PES Technologies have developed a sensor that performs a full assessment of soil health to inform land management decisions for a sustainable future. Franca Davenport spoke to CEO and Co-founder Andrej Porovic to find out more about the technology as part of Undaunted’s Climate Innovations Up-Close blog series.
The value of point-of-need testing to manage public health became firmly acknowledged during the Covid-19 pandemic, but its application to soil health is not so well-known. For some years PES Technologies have been developing a device that can accurately measure the health of soil at the time and place where the sample is taken.
Soil is an essential resource. It supports crop growth, provides a backbone to biodiversity and can lock-in greenhouse gases. Its health is central to sustainable food production and the mitigation of climate change but years of intensive farming, deforestation and fertiliser use have led to its degradation.
Soil degradation costs $230 billion per year globally and the majority of these costs are not borne by farmers but by the wider community. As a result, policy makers are stepping in to legislate for measures that can improve and maintain soil health such as crop rotation and planting more trees on farmland. However, effective implementation of these measures needs accurate monitoring to enable them to be properly incentivised and evaluated.
Monitoring the biological side of soil
Healthy soil encompasses a range of different qualities that are physical, chemical and biological. To date monitoring has focussed on aspects of soil’s chemical make-up, such as acidity, and its physical attributes, such as water content. The biological side of soil health has been somewhat neglected because it is too difficult and costly to assess but, similar to our gut, soil is full of microbes and their type and diversity determines its health.
“Soil that doesn’t have microbial life isn’t soil, it’s just dust” explains Andrej Porovic, CEO and Co-Founder. ”Without its microbial communities soil can no longer fulfil essential functions such as promoting germination, stimulating roots, retaining water, and enhancing immunity to disease.”
Current approaches to measuring this quality of soil involve taking large cylindrical samples from the ground and sending them to a laboratory which can take weeks to process. PES Technologies have developed a gas-based sensor that can assess 14 indicators of soil’s biological health from a 100g sample taken from the surface. These indicators include measures of how large the microbial population is, levels of organic matter and respiration rate. It does this in the field on a real-time basis, providing data that are GPS-tagged so they can be collated to help assess variation of soil health over different landscapes.
Optimising the value of the technology
Importantly the technology enables experts or agronomists to provide advice at the time of sampling and when they are still at the test location. “Potential users have informed us of the value of receiving results at the time of sampling,” says Porovic. “So they can provide evidence-based advice on the spot and show examples of their insight when they are at the location.” Ultimately the plan is for the technology to involve a cassette that can take 100 to 200 sensors to enable cost effective monitoring at scale. “It’s through mass-testing that we believe industry can learn the most,” explains Porovic.
As deep tech innovators, the team has needed time and patient investment to develop both the hardware of the sensor and the algorithms that convert measurements of indicators into meaningful data.
“As a deep tech venture we have been solving problems that nobody has tried to solve before and, whilst doing so, creating new ones that no one has even considered. So you need to be resilient and learn how to last the distance.”Andrej Porovic, CEO and Co-Founder, PES Technologies
With support from the Imperial Climate Accelerator in 2018 and through securing a series of innovation grants, the company has worked across four projects with ten different partners in academia and industry, gearing up for mass market readiness. “The belief and support of the accelerator really helped us run the gauntlet of building a deep tech company,” comments Porovic. ”It also made me recognise how essential support is at these early stages and has inspired me to offer mentoring for new companies working in this area.”
Beyond soil health management
With national and international legislation in the pipeline to ensure that land management tools are put in place to improve soil health, the need for this new technology is imminent. If it was used at scale globally, the sensor would need to be trained on different types of soil and estimates of its impact suggest that, by reducing the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers and improving soil carbon storage, the tech could enable a reduction in global emissions by 1.4 – 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 per year.
And the potential impact doesn’t stop there: as a deep tech venture it has other possible applications, such as providing an early warning system to alert farmers to when crops in storage start to rot, which could help reduce food wastage. With other potential applications in mind, the sensor is not just the future of soil health management but possibly the future of many other sustainable practices.
Climate Solutions Up-Close
Take a deeper-dive into innovative climate technology by exploring other posts in Undaunted’s Climate Solutions Up-Close blog series.
Undaunted is a partnership between The Royal Institution and Imperial’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment.
Undaunted and The Greenhouse would like to thank the 2014 to 2020 European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, the Greater London Authority and HSBC UK for funding.