Real-time monitoring of nitrate in soils as a key for optimization of agricultural productivity and prevention of groundwater pollution
Lack of real-time information on nutrient availability in cultivated soils inherently leads to excess application of fertilizers in agriculture. As a result, nitrate, which is a soluble, stable, and mobile component of fertilizers, leaches below the root zone through the unsaturated zone and eventually pollutes the groundwater and other related water resources. Rising nitrate concentration in aquifers is recognized as a worldwide environmental problem that contributes to water scarcity. The development of technologies for continuous in situ measurement of nitrate concentration in soils is essential for optimizing fertilizer application and preventing water resource pollution by nitrate. Here we present a conceptual approach for a monitoring system that enables in situ and continuous measurement of nitrate concentration in soil. The monitoring system is based on absorbance spectroscopy techniques for direct determination of nitrate concentration in soil porewater without pretreatment, such as filtration, dilution, or reagent supplementation. A new analytical procedure was developed to improve measurement accuracy while eliminating the typical measurement interference caused by soil dissolved organic carbon. The analytical procedure was tested at four field sites over 2 years and proved to be an effective tool for nitrate analysis when directly applied on untreated soil solution samples. A soil nitrate-monitoring apparatus, combining specially designed optical flow cells with soil porewater-sampling units, enabled, for the first time, real-time continuous measurement of nitrate concentration in soils. Real-time, high-resolution measurement of nitrate concentration in the soil has revealed the complex variations in soil nitrate concentrations in response to fertigation pattern. Such data are crucial for optimizing fertilizer application and reducing pollution potential of groundwater.