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A team in Denmark has developed a sensor-based system that can help combat air pollution by detecting ammonia and other gases from the agricultural sector.
In addition to chemical engineers and chemists, researchers from Aarhus University and the Technical University of Denmark worked on the technology as part of the Ecometa project, which focuses on reducing emissions related to agriculture.
University researchers are focusing on photonics, a term the European Commission has termed the "science and technology of light". Details of their system were published in the journal "MDPI Photonics".
According to an announcement earlier this week, those involved in the project have manufactured an integrated optical sensor that "measures ammonia in the air using a laser, a gas sensor and hollow-core optical fibers".
Andreas Hansel is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Engineering at Aarhus University. In a statement released Tuesday, he said the system could show how it is possible to "conduct continuous ammonia monitoring for the agricultural sector".
Due to the fact that it is based on "mature telecommunications technology", Hansel added that the system could be put together "at very low cost".
Agriculture and ammonia
There is a close relationship between livestock farming, the waste these animals produce and air pollution.
"Manure emits ammonia, which combines with other air pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulfates to form tiny (and deadly) solid particles," said the Defense Council on Natural Resources (NRDC). The NRDC adds that humans inhale these particles, which in turn can be harmful to health.
Of course, air pollution is a global public health crisis. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 7 million people die worldwide each year. Nine out of ten people are said to breathe air with high levels of pollutants.
Back in Denmark, Aarhus University's announcement on Tuesday stated that animal production "is responsible for a significant part of Danish air pollution, mainly ammonia".
According to stakeholders, the problem is that ammonia emissions are currently not measured at the "farm level" due to cost concerns.
It is hoped that the low-cost system developed by the researchers can help change how emissions are monitored.
"The new technology brings us one step closer to farmers to continuously monitor their emissions," said Anders Feilberg, Associate Professor at Aarhus University who is involved in the Ecometa project.
"By closely monitoring ammonia emissions from stalls and houses, farmers can streamline operations far better," added Feilberg.
"This brings us closer to emissions-based regulation with measured emissions and can significantly reduce the environmental impact of agriculture."
The role of tech in agriculture
The work carried out in Denmark is the latest example of how organizations and companies are trying to integrate new ideas and innovations into the agricultural sector.
At the end of March 2019, for example, the fruit farmer T & G Global announced that a robot harvester would be used for a commercial apple harvest in New Zealand. The automated apple picking robot was developed by Abundant Robotics, a California-based technology company.
Last year, Cambridge University engineers developed a robot that uses machine learning to pick lettuce.
More recently, technology giant Alphabet's so-called Moonshot Factory – also known as the X – shared details about a project aimed at transforming agriculture and food production through the use of technologies such as robotics, software and satellite imagery.