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Guiding the design space for nanotechnology to advance sustainable crop production


The globally recognized need to advance more sustainable agriculture and food systems has motivated the emergence of transdisciplinary solutions, which include methodologies that utilize the properties of materials at the nanoscale to address extensive and inefficient resource use. Despite the promising prospects of these nanoscale materials, the potential for large-scale applications directly to the environment and to crops necessitates precautionary measures to avoid unintended consequences. Further, the effects of using engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) in agricultural practices cascade throughout their life cycle and include effects from upstream-embodied resources and emissions from ENM production as well as their potential downstream environmental implications. Building on decades-long research in ENM synthesis, biological and environmental interactions, fate, transport and transformation, there is the opportunity to inform the sustainable design of nano-enabled agrochemicals. Here we perform a screening-level analysis that considers the system-wide benefits and costs for opportunities in which ENMs can advance the sustainability of crop-based agriculture. These include their on-farm use as (1) soil amendments to offset nitrogen fertilizer inputs, (2) seed coatings to increase germination rates and (3) foliar sprays to enhance yields. In each analysis, the nano-enabled alternatives are compared against the current practice on the basis of performance and embodied energy. In addition to identifying the ENM compositions and application approaches with the greatest potential to sustainably advance crop production, we present a holistic, prospective, systems-based approach that promotes emerging alternatives that have net performance and environmental benefits.

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Fig. 1: From an embodied energy perspective, ENM soil amendments at the currently studied application concentrations do not present a sustainable alternative to conventional fertilization practice.
Fig. 2: From an embodied energy perspective, Zn, ZnO, Cu and CuO nanoparticles offer the most promising seed-coating alternatives.
Fig. 3: From an embodied energy perspective, Zn and ZnO nanoparticles offer the most promising foliar treatments.

Data availability

All data sources are indicated in the paper, and included in Supplementary Data 16.


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Funding support for L.M.G., L.P., J.B.Z., T.L.T., P.W. and G.V.L. was provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency through the STAR program (RD83558001) and the National Science Foundation (NNCI-ECCS-1542160). Funding for G.V.L., X.G. and S.L. was provided by the US National Science Foundation Cooperative Agreement EF-1266252, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT) and CBET-1530563, Nano for Agriculturally Relevant Materials (NanoFARM). P.W. acknowledges partial support from the Nanosystems Engineering Research Center on Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment (EEC-1449500). L.M.G. recognizes support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. L. Passantino provided technical editing.

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L.M.G. conceived the idea and designed the research framework with G.V.L. and L.P. L.P., S.L. and X.G. gathered and analysed the data. L.P. quantified the embodied energy and life-cycle data and created the figures. L.M.G. and L.P. led the drafting and editing of the manuscript. All the authors discussed the results throughout the project development and contributed to writing and editing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Leanne M. Gilbertson.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Data 1

Table 1. Embodied energy of N-fertilizers and ENMs.

Supplementary Data 2

Table 2. Life cycle inventory to calculate CED of production of CeO2 nanoparticles through hydrothermal crystallization with citric acid.

Supplementary Data 3

Table 3. Life cycle inventory to calculate CED of production of CeO2 nanoparticles through microwave hydrothermal.

Supplementary Data 4

Table 4. Range of ENMs applied to soil based on available literature.

Supplementary Data 5

Table 5. Effect of ENMs and conventional seed coatings on seed germination.

Supplementary Data 6

Table 6. Effect of ENMs and conventional chemicals on yield through foliar application.

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Gilbertson, L.M., Pourzahedi, L., Laughton, S. et al. Guiding the design space for nanotechnology to advance sustainable crop production. Nat. Nanotechnol. 15, 801–810 (2020).

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