Harnessing seaweed to help combat food and nutrition insecurity

Humanity is facing unprecedented challenges, from escalating climate change to widespread food and nutrition insecurity. To feed the world’s rapidly growing population, countries must produce more food on land that is under pressure from land degradation and water scarcity.

A team of chemists, designers and researchers led by the Pratt Institute, which recently received a $5 million cooperative agreement from the US National Science Foundation (NSF), is working to develop seaweed-based water sorbents for their AquaSteady project that aims to help farmers in climate-affected regions conserve water resources, restore soil health and increase crop yields. The funding follows a previous NSF award of $750,000 and is part of a broader $35 million investment by the U.S. National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“The AquaSteady project is an important example of the critical work being done at Pratt and its partner institutions to address global and multifaceted challenges like the climate crisis,” said Frances Bronet, president of the Pratt Institute. “Through collaborative, out-of-the-box creative thinking and collaboration with other researchers and communities both in New York and around the world, Pratt’s AquaSteady team is working to build the just and sustainable future we so urgently need. need.”

The AquaSteady team is developing seaweed-based hydrogels that balance soil moisture, enable crops to withstand droughts between irregular rains and reduce the need for irrigation. AquaSteady absorbs water from the soil when it is wet and gradually returns it as the soil dries. It can be formed into an anti-erosion net or other shapes depending on the specific soil and crop needs. This can help agriculture adapt to an increasingly water-scarce future, with water supplies being depleted by industrial activity, rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.

The AquaSteady project started at Pratt in 2021 as a solution for use in food packaging. However, the project shifted its focus to agricultural applications to have a greater impact, and in 2022 the project received a $750,000 award from the NSF Convergence Accelerator, some ideation, further development of the hydrogels, and some on-farm testing made possible. . The AquaSteady project also benefited from the NSF Convergence Accelerator curriculum, developing their skills in human-centered product development, team science, project management and communications, and forming partnerships to strengthen their technology solutions. The $5 million Phase 2 funding will last three years, allowing the team to conduct further research and develop additional prototypes for AquaSteady. The team will test the hydrogel in different agricultural contexts, expand its partnerships and create a sustainability plan beyond the NSF support.

“Big problems, like mitigating the effects of climate change, require the collective effort of professionals with diverse training,” said Helio Takai, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “AquaSteady is a project that is the result of an interdisciplinary effort among scientists and designers at Pratt and experts in many fields related to agriculture, aquaculture and materials science. It is also a project where we work with farmers to best understand first-hand the effects of climate change on the ground.”

Pratt faculty member Cindie Kehlet, professor of chemistry, will serve as principal investigator on the project, while Helio Takai, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Karol M. Murlak, professor of industrial design, will serve as co-principal investigators. Jon D. Chorover, interim associate vice president for research in agricultural, life and veterinary medicine, and cooperative extension at the University of Arizona, George John, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The City College of New York (CUNY), John Idowo, extension agronomy specialist from New Mexico State University, and David Sotomayor, professor of soil science from the University of Puerto Rico, are also co-principal investigators on the team. The effort also involves farmers, consultants and other companies working together in various capacities.

“I am happy to work on a project that has the potential to have a major impact on society by making agriculture more sustainable while mitigating the climate crisis,” said Kehlet. “The project is about conserving water and creating food – the two most fundamental ingredients for our existence.”

Production of AquaSteady will take place at Pratt’s Research Yard, where the project will have extensive research and prototyping space. The AquaSteady project began as part of the IDC Research Accelerator Hub and is supported by the IDC Foundation. The Research Yard is a 20,000-square-foot facility that Pratt opened in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2023 and features manufacturing labs, interdisciplinary research centers and accelerators and the IDC Research Accelerator Hub. Pratt students participated in the project in a variety of ways, including video and photo documentation, communications design for branding and website, conducting user interviews, and prototyping and producing hydrogel samples.

The development of AquaSteady has the potential to create demand for a new sustainable seaweed industry in the US. AquaSteady is made from alginate, a component of brown seaweed, and the team is working with Doall Aquaculture, which operates off the coast of Long Island. Doall Aquaculture cultivates and studies red kelp that removes carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus from the water as it grows.

Some of the seaweed-based hydrogel forms being tested include powder that can be spread over areas as fertilizer and nets that can anchor the bottom and prevent erosion. AquaSteady is already being tested on farms in New York and São Paulo, Brazil, where a recent application of hydrogels allowed newly transplanted saplings to survive 45 days of drought, a result that holds promise for both agriculture and reforestation. The team is meeting farmers in other locations to understand their needs and will provide them with AquaSteady kits for continued data collection and collaboration.

“I’m excited to see how design bridges the gap between science and pressing issues of the contemporary world, such as climate change, water scarcity and food insecurity,” said Murlak. “What plays a key role in this process is a practical, iterative and human-centered approach that perfectly complements the analytical approaches specific to empirical science.”

Hydrogels are well known in agriculture, but are not widely used because current versions are mainly petroleum-based and contribute to soil degradation. Kelp-based hydrogels have numerous environmental benefits: they are biodegradable, they reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and they stimulate beneficial microbial growth in soil that can combat global soil degradation caused by industrial agriculture.

The AquaSteady model also has broader implications. Kelp is easy to grow and can create jobs in coastal communities. Because kelp filters water and improves the health of the marine ecosystem, its cultivation can support the fishing industry. Farmers on the land will see their crop yields and incomes increase, and increased production of diverse crops can provide underserved communities with greater and more nutritious food security.

The AquaSteady research reflects Pratt’s longstanding commitment to sustainability. The school is a founding member of the New York Climate Exchange and recently received an AASHE STARS Gold sustainability rating. In the coming months, the AquaSteady team will aim to collaborate with STEM education teachers in New York City public schools, and create a travel exhibition to raise awareness of how climate change is impacting our food system and our need for sustainable solutions.

AquaSteady’s hydrogels could soon transform food production by uniting aquaculture and agriculture – a kind of circular economic thinking championed by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

To learn more about the Pratt Institute’s research and partnerships, visit pratt.edu/research.

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