Nano-urea can help farmers, country and climate, says inventor

Last Updated 12 August 2022, 10:18 IST

Ramesh Raliya, a 34-year-old scientist and inventor, holds the credit of synthesising nano-nitrogen (nano-urea) for the first time in the world. Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO) is producing it commercially, at its Gandhinagar unit inaugurated on May 28. The second plant in India by Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO) is coming up near Devanahalli. Soon, India will have several nano urea manufacturing plants, with IFFCO, National Fertiliser Limited (NFL) and Rashtriya Chemicals and fertilisers Limited (RCF) establishing production units.

A 500-ml bottle of liquid nano-urea priced at Rs 240 replaces 45 kgs of conventional granulated urea priced at Rs 266 with subsidy (Rs 3966 without subsidy), saving the cost of transportation, storage space, import and subsidy costs for the government. Unlike conventional urea, it does not emit nitrogen-based greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide into the atmosphere and has proved to be less polluting in manufacturing and applications. The US Green Card holder scientist has given the technology to India free of cost. Edited excerpts of his interview with DH.

Is liquid nano-urea the first of its kind in the world?

Yes, liquid nano urea is the first of its kind in the world, and India holds its patent. There was one patent publication on the related term, but it had a different process, use and application. Among agriculture fertilisers, this is the first.

How did you get into nanotechnology?

I started working on nanotechnology-based agri-inputs in 2008-09 when I finished my master's and ventured into a World Bank-funded project on National Agriculture Innovation Project on nanotechnology for agriculture. My parents are agriculturists in a small village called Khariya Khangar. I have seen them spending a lot on fertilisers, while their income remained stagnant. Being a science student, I figured out that more fertilizer is required because of its low efficiency. And a majority of it goes to the environment. So I started working on nano-technology-based fertilizer inputs, with an aim to help millions of farmers like my parents.

How did you get into IFFCO?

I started working in a lab (Central Arid Zone Research Institute) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) at Jodhpur. But during postdoctoral research at Washington University we really scaled it up and found a grand success. In 2015, I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister's Office about the technology and my willingness to share it free of cost. I wrote again in 2016 with some updates. When I wrote in 2017 with a significant update, I received a letter from the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, Government of India, inviting me to present the technology. They also invited people from PMO, from Ministry of Agriculture, and other ministries and industries. IFFCO was one of them. Two of the industries from India followed up with us, but they were more interested in licensing that technology and commercialising it. I was not interested. Then, IFFCO invited me to be a part of it. I came to India and set up a Nano Biotechnology Research Centre with IFFCO, developed nano-urea, and filed for a patent in India. Recently we received the patent.

What are the problems of conventional granulated urea?

Since it is solid, it falls on the soil and all the nitrogen present in that granule, typically 1-2mm in size, becomes available readily to the crop. But because of burst-release, the ammonia escapes into the environment, reacts with oxygen in the environment and becomes nitrous oxide which is a greenhouse gas. Typically, farmers spread urea when there is enough rainfall or moisture on the ground. The excess part not absorbed by the plant enters the soil and leeches into the soil and groundwater in the form of nitrates. Whatever remains in the soil in the first 15 centimetres affects the pH of the soil and makes it acidic. Groundwater nitrate levels, NOx or ammonia emissions are high in the areas where conventional urea is used more than its recommended rate.

Nano-urea is sprayed on the plant leaf. These are particles of 20 to 50 nanometers. They get readily absorbed by the plant, and release nitrogen inside the plant. They also stimulate the enzymes involved in nitrogen metabolism inside the plant cells and boost the protein content, chlorophyll content and the nucleotides such as RNA content or DNA content.

IFFCO has done trials in more than 11,000 farmers' fields on over 90 crops and in more than 20 state agricultural universities and ICAR institutes on over 40 crops. Among the tested crops across India in different agroclimatic zones, it could increase the crop yield by 7 to 8%. It increased the grain protein content and the quality of the crop.

Was it tested for toxicity?

In India, this has been extensively tested as per the Guidelines for Evaluation of Nano-based Agri-input and food products, released by the department of biotechnology. It has also been tested as per Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) guidelines. In agriculture, toxicity can affect earthworms, fish, pollinators like honeybees, and even humans. We have tested it on all these parameters. We have even tested the microbial compatibility in the rhizosphere although we are not putting this product directly into the soil. It is completely safe.

Who coordinated the trials? Was it IFFCO? Do they maintain quality data?

Yes, they do. Out of 11,000 trials, the successful trials were over 9000 or so, because when IFFCO started the trial, it was November 2019. And the first crop harvesting came in March -April 2020. Towards the harvesting, there was a nationwide lockdown due to the Covid-19 outbreak. So, there were more than 1500 trials where IFFCO were unable to get the data successfully, but in over 9000 trials, IFFCO have the data. We did all these through geo-tagging, digital mapping etc. and recorded it all in real-time.

How environment-friendly is the production of nano-urea?

Manufacturing conventional urea is a highly energy-intensive process. Those plants emit a lot of aerosols and cause pollution which requires additional control measures. In comparison, the nano urea factory is very clean. IFFCO’s Gandhinagar plant looks just like a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility. There is no emission, no pollution and the plant is nearly zero discharge. Relatively very less space is required for the plant, and the process is compact.

What are the other polluting fertilisers that need to be replaced? Are you also working on pesticides?

Many currently used micronutrients and agrochemicals including pesticides, insecticides and herbicides are not efficient and are required in high quantity and concentration. The residue accumulation of herbicides or pesticides beyond a limit in the edible part of the plant may enter the body of cattle or humans if they consume such biomass/seed, which will affect humans in the form of food or meat and milk. So, we are working on finding efficient alternatives.

What do you think about the agriculture research scenario in India? Is it good?

The research is good, but many things can be better. Most of our ICAR Institutes and other institutes develop a lot of good plant varieties. India has extensively worked on seeds and developed a lot of hybrid varieties. But now I think it is time to invest more in developing eco-friendly, efficient agri inputs, be it fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides.

Are scientists given enough encouragement to conduct research?

Encouraging more translational research is important. Also, the collaboration of different institutes and scientists from diverse backgrounds is important, as it brings multi-dimensional perspectives. I've worked with physicists, environmental scientists, and experts in geology, botany, agriculture and chemistry because I had to make sure the fertiliser does not affect fish, earthworms, pollinators, water or microbes. That helped me to generate more data in a short span of time. It can be even shorter if the collaboration is wider and global.

How do you overcome the temptation to market this product in a commercial way?

I always thought that if I develop a technology that is not affordable to the masses, then the meaning of that contribution is less. I'm from a farming background so I'm well aware of the economics of the farmers. When I was working in the lab, I was not sure of the cost of production but when we scaled it up, the cost of production was reduced. I wanted the maximum possible margin to be passed on to the farmers. That's why I offered my technology to India free of cost.

Which are the other patents that you hold in nanotechnology?

I have around 12 patents granted and eight to nine applications pending. I have a patent in nanomedicine as well. We've developed a material called nano calcium carbonate, which is used in the treatment of cancer. A US patent has been granted and the trial is ongoing. This will avoid the requirement of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for tumorous cancers.

I have patents on synthesising nanoparticles using microorganisms like fungus and bacteria. So that even nanoparticles can be synthesised using rhizospheric microorganisms so that they don't have to be synthesized via a chemical route. We have a US patent applied but pending, in which we combine five nutrient elements - nitrogen, phosphorus potassium, zinc and food-grade titanium dioxide, which is already we're consuming in food or medicine. Titanium has a very good photocatalytic rate, so, we have added it to increase plant photosynthesis.

Anything else that you want to convey?

I feel happy that today millions of farmers, like my parents, are going to get this product at an affordable price. Across the world, farmers are poor, and do not have access to good quality fertiliser and seeds. As a scientist, I feel that there are no geographical boundaries for the farmers. We should help all the people. We don't know who discovered all the medicines we use, but we get relief from the pain. Likewise, I feel that one day this product should reach all the farmers of the world to help them.

(Published 12 August 2022, 07:36 IST)

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