

UT Dallas said that giving the sponsor ownership of the IP upfront eliminates much of the risk and uncertainty around license negotiations and the subsequent financial obligations.

UTD researchers developed an electrochemical sensor to accurately test soil. [Courtesy photo]

Potential of mitigating climate change

Prasad said the sensor is a paradigm shift in soil testing.

Typically, soil is tested by digging up a sample and sending it to a lab, or it is evaluated remotely by infrared methods or satellite, UTD said. But SIF wanted to develop a more direct and accurate method for testing soil as a dynamic, living ecosystem, the university said.

Henry Rowlands, the company’s research and development lead, said this new soil health monitoring technology developed by UTD researchers improves the accuracy and auditability of soil test results significantly.

“The sensors developed at UTD should provide data that farmers and other stakeholders can use to improve soil health and mitigate climate change by improving soil’s ability to draw down carbon from the atmosphere,” Rowlands said in a statement.

Rowlands said the technology has global implications.

As soil quality declines from damaging agricultural practices, the tech could play a role in enabling the improvement of soil health on a global scale, which also could help address food insecurity, he said.

Quincy Preston contributed to this report.