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India: Mobile Soil Quality Assessment for Farmers

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The Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-Madras) has revealed that its scientists creating a portable, point-of-use device for identifying heavy metals in both soil and water. Research from the Ministry of Jal Shakti shows that over 36,000 rural habitations in India are grappling with issues related to contamination from fluoride, arsenic, and heavy metals in their drinking water sources.

According to a statement from IIT-Madras, the primary aim of the research is to package the technology into an engineered device, which will be programmed to deliver a user-friendly, non-technical read-out value of the soil quality index on a mobile phone-like application.

Currently, there are no field-usable or point-of-use solutions available for laypeople to use for detecting heavy metals in soil. The presence of heavy metals in soil also impacts soil quality by contributing to soil salinity. This can have a detrimental impact on global food security due to decreased agricultural yields and potential adverse effects on human health.

Sophisticated methods, such as the Inductively Coupled Plasma-Optical Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-OES) technique, are not accessible or user-friendly for laypeople and farmers because they involve complex and time-consuming procedures and heavily depend on advanced laboratory facilities. A portable, user-friendly device that can be operated by non-experts holds significant advantages from both social and economic standpoints.

Emphasising the potential impact of this technology, IIT-Madras Professor Sreeram K Kalpathy stated that given the heavy reliance of the Indian population on agriculture, there is an urgent need for technological solutions to detect and measure heavy metal concentrations. This would empower farmers with the information necessary to make informed decisions about which crops to cultivate and when to make interventions.

Current research efforts are focused on achieving higher resolution detection capabilities for copper, lead, and cadmium (in parts per million levels), as well as attaining the selective detection of specific metals.

The team is presently in the process of conducting tests on real soil and water samples to validate the concept. In this regard, with the assistance of the Rural Technology Action Group at IIT-Madras (RUTAG-IITM), they have also analysed water quality and the presence of heavy metals in water samples gathered from various temple tanks in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu. The aim is to have the technology validated and demonstrated in a field environment over the next 3-5 years.

The government has committed to rejuvenating 75 water bodies in each district of the country. Last month, the Meghalaya state government announced plans to deploy an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered robotic boat to clean Umiam Lake, which is polluted with plastic waste.

As OpenGov Asia reported, the Umkharh and Umshyrpi rivers course through Shillong, the state capital, carrying substantial quantities of plastic waste daily and depositing it into the southern portion of the lake. This area is only accessible by boat.

As part of the Smart Village Movement, a non-profit collaborating with the state government on various initiatives, a Hong Kong company was selected to showcase its cleaning technology. The small boat brought by the company can swiftly remove 200-400 kg of waste each day, allowing for a speedy cleanup of all the waste within the next few months if the larger boat is put into operation. Currently, the company has boats that clean waste in Varanasi and Bengaluru.

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