Grant awarded for new method of soil strength testing

The Open University is leading a £680k project to develop a new method to measure the strength of soil. Soil strength and the availability of water are the main factors determining crop yields. Water shortages are already a major threat to food production in many countries, which makes better soil management practices crucial.

Scientists have recognised that growth of wheat is hampered during water shortages because of an increase in soil strength, which means increased resistance to root growth. Wheat productivity would need to increase to meet a predicted 50% rise in food demand by 2030, due to global population growth, climate change and pressure on limited resources (1). To ensure global food security and more reliable food production, new methods of soil strength testing are required, since the existing method, insertion of a probe to test the resistance of soil to penetration, is invasive and laborious.

The OU’s acoustics research group is investigating a non-invasive acoustic-seismic method. Keith Attenborough, Research Professor in Acoustics at The Open University, explains: “The interaction of sound with soils can provide information on soil strength, moisture content and permeability to air flow. The reflection of sound at the soil surface is influenced by the permeability, and sound speeds in soils are influenced by the forces between particles which in turn depend on water content and soil structure. Better information on permeability and moisture content will help us to understand and manage crops’ responses to drought.”

After proof of concept through extensive testing, the proposed technique will provide the basis for subsequent development of automated data acquisition and processing in the field.

The EPSRC funded project is led by Professor Keith Attenborough in collaboration with Dr Richard Whalley at Rothamsted Research, Dr Bruce Grieve of the Syngenta Sensors Centre at The University of Manchester and Delta-T Devices Ltd, specialists in instruments for measurement in the environmental sciences.

1. Source: All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science & Technology in Agriculture, 23 February 2010

Editor’s Notes

• The Open University climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK’s top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University’s research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*).

• The Open University is the UK’s largest university and the world leader in distance education, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. It has more than 200,000 students in over 40 countries. Of these, more than 1,100 are postgraduate research students.

• The latest edition of the Open University’s Research Highlights brochure can be downloaded from:

• Open Research Online (ORO), the University’s freely accessible repository of research publications, is available at: ORO has around 30,000 visitors from 170 different countries each month, and is currently ranked the fifth best higher education repository in the UK by the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR).

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