$1.3M is Awarded to UC Davis to Build a Low-Cost Way to Measure Plant Water Status

image of Professors Momeni and Buckley
Department of Plant Sciences Associate Professor Tom Buckley (left), Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Professor Omeed Momeni (right)

The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Professor Omeed Momeni, in collaboration with Department of Plant Sciences Associate Professor Tom Buckley, have received a $650,000 Seeding Solutions grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) to develop a low-cost, compact and non-invasive way to measure plant water status to optimally control crop irrigation. UC Davis has provided a matching fund for a total of 1.3M research investment.

This project supports FFAR’s Sustainable Water Management Challenge Area, which fuels innovation in enabling the adoption of water management practices. In the four-year collaborative project titled, “A Compact and Low Power Ultra-Short-Range Terahertz Radar for In Vivo Leaf Sensing and Precision Irrigation,” the two PIs from different disciplines will work closely together. Professor Omeed Momeni is an expert in mm-wave and terahertz integrated circuit/system design and is in charge of the implementation of the sensor chip. Professor Tom Buckley is a crop physiologist and plant ecologist specializing in how plants adapt to environmental stress and change, particularly drought stress. For more details, please refer to the summary of the project which is provided below: 

Irrigators have long sought a practical, low-cost, compact, and noninvasive way to measure plant water status, to optimally balance irrigation with crop water demand. Cost is the primary limitation to grower adoption of technologies that measure plant water status for irrigation scheduling. In order to accurately gauge irrigation needs across a farm or orchard with varying environmental and soil conditions, farmers must either invest in a large number of costly sensors, or a large amount of labor to make spatially intensive measurements by hand. Neither is economically feasible with existing technology. Existing sensors for this purpose are all suboptimal, for various reasons: they are either bulky and have high power consumption, have low resolution, produce output that is difficult to relate directly and consistently to leaf water status, and/or are too sensitive to environmental fluctuations for field operation. 

Momeni and Buckley propose a novel terahertz ultra-short-range radar that is sensitive enough to measure 1% changes in leaf thickness and volumetric water content, concurrently. From these two measurements, leaf relative water content can be directly calculated, providing irrigators with data of unprecedented clarity, consistency and relevance. Similar to a RFID tag, this low power and small chip can be easily mounted on one side of the leaf for many months on a single charge, allowing continued light absorption and gas exchange for photosynthesis. The new sensor proposed here has the potential to dramatically reduce the unit cost of in vivo measurements of plant water status, and thus offers almost incalculable potential to improve irrigation scheduling for America's farmers. In addition to improving agricultural water use efficiency, the proposed sensor would be invaluable for research, by dramatically reducing the cost of monitoring plant water status. This would enable future researchers to gather vastly more data, in vivo and in situ, for less cost.