ARPA program funds projects for better ROOTS, addressing soil deficit and carbon sequestration, crops of the future

December 19th, 2016 by  Clean Technica

The Energy Department is out with another $35 million in funding for its aptly named ROOTS carbon sequestration program, aimed at developing and deploying new crops that can solve at least two big problems at once. The crops of the future will be able to sequester carbon at a greater depth, increasing accumulation by about 50%. The new crops will also help restore soil quality, enabling farmers to sustain higher yields while — hopefully — reducing reliance on fertilizers.

ROOTS (Rhizosphere Observations Optimizing Terrestrial Sequestration) comes under the Energy Department’s cutting edge funding agency, ARPA-E. That adds a high tech twist to the act of plugging plants into the soil.


Reducing The Agriculture Soil Carbon Debt

The issue of soil “carbon debt” in the US agriculture industry hasn’t crossed the CleanTechnica radar yet, so here’s a brief explainer from the Energy Department outlining the scope of the problem:

While advances in technology have resulted in a ten-fold increase in crop productivity over the past hundred years, soil quality has declined, incurring a soil carbon debt equivalent to 65 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2)…


The decline in soil quality creates a ripple effect that hampers the ability of the US agriculture industry to grow (so to speak lols) in a low carbon economy:

…The soil carbon debt also increases the need for costly nitrogen fertilizer, which has become the primary source of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, a greenhouse gas. The soil carbon debt also impacts crop water use, increasing susceptibility to drought stress, which threatens future productivity.

One particularly cost-effective solution, according to ARPA-E scientists (are you listening Rick Perry?) is to focus new crops on root systems that leverage the “photosynthetic bridge” linking plants, microbes and soil with atmospheric carbon.

And of course, since ARPA-E is all about sustainable economic growth and energy independence, there’s a twofer:

…Development of new root-focused plant cultivars could dramatically and economically reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations while improving productivity, resilience and sustainability.

10 Projects For Better ROOTS

The new $35 million round of funding will be split among ten projects.

Colorado State University has a big data project under way that involves developing a robotic sensing platform to map root systems and quantify soil health. The data plat form is CyVerse, a project of the National Science Foundation.

Iowa State University is doing something called High-Resolution Phenotyping of Nitrogen Use Efficiency Using Coupled In-Plant and In-Soil Sensors:

The team will design and build a novel silicon microneedle in-plant nitrogen sensor and a microfluidic soil nitrogen sensor. Incorporating the new soil and in-plant sensors in to “real world” field trials will improve and accelerate the effort to identify, select and commercial new crops with improved nitrogen use efficiency.

Our friends over at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are working on a sensing system that characterizes root systems using electrical currents. It’s being applied to wheat breeding sites in Oklahoma.

The lab is also working on a system for quantifying soil carbon sequestration based on something called inelastic neutron scattering. If you have any idea what that is, drop a note in the comment thread (hint: it has something to do with “recent technical breakthroughs in compact neutron generators”).

Pennsylvania State University is focusing on a screening system for identifying deep-rooted corn cultivars (that’s fancyspeak for a plant that has been cultivated through selective breeding). As with all of the ROOTS projects (this is ARPA-E after all), there is a high tech angle:

Their key sensor innovation is to measure leaf elemental composition with x-ray fluorescence, and use it as a proxy for rooting depth. They will also develop an automated imaging system for excavated roots, allowing them to identify architectural traits of roots, and enhance a laser-based imaging platform to determine root anatomy.

Sandia National Laboratories will delve into the linkage between photosynthesis and carbon sequestration, borrowing technology from the medical field.

Stanford University is doing “Thermoacoustic Root Imaging, Biomass Analysis, and Characterization.” That project interprets ultrasonic signals from roots. Yes, roots can talk.

For a colorful, science-based description of plant communication we turn to NPR:

Not only do plants use airborne chemicals, they send signals underground, through their roots. Some make ultrasonic “clicking” sounds. What feels to us like a quiet day in the forest may in fact be a hurly-burly of wafting, pulsing, clicking plant-to-plant communication.

As for the Rick Perry reference, if you’re not following US politics (lucky you!), the former Governor of Texas has been tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to head up the Energy Department.

Perry is not particularly well known for his experience with foundational energy research, but under his watch the state of Texas did continue to ramp up its renewables industry at the expense of coal including the massive CREZ wind energy transmission project.

His experience as governor of a state with a large, important agriculture sector could influence his support for bioenergy programs. His last term ended in 2014, so he was at the helm when Texas staked out its claim as an R&D center for algae biofuel.

Then again, Perry is also well known for his insistence that the Earth is experiencing a cooling trend, his somewhat bizarre rationale for curbing women’s’ access to basic health care, and his appearance with Vanilla Ice in Season 23 of Dancing with the Stars.

Nobody’s perfect, amiright?

Follow me on Twitter and Google+.