Researchers measure evapotranspiration and precipitation to understand the fate of water—how much moisture is deposited, used, and leaving the system. But if you only measure withdrawals and deposits, you’re missing out on water that is (or is not) available in the soil moisture savings account. Soil moisture is a powerful tool you can use to predict how much water is available to plants, if water will move, and where it’s going to go.
Soil moisture 101 explores soil water content vs. soil water potential
What you need to know
Soil moisture is more than just knowing the amount of water in soil. Learn basic principles you need to know before deciding how to measure it. In this 20-minute webinar, discover:
Why soil moisture is more than just an amount
Water content: what it is, how it’s measured, and why you need it
Water potential: what it is, how it’s different from water content, and why you need it
Whether you should measure water content, water potential, or both
The HYPROP and WP4C provide the ability to make fast, accurate soil moisture release curves (soil water characteristic curves-SWCCs), but lab measurements have some limitations: sample throughput limits the number of curves that can be produced, and curves generated in a laboratory do not represent their in situ behavior. Lab-produced soil water retention curves can be paired with information from in situ moisture release curves for deeper insight into real-world variability.
Soil water characteristic curves help determine soil type, soil hydraulic properties, and mechanical performance and stability
Moisture release curves in the field? Yes, it’s possible.
Colocating matric potential sensors and water content sensors in situ add many more moisture release curves to a researcher’s knowledge base. And, since it is primarily the in-place performance of unsaturated soils that is the chief concern to geotechnical engineers and irrigation scientists, adding in situ measurements to lab-produced curves would be ideal.
In this brief 20-minute webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell, METER research scientist, summarizes a recent paper given at the Pan American Conference of Unsaturated Soils. The paper, “Comparing in situ soil water characteristic curves to those generated in the lab” by Campbell et al. (2018), illustrates how well in situ generated SWCCs using the TEROS 21 calibrated matric potential sensor and METER’s GS3 water content sensor compare to those created in the lab.
Whether researchers measure soil hydraulic properties in the lab or in the field, they’re only getting part of the picture. Laboratory systems are highly accurate due to controlled conditions, but lab measurements don’t take into account site variability such as roots, cracks, or wormholes that might affect soil hydrology. In addition, when researchers take a sample from the field to the lab, they often compress soil macropores during the sampling process, altering the hydraulic properties of the soil.
Roots, cracks, and wormholes all affect soil hydrology
Field experiments help researchers understand variability and real-time conditions, but they have the opposite set of problems. The field is an uncontrolled system. Water moves through the soil profile by evaporation, plant uptake, capillary rise, or deep drainage, requiring many measurements at different depths and locations. Field researchers also have to deal with the unpredictability of the weather. Precipitation may cause a field drydown experiment to take an entire summer, whereas in the lab it takes only a week.
The big picture—supersized
Researchers who use both lab and field techniques while understanding each method’s strengths and limitations can exponentially increase their understanding of what’s happening in the soil profile. For example, in the laboratory, a researcher might use the PARIO soil texture analyzer to obtain accurate soil texture data, including a complete particle size distribution. They could then combine those data with a HYPROP-generated soil moisture release curve to understand the hydraulic properties of that soil type. If that researcher then adds high-quality field data in order to understand real-world field conditions, then suddenly they’re seeing the larger picture.
Table 1. Lab and field instrument strengths and limitations
Below is an exploration of lab versus field instrumentation and how researchers can combine these instruments for an increased understanding of their soil profile. Click the links for more in-depth information about each topic.
Particle size distribution and why it matters
Soil type and particle size analysis are the first window into the soil and its unique characteristics. Every researcher should identify the type of soil that they’re working with in order to benchmark their data.
Particle size analysis defines the percentage of coarse to fine material that makes up a soil
If researchers don’t understand their soil type, they can’t make assumptions about the state of soil water based on water content (i.e., if they work with plants, they won’t be able to predict whether there will be plant available water). In addition, differing soil types in the soil’s horizons may influence a researcher’s measurement selection, sensor choice, and sensor placement.
This week, guest author Dr. Michael Forster, of Edaphic Scientific Pty Ltd & The University of Queensland, writes about new research using irrigation curves as a novel technique for irrigation scheduling.
Growers do not have the time or resources to investigate optimal hydration for their crop. Thus, a new, rapid assessment is needed.
Measuring the hydration level of plants is a significant challenge for growers. Hydration is directly quantified via plant water potential or indirectly inferred via soil water potential. However, there is no universal point of dehydration with species and crop varieties showing varying tolerance to dryness. What is tolerable to one plant can be detrimental to another. Therefore, growers will benefit from any simple and rapid technique that can determine the dehydration point of their crop.
New research by scientists at Edaphic Scientific, an Australian-based scientific instrumentation company, and the University of Queensland, Australia, has found a technique that can simply and rapidly determine when a plant requires irrigation. The technique builds on the strong correlation between transpiration and plant water potential that is found across all plant species. However, new research applied this knowledge into a technique that is simple, rapid, and cost-effective, for growers to implement.
Current textbook knowledge of plant dehydration
The classic textbook values of plant hydration are field capacity and permanent wilting point, defined as -33 kPa (1/3 Bar) and -1500 kPa (15 Bar) respectively. It is widely recognized that there are considerable limitations with these general values. For example, the dehydration point for many crops is significantly less than 15 Bar.
Furthermore, values are only available for a limited number of widely planted crops. New crop varieties are constantly developed, and these may have varying dehydration points. There are also many crops that have no, or limited, research into their optimal hydration level. Lastly, textbook values are generated following years of intensive scientific research. Growers do not have the time, or resources, to completely investigate optimal hydration for their crop. Therefore, a new technique that provides a rapid assessment is required.
How stomatal conductance varies with water potential
There is a strong correlation between stomatal conductance and plant water potential: as plant water potential becomes more negative, stomatal conductance decreases. Some species are sensitive and show a rapid decrease in stomatal conductance; other species exhibit a slower decrease.
Plant physiologist refer to P50 as a value that clearly defines a species’ tolerance to dehydration. One definition of P50 is the plant water potential value at which stomatal conductance is 50% of its maximum rate. P50 is also defined as the point at which hydraulic conductance is 50% of its maximum rate. Klein (2014) summarized the relationship between stomatal conductance and plant water potential for 70 plant species (Figure 1). Klein’s research found that there is not a single P50 for all species, rather there is a broad spectrum of P50 values (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The relationship between stomatal conductance and leaf water potential for 70 plant species. The dashed red lines indicate the P80 and P50 values. The irrigation refill point can be determined where the dashed red lines intersect with the data on the graph. Image has been adapted from Klein (2014), Figure 1b.
Taking advantage of P50
The strong, and universal, relationship between stomatal conductance and water potential is vital information for growers. A stomatal conductance versus water potential relationship can be quickly, and easily, established by any grower for their specific crop. However, as growers need to maintain optimum plant hydration levels for growth and yield, the P50 value should not be used as this is too dry. Rather, research has shown a more appropriate value is possibly the P80 value. That is, the water potential value at the point that stomatal conductance is 80% of its maximum.
Irrigation Curves – a rapid assessment of plant hydration
Research by Edaphic Scientific and University of Queensland has established a technique that can rapidly determine the P80 value for plants. This is called an “Irrigation Curve” which is the relationship between stomatal conductance and hydration that indicates an optimal hydration point for a specific species or variety.
Once P80 is known, this becomes the set point at which plant hydration should not go beyond. For example, a P80 for leaf water potential may be -250 kPa. Therefore, when a plant approaches, or reaches, -250 kPa, then irrigation should commence.
P80 is also strongly correlated with soil water potential and, even, soil volumetric water content. Soil water potential and/or content sensors are affordable, easy to install and maintain, and can connect to automated irrigation systems. Therefore, establishing an Irrigation Curve with soil hydration levels, rather than plant water potential, may be more practical for growers.
Example irrigation curves
Irrigation curves were created for a citrus (Citrus sinensis) and macadamia (Macadamia integrifolia). Approximately 1.5m tall saplings were grown in pots with a potting mixture substrate. Stomatal conductance was measured daily, between 11am and 12pm, with an SC-1 Leaf Porometer. Soil water potential was measured by combining data from an MPS-6 (now called TEROS 21) Matric Potential Sensor and WP4 Dewpoint Potentiometer. Soil water content was measured with a GS3 Water Content, Temperature and EC Sensor. Data from the GS3 and MPS-6 sensors were recorded continuously at 15-minute intervals on an Em50 Data Logger. When stomatal conductance was measured, soil water content and potential were noted. At the start of the measurement period, plants were watered beyond field capacity. No further irrigation was applied, and the plants were left to reach wilting point over subsequent days.
Figure 2. Irrigation Curves for citrus and macadamia based on soil water potential measurements. The dashed red line indicates P80 value for citrus (-386 kPa) and macadamia (-58 kPa).
Figure 2 displays the soil water potential Irrigation Curves, with a fitted regression line, for citrus and macadamia. The P80 values are highlighted in Figure 2 by a dashed red line. P80 was -386 kPa and -58 kPa for citrus and macadamia, respectively. Figure 3 shows the results for the soil water content Irrigation Curves where P80 was 13.2 % and 21.7 % for citrus and macadamia, respectively.
Figure 3. Irrigation Curves for citrus and macadamia based on soil volumetric water content measurements. The dashed red line indicates P80 value for citrus (13.2 %) and macadamia (21.7 %).
From these results, a grower should consider maintaining soil moisture (i.e. hydration) above these values as they can be considered the refill points for irrigation scheduling.
Further research is required
Preliminary research has shown that an Irrigation Curve can be successfully established for any plant species with soil water content and water potential sensors. Ongoing research is currently determining the variability of generating an Irrigation Curve with soil water potential or content. Other ongoing research includes determining the effect of using a P80 value on growth and yield versus other methods of establishing a refill point. At this stage, it is unclear whether there is a single P80 value for the entire growing season, or whether P80 shifts depending on growth or fruiting stage. Further research is also required to determine how P80 affects plants during extreme weather events such as heatwaves. Other ideas are also being investigated.
For more information on Irrigation Curves, or to become involved, please contact Dr. Michael Forster: firstname.lastname@example.org
Klein, T. (2014). The variability of stomatal sensitivity to leaf water potential across tree species indicates a continuum between isohydric and anisohydric behaviours. Functional Ecology, 28, 1313-1320. doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.12289
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Water potential is the most fundamental and essential measurement in soil physics because it describes the force that drives water movement.
Water potential helps researchers determine how much water is available to plants.
Making good water potential measurements is largely a function of choosing the right instrument and using it skillfully. In an ideal world, there would be one instrument that simply and accurately measured water potential over its entire range from wet to dry. In the real world, there is an assortment of instruments, each with its unique personality. Each has its quirks, advantages, and disadvantages. Each has a well-defined range.
Below is a comparison of water potential instruments and the ranges they measure.
A comparison of water potential instrument ranges
To learn more about measuring water potential, see the articles or videos below:
Soil moisture release curves have always had two weak areas: a span of limited data between 0 and -100 kPa and a gap around field capacity where no instrument could make accurate measurements.
Using HYPROP with the redesigned WP4C, a skilled experimenter can now make complete high-resolution moisture release curves.
Between 0 and -100 kPa, soil loses half or more of its water content. If you use pressure plates to create data points for this section of a soil moisture release curve, the curve will be based on only five data points.
And then there’s the gap. The lowest tensiometer readings cut out at -0.85 MPa, while historically the highest WP4 water potential meter range barely reached -1 MPa. That left a hole in the curve right in the middle of plant-available range.
In the conclusion of our 3-part water potential series (see part 1), we discuss how to measure water potential—different methods, their strengths, and their limitations.
Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range.
How to measure water potential
Essentially, there are only two primary measurement methods for water potential—tensiometers and vapor pressure methods. Tensiometers work in the wet range—special tensiometers that retard the boiling point of water (UMS) have a range from 0 to about -0.2 MPa. Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range—from about -0.1 MPa to -300 MPa (0.1 MPa is 99.93% RH; -300 MPa is 11%).
Historically, these ranges did not overlap, but recent advances in tensiometer and temperature sensing technology have changed that. Now, a skilled user with excellent methods and the best equipment can measure the full water potential range in the lab.
There are reasons to look at secondary measurement methods, though. Vapor pressure methods are not useful in situ, and the accuracy of the tensiometer must be paid for with constant, careful maintenance (although a self-filling version of the tensiometer is available).
Here, we briefly cover the strengths and limitations of each method.
Vapor Pressure Methods:
The WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer is one of the few commercially available instruments that currently uses this technique. Like traditional thermocouple psychrometers, the dew point hygrometer equilibrates a sample in a sealed chamber.
WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer
A small mirror in the chamber is chilled until dew just starts to form on it. At the dew point, the WP4C measures both mirror and sample temperatures with 0.001◦C accuracy to determine the relative humidity of the vapor above the sample.
The most current version of this dew point hygrometer has an accuracy of ±1% from -5 to -300 MPa and is also relatively easy to use. Many sample types can be analyzed in five to ten minutes, although wet samples take longer.
At high water potentials, the temperature differences between saturated vapor pressure and the vapor pressure inside the sample chamber become vanishingly small.
Limitations to the resolution of the temperature measurement mean that vapor pressure methods will probably never supplant tensiometers.
The dew point hygrometer has a range of -0.1 to -300 MPa, though readings can be made beyond -0.1 MPa using special techniques. Tensiometers remain the best option for readings in the 0 to-0.1 MPa range.
Water content tends to be easier to measure than water potential, and since the two values are related, it’s possible to use a water content measurement to find water potential.
A graph showing how water potential changes as water is adsorbed into and desorbed from a specific soil matrix is called a moisture characteristic or a moisture release curve.
Example of a moisture release curve.
Every matrix that can hold water has a unique moisture characteristic, as unique and distinctive as a fingerprint. In soils, even small differences in composition and texture have a significant effect on the moisture characteristic.
Some researchers develop a moisture characteristic for a specific soil type and use that characteristic to determine water potential from water content readings. Matric potential sensors take a simpler approach by taking advantage of the second law of thermodynamics.
Matric Potential Sensors
Matric potential sensors use a porous material with known moisture characteristic. Because all energy systems tend toward equilibrium, the porous material will come to water potential equilibrium with the soil around it.
Using the moisture characteristic for the porous material, you can then measure the water content of the porous material and determine the water potential of both the porous material and the surrounding soil. Matric potential sensors use a variety of porous materials and several different methods for determining water content.
Accuracy Depends on Custom Calibration
At its best, matric potential sensors have good but not excellent accuracy. At its worst, the method can only tell you whether the soil is getting wetter or drier. A sensor’s accuracy depends on the quality of the moisture characteristic developed for the porous material and the uniformity of the material used. For good accuracy, the specific material used should be calibrated using a primary measurement method. The sensitivity of this method depends on how fast water content changes as water potential changes. Precision is determined by the quality of the moisture content measurement.
Accuracy can also be affected by temperature sensitivity. This method relies on isothermal conditions, which can be difficult to achieve. Differences in temperature between the sensor and the soil can cause significant errors.
All matric potential sensors are limited by hydraulic conductivity: as the soil gets drier, the porous material takes longer to equilibrate. The change in water content also becomes small and difficult to measure. On the wet end, the sensor’s range is limited by the air entry potential of the porous material being used.
TS1 Smart Tensiometer
Tensiometers and Traditional Methods
Read about the strengths and limitations of tensiometers and other traditional methods such as gypsum blocks, pressure plates, and filter paper here.
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Alkali bee beds are maintained by farmers near Touchet, Washington to pollinate fields of alfalfa, grown there for seed. The beds are typically a few acres in size and provide a nesting place for the bees, which can increase seed production by as much as 70 percent. Alkali bees are better than honeybees for pollinating alfalfa, as they don’t mind the explosive pollen release of the alfalfa flower.
USDA-ARS entomologist, Dr. Jim Cane, is trying to understand optimal bee-soil-water relations to ensure the bees will happily reproduce next year’s pollinators. Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell recently worked with Dr. Cane to measure water relations in bee nesting beds. Here’s what they found out:
Why Water Relations Matter
Alkali bees nest underground. They prefer salty soil surfaces which retard evaporation and discourage plant growth. The soil has to be the right texture, density, and have the correct moisture levels for successful nesting. In addition, the water potential of the larval food provision mass has to be low so it does not mold. Growers apply high levels of sodium chloride to the bee bed surface, and the soil is sub-irrigated to keep the salt near the surface and the subsurface soil moist.
Bottom right: a white larvae on a gold colored provision mass inside one of the tunnels dug by the female.
The female digs a tunnel down to a favorable depth, typically 15-20 cm or more, hollows out a spheroidal shaped cell around 1 cm diameter, and carefully coats the inside of the cell with a special secretion that appears to form a hydraulic and vapor barrier between the soil and the nest contents. She then builds a provision mass from pollen and nectar, shaped like an oblate spheroid with major axis around 6 mm and minor axis 3-4 mm. One egg is laid on the provision mass (which provides food for the larva), and the mother bee then seals up the entrance to the cell and moves on to the next one.
The female coats the inside of the cell with a special secretion that appears to form a hydraulic and vapor barrier between the soil and the nest contents.
Specialized Instruments for Each Measurement
In order to understand moisture relations between the soil, the larva, and the food provision mass, Dr. Cane carefully excavated three soil blocks from one of the bee beds, dissected them to find nests, and Dr. Campbell helped measure water potentials of the eggs, larvae, and provision masses. They also measured matric and total water potentials of bee bed soils.
A sample chamber psychrometer
A Sample Chamber Psychrometer is the only water potential device with a small enough sample chamber to be able to measure individual eggs and early-stage larvae, which it did. The provision masses were too dry to measure with the psychrometer, so several provisions were combined (to provide sufficient sample size) and measured in a Dew Point Potentiameter, along with the soil samples. Dr. Campbell measured matric potential of the highly saline soils using a tensiometer.
Water Potential Seems Important to the Bees
Dr. Campbell thinks matric potential is important in determining physical condition of the soil (how easy it is for the bees to dig and paint the inside of the nest), but probably has little to do with bee or larva water relations. The water potentials of the eggs and larvae were low (dry), but within the range one sees in living organisms. There was a consistent pattern of larva water potential decreasing with larval growth.
This alkali bee seeks shelter during the rain in a previously dug tunnel.
The exciting part of this experiment was the provision mass water potentials, which were so low that it is more convenient to talk about them in terms of water activity (another measure of the energy state of water in a system, widely used by food scientists). The intact provision masses were drier than any of the soil water potentials and not in equilibrium with the soil. Dr. Campbell says, “It’s interesting that all the provision masses were at water activities that would make them immune to degradation by almost all microbes, both bacteria and fungi.”
Another Interesting Observation
Dr. Cane found one provision mass covered with mold. Soil and plants are full of inoculum, so it is unlikely that the other provision masses lacked spores, but this one was wet enough to be compromised, and the others apparently weren’t. Dr. Campbell says, “There are two possibilities. Either it was put up too wet, or it got wet in the nest. The really interesting question is why all of them don’t get that wet. I think the hydrophobic coating of the nest eliminates all hydraulic contact from the soil to the provision mass, thus eliminating any liquid water flow, which would almost immediately wet the pollen balls. I think it also drastically reduces the vapor conductance from the soil to the ball, making water uptake through the vapor phase slow enough that the provision mass can usually be consumed before its water activity gets high enough for mold to grow.”
Tool the grower uses to punch holes in the nesting beds for the bees to tunnel into.
How Do Larvae Stay Hydrated?
The water activity of the larvae were around 0.99, much higher than either the soil or the provision mass, inspiring the scientists to wonder how they stay hydrated. Dr. Campbell speculates, “They have a water source from their metabolism, since water is a byproduct of respiration (Campbell and Norman, p. 205). It is also possible for biological systems to take up water against a potential gradient by expending energy. There are reports of a beetle which can take up water from a drop of saturated NaCl (water activity 0.75), so it is possible that the larva gets water from the environment that way. There appears to be no shortage of energy available. On the other hand, it would seem like the larval cuticle would need to be pretty impermeable to maintain water balance since the salty soil, and especially the provision mass, are so much drier than the larva.” Dr. Cane notes that, ”For a few exemplar bee species, mature larvae weigh 30-40% more than the provision they ate, with the possibility that the provision undergoes a controlled hydration by the soil atmosphere through the uncoated soil cap of the nest cell.”
In the future, Dr. Campbell is hoping to see more experiments that will answer some of the questions raised, such as measuring individual provision masses to determine why there is some variation in water potential. Dr. Cane will be undertaking experiments to measure moisture weight gain of new provisions exposed to the soil atmosphere of the Touchet nest bed soil.
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Campbell, G. S. 1985. Soil Physics with BASIC: Transport Models for Soil-Plant Systems. Elsevier, New York.
Campbell, G. S. and J. M. Norman. 1998. An Introduction to Environmental Biophysics. Springer Verlag, N. Y.
Rawlins, S. L. and G. S. Campbell. 1986. Water potential: thermocouple psychrometry. In Methods of Soil Analysis, Part 1. Physical and Mineralogical Methods – Agronomy Monograph 9, 2nd edition.
Many dryland winter canola growers assume that if they plant earlier, they will establish a stronger plant, but Washington State University researcher Megan Reese recently found that this was not the case. She and her team discovered that planting earlier increases risk to the plant, as more water is used, and the reduced amount of water then left after the winter season limits spring regrowth. Megan’s findings could be valuable as water is the most yield-limiting factor in eastern Washington state’s wheat-dominated dryland systems, where winter canola has newly emerged as a rotational crop.
Winter canola is cold hardy, but it’s not as resilient as wheat.
Winter canola is cold hardy, but it’s not as resilient as wheat. It’s planted in August, much earlier than winter wheat, which is planted in the late fall. In order to survive, winter canola has to establish a hardy taproot system so that plants have reserves to survive the winter. Megan says, “Opinions vary, but anecdotally, a dinner plate sized plant can survive winter fairly well, so that’s why winter canola is planted in August . However, because establishment and germination can be an issue, we decided to try planting in June at Ritzville, Washington, thinking the soil would be more moist and have a cooler seedbed. However, the early planting date had a negative effect on winter survival. Not one of the early plants survived. We found the plants that started earlier used a lot more water, and consequently, the winter rains weren’t enough to refill the soil profile. Excessive growth and bolting also contributed to low survivorship.”
Methods and Moisture Release Curves:
Megan monitored soil water in the profile several different ways. At one location she used a neutron probe and hand-sampled gravimetric soil moisture in the top 30 cm of the profile, and in other locations, she was limited to hand samples. Then she combined those measurements with local weather stations to provide the crop water balance for the canola. Using these data, she was able to determine soil water use as indicated by the water content change through the growing season and calculate the depletion of soil water.
Anecdotally, a dinner plate sized plant can survive winter fairly well.
Megan also took soil samples into the lab from each depth increment at every site and used a chilled mirror hygrometer to construct a moisture release curve. This helped her to define the apparent permanent wilting point at -1.5 MPa. She says, “I was able to then see how efficient canola was at extracting available water, and I could look at available water instead of total water contents, which was more useful in terms of plant accessible moisture in the soil profile. It allowed me a consistentplatform to compare actual water amounts across sites with differing soil types. At one site, 12.5% of the water was unavailable, but in the sandier soils at another site, it was 4%. So there were significant differences in permanent wilting point.”
Water and Physiological Challenges Affect Winter Survival:
Megan found that the June planted canola used every milliliter of available water in the soil profile by late October/early November, but August-planted canola still had some water above wilting left in the profile over the winter, which helped the plants in the spring. She says, “It was a milder winter, so we didn’t get the usual amount of snow and rain, which probably played a role, but we did not see the profile refilled in the June-planted canola. In addition, those June plants were purple and wilted by November, so water stress could have hurt the plants in terms of its defenses. However, I think a larger issue was that they grew so large (the crowns actually elongated and bolted so they weren’t close to the soil) they were more susceptible to the harsh temperatures, whereas the August planted canola were much smaller and their crowns stayed right on the soil surface.” These findings are based on only one year of data, and Megan notes that early plantings have worked well in the milder climate of Pendleton, OR.
What Does it Mean for Farmers?
Megan says, “We were able to surprise a lot of farmers by showing that canola roots access water down to 1.5 to 1.7 m in the fall; it was hard to believe that a winter crop would do that. Also, in my second year’s data, we followed water use all the way through harvest, so we were able to show how much yield we gained for every millimeter of water used, and farmers liked hearing that number as well. I think it’s useful information that incorporates biophysics principles and answers some questions that these new canola producers are interested in. I have three locations this season that we are currently following to give farmers a further idea of what the water use looks like, when canola uses that water, and from where in the soil profile. Hopefully, this research will help them manage their rotations and look at the possibility of adopting canola.”
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A strand of a spider’s web is 5 micrometers in width. Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) devices range in size from 20 micrometers to one millimeter. That’s the incredibly small size of the components used in the tensiometer being developed by PhD candidate, Michael Santiago, and his collaborators, professors Abraham Stroock and Alan Lakso at Cornell University.
MEMS devices can be as small in width as 4 strands of a spider’s web.
The engineer/research team is usingMEMS technology to develop aminiature tensiometer (microtensiometer) that has a 100 times larger range than existing tensiometers, is stable for months, communicates digitally, and can be embedded into plant stems to directly measure plant water potential.
Existing Tensiometer Limitations:
Water potential is the best measure of a plant’s hydration relative to growth and product yield. Unfortunately, directly measuring water potential in plant tissue is only possible through labor-intensive, destructive methods such as the leaf pressure bomb and stem psychrometer. A common alternative is to use ‘set-and-forget’ soil tensiometers to measure soil water potential as a proxy for plant water potential, but this method is unreliable for plants with high hydraulic resistance (vines and woody species), where plant water potential is often much less than the water potential in soil. Although soil tensiometers are very accurate and simple to use, they can be large and bulky, and cavitate as soils dry.
Prototype microtensiometer made with MEMS components.
The Cornell University research team wants to improve the design of the tensiometer so it can be used in the field for applications such as continuously monitoring and controlling plant water potential in vineyards to consistently produce high-quality wine grapes with an exact flavor/aroma profile. Santiago says, “We’ve basically miniaturized a tensiometer using microchip technology to the point where it’s this tiny chip inside a wafer. Because of the way we fabricated it, we are hoping to make it an embeddable tensiometer that can go in anywhere and measure tension down to about -100 bars (-10 MPa).”
Developing and Calibrating
Santiago is using achilled mirror hygrometer to produce solutions of specific water potential to test, calibrate, and characterize the microtensiometer. He comments, “We’ve been testing it in osmotic solutions. We use the water potential meter for calibrating a solution ofPEG (polyethylene glycol), and then we measure it with the tensiometer.”
One hurdle the team has to overcome is finding a membrane that keeps small molecules and ions out of the tensiometer pores: these pollute the water inside the tensiometer and cause measurement errors. Santiago explains, “Our solution right now is to test in solutions of large molecules, such as PEG of 1400 molecular weight. The tensiometer pores are about 3-4 nanometers, extremely small, but small molecules, such as sugars and salts, can still get through. It’s not a problem for the short term because we are directly submerging into solutions of just water and large molecules, but our goal is to go into the environment and insert the tensiometer into soils and plant stems where small molecules are ubiquitous, so we’ll have to find a membrane that works and can handle field testing.”
The team has been experimenting with materials such as Gore-Tex and reverse osmosis membranes [M5] [M6] hoping to find a membrane that allows water through and keeps ions out, but does not slow the measurement.
Researchers want be able to insert the device directly into plant xylem.
Santiago says the calibrations have worked well. Now the challenge will be putting the tensiometer into different environments such as soil, concrete, and plants. For example, they want be able to insert the device directly into plant xylem, which will require a seal so water is not exiting the system. And that’s not the only complication. Santiago explains, “We are getting ready to do some testing in soils. The challenge will be getting good data because soil can be really heterogeneous, and we have this sensor with a much larger range than the usual tensiometer. So what do we compare it with? That’s going to be a bit of a challenge.” Santiago says the next few months will be spent getting into some different materials and obtaining some initial publishable data.
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