Nanomaterial may help stop pesticide drift danger

Two researchers at the University of Arkansas may have found a solution to pesticide drift concerns.

Statistics show up to 70 million pounds of herbicides are lost to the environment each year in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Global crop production suffers immensely from the off-target drift of herbicides,” Joseph Batta-Mpouma said. “Herbicides that miss their target, or that volatize and drift after application, damage sensitive crops. It can lead to over-spraying and environmental pollution.”

To keep those herbicides on target and on the ground, Batta-Mpouma and Gurshagan Kandhola developed a unique formulation of biodegradable nanomaterials derived from cellulosic waste, like sawdust. The formulation is designed to be added as an adjuvant to herbicide spray mixtures to reduce drift.

The Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station research was initially supported by the Center for Advanced Surface Engineering under the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant.

Later the project earned a $50,000 University of Arkansas Chancellor’s Fund grant to continue advancing the technology.

Batta-Mpouma is a Ph.D. candidate in the Materials Science and Engineering program at the University of Arkansas. He is a senior research assistant to Jin-Woo Kim, professor of biological and agricultural engineering for the Agricultural Experiment Station, the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, and the U of A’s College of Engineering.

Kandhola has completed her doctoral degree in biological engineering and is a post-doctoral fellow in Kim’s research group. She is partnering with Batta-Mpouma in a commercial venture to bring the nanocellulosic technology for herbicide drift control to market.

Nanoparticles are between 1 and 100 nanometers long, a nanometer being equal to one billionth of a meter. Kim has spent years developing methods for turning nanoparticles into practical tools for medical, agricultural and manufacturing uses.

Kim’s research, funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health, combines multiple nanoscale materials into single, multifunctional structures with defined physical, chemical or biological characteristics that hold promise for advanced materials and devices.

“The potential applications of these technologies are wide open,” Kim said.

To produce these materials, Kim has been developing nano-building-block technology to guide self-assembly of nanoparticles into specific shapes for specific purposes. He calls it nBLOCK technology, and it induces nanoparticles to arrange themselves into designed structures.

Kim has been expanding nBLOCK technology into a “nano-toolbox” of assembly methods that can be used to produce an unlimited number of different materials.

Batta-Mpouma said he was reading news stories about problems with volatilization and drift of dicamba-based herbicides in Arkansas farm fields.

“I thought, our technology can do something about this,” he said.

Working with Kim’s nano-toolbox, Batta-Mpouma and Kandhola developed a cellulosic crystal nanoparticle, dubbed BioGrip, designed to bind to herbicides. Added to farm chemicals as an adjuvant, the particles add weight to the herbicide droplets, causing them to fall faster and more directly on target during field applications. It also prevents volatilization of the active ingredient, so it stays put on the weeds.

The nano-toolbox gave them the control they needed to precisely construct the agrochemical encapsulating carrier that became BioGrip.

“We did the research,” Batta-Mpouma said. “This is the first application of this technology.”

The program required the formation of a new company and so CelluDot, LLC was formed. Nilda Burgos, professor of weed physiology and molecular biology in the division’s department of crop, soil and environmental sciences, will conduct research as a consultant to CelluDot to determine BioGrip's efficacy in controlling herbicide application, volatilization and drift.

Batta-Mpouma said the research will also investigate the best methods for adhering the chemicals to the nanoparticle and how well they bind together.

The Division of Agriculture filed for a patent on the nanotechnology and optioned intellectual property rights to CelluDot, said Bryan Renk, director of technology commercialization for the division.

Kim said the technology that created BioGrip can be applied to many uses.

“The nano-toolbox technologies and methods offer precise control over size, shape and function of nanoparticles,” he said. “There are limitless uses for precision nanoparticles in agricultural, biomedical, manufacturing and other technologies.”

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