Harvesting Seaweed To Help Fight Food and Nutrition Insecurity

Humanity faces unprecedented challenges, from rising climate change to widespread food and nutrition insecurity. To feed the world’s rapidly increasing population, countries must produce more food on land stressed by soil degradation and water scarcity.

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

“The AquaStedy project is an important example of the critical work Pratt and its partner institutions are doing to address global and multifaceted challenges such as the climate crisis,” said Pratt Institute President Frances Bronet. “Through creative, collaborative thinking outside the box, and partnering with other researchers and communities in New York and around the world, the AquaStedy Pratt team is working to build the just and sustainable future we urgently need.”

The AquaStedy team is developing a seaweed-based hydrogel that balances soil moisture, allows crops to withstand drought between irregular rains, and reduces the need for irrigation. AquaStedy absorbs water from the soil when it is wet and gradually returns it when the soil dries. It can be formed into an anti-erosion net or other shapes, depending on the specific needs of soil and crop. This could help agriculture adapt to an increasingly water-scarce future, where water resources are reduced by industrial activity, rising temperatures, and changing precipitation patterns.

The AquaStedy project was initiated at Pratt in 2021 as a solution for use in food packaging. However, the project changed its focus to applications in agriculture to have a greater impact, and in 2022, the project received a $750,000 award from the NSF Convergence Accelerator, which facilitated the idea, the further development of hydrogel , and some in-house farm testing. . The AquaStedy project also benefited from NSF’s Convergence Accelerator curriculum, developing its skills in human-centered product development, team science, project management, and communication, as well as forming partnerships to strengthen its technology solutions. The $5 million Phase 2 funding will last for three years, allowing the team to conduct additional research and develop additional prototypes for AquaStedy. The team will test the hydrogel in different agricultural contexts, expand its partnerships, and create a sustainability plan beyond NSF support.

“Major problems such as mitigating the effects of climate change require a concerted effort from diverse training professionals,” said Helio Takai, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “AquaStedy is a project that results from an interdisciplinary effort by 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 directly understand the effects of climate change in the field.”

Pratt faculty member Cindie Kehlet, professor of chemistry, is acting as the project’s principal investigator, with Helio Takai, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Karol M. Murlak, professor of industrial design, acting as co-principal investigators. . . Jon D. Chorover, interim associate vice president for research in agriculture, life and veterinary sciences, 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 . , an agronomy extension specialist from New Mexico State University, and David Sotomayor, a soil science faculty professor from the University of Puerto Rico, are also co-principal investigators on the team. The effort also includes farmers, consultants, and other businesses that are partnering in various capacities.

“I am excited to be working on a project that could have a major impact on society by making agriculture more sustainable while mitigating the climate crisis,” said Kehlet. “The project is about conserving water while creating food – the two most basic ingredients of our lives.”

AquaStedy will be produced at the Pratt Research Yard, where the project will be given expanded research and prototyping space. The AquaStedy project was initiated as part of the IDC Research Accelerator Hub and is supported by the IDC Foundation. The Research Yard, which Pratt opened in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2023, is a 20,000-square-foot facility that houses manufacturing laboratories along with research centers and interdisciplinary accelerators and the IDC Research Accelerator Hub. Pratt students participated in the project in multiple ways, including through video and photographic documentation, branding and website communication design, conducting user interviews, and prototyping and producing hydrogel samples.

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

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

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

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

The AquaStedy model also has wider implications. Kelp is easy to grow and can create jobs in coastal communities. Since kelp filters the water, improving the health of marine ecosystems, kelp cultivation can support fishing industries. Farmers stand on land to see their yields and crop incomes rise, and increased production of diverse crops can provide greater food security and nutrition to underserved communities.

AquaStedy’s research reflects Pratt’s longstanding commitment to sustainability. The school is a key partner in the New York Climate Exchange and recently received an AASHE STARS Gold sustainability rating. In the coming months, the AquaStedy team aims to partner with STEM education teachers in New York City public schools, as well as create a traveling exhibit to raise awareness of how climate change affects our food system and on our need for sustainable solutions.

AquaStedy hydrogels could soon transform food production by uniting aquaculture and agriculture – a form of circular economic thinking promoted by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

To learn more about Pratt Institute research and partnerships visit pratt.edu/research.

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