Courtesy of Cheryl Gerber

Prof. Harold Van Es greets donor Phyllis Taylor, who sponsored the $1 million prize for the competition.

January 26, 2018

Cornell Researchers Win $1 Million for Solution to Reduce Fertilizer Runoff

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A Cornell research team won $1 million in December for their solution to the runoff of nitrogen into bodies of water. The system uses information such as weather, soil type and crop management data to inform farmers of the correct amount of fertilizer needed.

Cornell researchers competed against 77 teams in the Tulane University Nitrogen Reduction Challenge, according to Prof. Harold Van Es, soil and water management, the head of the research team. Van Es said he began the development of the solution, Adapt-N, 15 years ago alongside fellow Cornell professors, in order to improve the efficiency of nitrogen usage.

“We found a way to use simulation models and weather data to better predict the nitrogen needs of crops, most notably corn. Of course corn is the big problem too because there’s so much of it being grown,” Van Es said.

According to Van Es, the purpose of this competition was to encourage and evaluate solutions to a problem in the Gulf of Mexico called hypoxia — when excess nitrogen in a body of water leads to oxygen depletion. Hypoxia is responsible for a dead zone near the mouth of the Mississippi River that last year covered a record 8,776 square miles, according to The Times-Picayune.

An advisory board narrowed the submissions down to four finalists, who then participated in a field demonstration of their tools.

“We had to demonstrate our technology on a farm in Louisiana,” Van Es said. “We were working with the farmers, and we made our recommendations and monitored the nitrogen status of the field. So we were being evaluated on basically what is the potential for adoption and how well we did on this farm.”

In an interview with The Sun, Prof. Michael Daniels, crop, soil and environmental sciences, University of Arkansas, a member of the competition’s advisory board, commented that the board was looking for practices that might help farmers address nitrogen runoff.

“What [Adapt-N] gave us was a way to track nitrogen and make adjustments throughout the season,” Daniels said. “I thought that they demonstrated the best that their tool could be effective at helping farmers be more precise with their nitrogen application. And I thought that they had a useful tool that a crop consultant could take and use with that farmer. It’s one of the more comprehensive nitrogen management tools for crops that I’ve seen.”

Daniels said that there are also economic benefits to the efficient usage of nitrogen, as it allows people to save money on fertilizer.

“In this challenge, they had a lot of rain early in the season and lost a lot of nitrogen, but they were able to detect that accurately, go back and put a little bit more nitrogen on and be profitable doing that,” he said. “They were also able to help farmers refine what they need by showing them they had residual nitrogen left.”

Daniels said this technique could allow farmers to use the fertilizer data from one year to determine how much fertilizer should be used the next year.

According to Van Es, Adapt-N was licensed to Yara International, a nitrogen manufacturer, to expand the implementation of the Cornell team’s technology.

“[Yara International] is the largest manufacturer of nitrogen in the world, but they are actually interested in solving [hypoxia] which is very exciting that they themselves have these really strong sustainability goals,” Van Es said.

While part of the $1 million prize will be split amongst the winning team members, some will go to a Cornell account for research and Yara International.

Van Es also remarked on the benefits of the competition, which he says broadens the goals of developed technology.

“New Orleans is right on the Gulf of Mexico, so it’s a big problem down there,” Van Es said. “[Members of the Cornell community] are kind of removed from it. But it’s a dead zone with a lot of fish killed, and it’s a big environmental challenge and there’s been no progress in that for a while.”

Daniels said the value of a competition like Tulane’s Nitrogen Reduction Challenge is that it gives visibility to new developments in the scientific community.

“Sometimes a tool like that, the growers in New York might know about it or other scientific colleagues might know about it, but it can be adapted to use in other places around the country,” Daniels said. “You might have a tool, and you can use it for academic purposes but [it’s difficult] getting something out there that’s actually a managing tool that can be used by those that have to make daily decisions on nutrient applications.”