UO technology spinout gets Oregon BEST award for field testing

University of Oregon spinout SupraSensor Technologies is getting $120,000 from Oregon BEST to install and field test 150 of the wireless nitrate sensors the company is developing to help farmers reduce fertilizer use. The award was detailed in a story on the website Sustainable Business Oregon, which is produced by the Portland Business Journal.

The aim of the Oregon BEST commercialization funding is to put technology on a fast track to the marketplace.

Because plants absorb only so much nitrogen, about 30 percent of fertilizer applied to North American soils is wasted due to over-application and runoff. With U.S. farmers spending $12 billion annually on fertilizer, the new supramolecular sensor technology could lead to significant savings in fertilizer purchases, as well as in labor and fuel costs associated with fertilizer application.

"In addition to the potential economic savings for farmers, our sensors will also help reduce groundwater pollution caused by excess nitrates that flow from cultivated fields into streams, lakes and oceans," said Calden Carroll, CEO of SupraSensor Technologies. "Excess nitrates are what trigger algal booms that deplete oxygen levels and create dead zones in the water where nothing can live."

Carroll, who earned his doctorate in chemistry from the UO in 2011, said nitrates are problematic in fertilizers because they are water soluble, so over-application can lead to nitrates being leached from the soil and into the water system. The problem is so widespread that the National Academy of Engineering has identified managing the nitrate cycle in agriculture as one of 14 "Grand Challenges" for the 21st century.

Carroll discovered the molecule now used in the sensor when he was a graduate student studying supramolecular chemistry -- the interactions between molecules -- with UO chemistry professors Darren Johnson and Mike Haley. The three researchers are the company's co-founders.

"Calden's initial result was a happy accident," Johnson said. "We were trying to create a molecular probe to visualize the movement of chloride, not nitrate, through cells to aid research into drug discovery and understanding chloride transport mechanisms in general."

Although the research team knew they had discovered a molecular marker specific for nitrate, it wasn't until later that they realized the implications of the discovery in agriculture and launched the new company.

The company plans to test the robustness of the sensors throughout a growing season, starting this spring. It is currently seeking farmers of fertilized and irrigated crops willing to participate in the study. Sensors will be deployed in 12 different geographical locations.

"This project leverages an important scientific discovery and our regional strengths in agriculture to advance a technology that could prove to be transformational in reducing costs for farmers and pollution in our planet's water systems," said David Kenney, president and executive director of Oregon BEST. "Oregon BEST is happy to be able to help accelerate this effort."

The company previously participated in the National Science Foundation's Innovation Corps Program, winning the "Best Team" Award out of 25 teams that participated in the 6-month course. In addition to the Oregon BEST funds, the company was awarded a $180,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant and a $250,000 Gap Grant from ONAMI.

- from the UO Office of Public Affairs Communications