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Physics and food combine for KPU physicist

Lorraine Graves   Feb-14-2019

KPU's Dr. James Hoyland demonstrates the fruits of his labours, both in and out of the lab.

Photo by Chung Chow


The Sentinel first introduced Dr. James Hoyland, Kwantlen Polytechnic University researcher and instructor, when he competed in CBC’s Great Canadian Baking Show.

While he didn’t win, he did share with locals a winner of a recipe for the Christmas before last.

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Researching where physics, engineering and agriculture intersect, Hoyland’s academic life also strives to put more healthy food on people’s tables by helping farmers to get the most out of their land without extra chemicals, extra work, or more water than absolutely necessary.

“We’re looking at teaming up with (KPU’s) Department of Sustainable Agriculture. We are starting to look at agricultural applications of this kind of technology, particularly in two main areas, one in-the-field sensors, networks of sensors for monitoring things like soil moisture, so farmers can micromanage, different drainage from different bits of their fields, so they don’t have to water the whole field,” Hoyland says.

Lab test on a chip

The first project is an agricultural version of a lab on a tiny computer chip. This multifunctional computer chip, similar to what is used in diabetics’ blood sugar monitors, needs only a tiny bit of liquid to test for concentrations of different substances. In the case of diabetics, it measures the amount of sugar in their blood by just using the tiniest drop of blood. For farmers, Hoyland is creating a low-cost chip that will give real time reading of water levels, acidity, and nutrient levels in each area of a field.

With water management becoming a big issue in times of drought, like last year’s long, hot summer, it is important to conserve this scarce resource.

Micromanagement can allow for treating just the small areas within a field that need something extra in terms of acidity, fertilizer or extra water. It means putting what’s needed where it’s needed instead of blanketing a field with everything. It saves money, it saves crop loss and it saves the environment.

While what they are doing isn’t brand new, KPU’s research aims at the smaller farmer.

“A lot of those things already exist, but they tend to be for larger farms. They are expensive, (hundreds of dollars each) and proprietary. We aim to make ours open source so farmers can build it themselves.”

That means the farmers can have the plans for free and put it together the way that works best for their farm.

Printable water meters

“It’s a new area for me,” Hoyland says of the second project he’s working on with a KPU team.

It’s something similar to the chips that vets put into animals, called passive chips because they need no batteries to sing out their information when they are pinged with an electronic reader’s radio signal.

It’s also similar to what stores sometimes use to prevent theft; a chip stuck to an item that sets off the detectors at the store’s door.

Grape growers in California, he says, have an expensive version that’s already proven to be very useful.

“That one is more like a dog microchip. It’s a little hard capsule embedded into the vine. The vine grows over it and it can tell things about the plant.”

He hopes to make flexible, compostable versions of these radio-frequency identification chips for farmers to drop in a grid pattern in their fields. So they can check on them on a regular basis. The current prototypes look like black squares with concentric squared circles.

“We are working on passive RFID sensors using conductive inks. You can print your sensors with special inks. You can put it into the ground. Its totally passive. You send a radio pulse at it so your reader can tell what the local conditions are. It lasts maybe a season, then rots into the ground,” he says.

Because it’s flexible, on paper, Hoyland says it’s also called a chipless RFID.

“So far, it is a lab bench experiment but we are hoping to get done soon,” he says.

The first ones have been silk-screened with an ink that conducts electricity. Hoyland’s group hopes to use an ink jet printer with biodegradable, food-safe conducting ink.

The shape of the printed coils changes slightly when wet, so the signal they send back when they are pinged will be different depending on how wet or dry each spot in the field is. If it’s just a little dry, the farmer may be able wait out a rainless spell.

Others of these devices can be printed with something that tells the farmer if the soil is too acidic or not acidic enough. If that’s off, the nutrients in the soil cannot be used by the growing plants.

“Now, we are working on the inks themselves to find what is most effective in the field. They have to be a good conductor, printable, non-toxic and not an environmental contamination,” he says.

The ultimate goal is to have farmers able to download the sensor they need for free, use their own ink jet printers with safe electrical ink, so they control the costs of the device and ultimately, farm cost.

Design criteria

All products need to have the end of their useful life, their disposal, considered at the time of design, he says.

“Sustainable agriculture is the main driver of this, but we are trying to bring our physics tools to help manage this in many ways. We are just starting.”

Hoyland is also enjoying the change from Kwantlen being a community college to a degree-granting university.

“I’m quite excited about where it’s going. KPU is an old institution but a new university so the research side is just starting to come up. That’s actually quite fun so we can decide which way we are going for ourselves.”

“We just got our second set of students going through our full degree program in physics. It’s been really fun being at the starting point, developing those courses from scratch.”

And, if these two KPU projects result in products?

Hoyland says his group is trying to create tools for smaller farmers, particularly urban farmers, including those in Richmond.

“Hopefully this will allow them to get those advantages of yield and better quality crops without having to resort to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and preserve water resources.”

Ever the scientist, Hoyland is also experimenting in his off hours. There is an online forum for fellow participants in CBC’s Great Canadian Baking Show where they take on a monthly challenge and post their creations.

For February, he developed an elegant but easy-to-make cake for that special someone. It’s aimed at someone who has not baked before.

This has been designed to be easy to make. For someone looking for a romantic Valentine’s food that doesn’t break the bank, this might be just the ticket.


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