What it does
Pesticide pollution causes 200K deaths/year. Only 2% of sprayed pesticides reaches its target as most of what’s sprayed bounces off plants due to their natural water repellency. AgZen enhances spray retention and enables 5-fold reductions to spray waste.
Farmers are forced to spray 50x the amount of pesticides that they need, due to the inherent water repellency of plant surfaces. The resulting pollution leads to 5M acute illnesses like cancer & neurological disorders every year. Pesticides are a $60B market and can contribute up to 30% of production cost for major crops. Reducing pesticide waste would save thousands of lives & billions of dollars. The idea to use plant oils to cloak droplets came from trying to sustainably modify the interfacial physics at the droplet-leaf interface that causes drops to rebound.
How it works
We enhance pesticide spray retention on plants by fundamentally modifying drop-surface interactions. Specifically, we have developed novel agricultural sprays consisting of cloaked droplets that significantly enhance droplet retention on water repellant plant surfaces. By leveraging wetting dynamics, we use proprietary nozzles to create oil-cloaked droplets. These two-phase droplets consist of an ultra-thin oil layer (<1% by volume) that encapsulates a pesticide-laden water droplet. The oils used here are biodegradable, food-safe, and plant-derived (Ex: soybean, canola, and cotton-seed oil). When a cloaked droplet impacts a water repellent surface, the oil-cloak drastically enhances adhesion and prevents the two-phase droplet from bouncing off. On a larger scale, plant surfaces can quickly be covered with the drops from the sprayed solution, with significantly higher surface coverage compared to a conventional spray.
We were inspired to explore this approach after observing how readily oil films are able to coat water bodies during oil spills. We thought to leverage the speed of this phenomena to generate droplets cloaked in minute quantities of plant based oils (<1%) to make them more retentive to water repellant surfaces. We began by generating individual cloaked droplets with two syringe needles and studying the ability of the approach to enhance droplet retention under a variety of impact conditions on artificial water repellent surfaces. Once we developed a thorough understanding of the limits of the approach at a single droplet level, we developed a spray nozzle that could generate oil-cloaked droplets at a high rate. We then tested the nozzle in the lab and achieved a 5-fold decrease in spray waste in comparison to a conventional water-based spray. We then retrofitted an agricultural sprayer with our nozzles and cloaking systems and are currently field testing our technology in farms across Massachusetts.
How it is different
Chemical spray adjuvants have been on the market for decades, but their ineffectiveness has limited their ability to address overspraying and pesticide bounce-off. Surfactants are the most widely used adjuvants and they work by lowering the dynamic surface tension of the sprayed droplets. However this also causes the sprayed droplets to become smaller, making them more prone to wind drift. Several of these surfactants are also toxic, non-biodegradable and affect non-target organisms. Our solution provides unparalleled retention of sprays onto plants and we have demonstrated that we can reduce total pesticide sprayed by as much as five-fold on average which isn’t possible with existing solutions. By efficiently solving the retention problem without modifying the properties of spraying liquid we achieve higher overall spray efficiencies and savings compared to current techniques all while using biodegradable and food safe plant oils as the only additive.
We have started a company, AgZen, to commercialize this product. We have had great traction and have won a number of awards for our technologies. We are currently field testing the new AgZen-cloak nozzle in fields in Massachusetts. Our goal is to finish prototyping and optimizing our system over the next 12 months and start to apply to several different types of crops. Our longer-term vision is to turn this technology into a ubiquitous retrofit for Ag-sprayers to drastically enhance their efficiency and reduce waste.
AgZen: Rabobank Food and Ag Prize, MIT 100K runner up award, Rice Business Plan Competition – Second Place Grand Prize Investment Award , OWLs Investment Prize , Houston Angel Network Investment Prize, Baker Botts In-Kind Prize, Polsinelli Energy Tech Innovation In-Kind Award, Mercury Fund Elevator Pitch Competition