Traditionally, applying chemicals involves first mixing the active ingredients in water and then spraying the mixture on crops. But the ingredients do not mix easily, making this an inefficient process that requires large quantities of water.
To improve efficiency and reduce environmental impact, farmers need their fertilizers and pesticides to reach their crops and be absorbed into the plant exactly where they’re needed — into the roots or the leaves, for example. Ideally, they could use just enough of the chemical to enhance the crop’s yield or protect it from attack or infection, which would prevent excess from being wasted.
Custom-made nanoscale systems can use precision chemistry to achieve high-efficiency delivery of fertilizers or pesticides. These active ingredients can be encapsulated in a fashion similar to what happens in targeted drug delivery. The encapsulation technique can also be used to increase the amount dissolved in water, reducing the need for large amounts.
Starpharma, a pharmaceutical company, got into this game a few years ago, when it set up a division to apply its nanotechnological innovations to the agriculture sector. The company has since sold its agrochemical business.
Psigryph is another innovative nanotech company in agriculture. Its technology uses biodegradable nanostructures derived from Montmonercy sour cherries extract to deliver bioactive molecules across cell membranes in plants, animals and humans.
My lab has spent years working in nanoscience, and I am proud to see our fundamental understanding of manipulating polymer encapsulation at the nanoscale make its way to applications in agriculture. A former student, Darren Anderson, is the CEO of Vive Crop Protection, named one of Canada’s top growing firms: they take chemical and biological pesticides and suspend them in “nanopackets” — which act as incredibly small polymer shuttles — to make them easily reach their target. The ingredients can be controlled and precisely directed when applied on crops.