Friday, 6 November 2009

e-Agri Video now released

The team at Manchester have now released a short video, in collaboration with their partners, to help describe the concepts behind the e-Agri initiative and some of the future vision.

This can be viewed at:

Monday, 19 October 2009

Organic Electronics Integration for RFID Sensor Networks

Organic transistors fabricated using various organic semiconductors
Working in the clean room environment
Probe station for measuring transistor characteristics

Introduction and Motivation

RFID, short for radio frequency identification is a big wonder in a little package. No larger than the size of most coins, RFID has seen exponential growth in the recent years due to its flexibility as an automatic identification system. An RFID system consists of a tag or transponder that exchanges information with the tag reader over the wireless medium, allowing rapid and secure data transfer. Endless applications today employ the power of RFID, from being embedded into passports, credit cards, public transportation tickets to the tracking of goods in the supply chain. Despite the demand and widening of RFID application base, the cost of RFID tags has not lowered down as much as many would like. At several cents per tag, RFID is considered to be expensive for large scale deployment, relative to traditional barcode systems; although one could argue that a typical RFID system has better features. RFID tags can be attached with sensors, have larger data capacity and can be scanned at much faster rates. RFID is undoubtedly a great technology, but RFID that costs less is even better!

Thankfully, scientists have begun exploring ways of lowering the cost of RFID tags, with efforts focused on investigating cheap large scale manufacturing technologies such as amorphous silicon technology and organic electronics. Organic electronics is particularly interesting as organic materials have been demonstrated to be compatible with printing technologies, allowing cost effective means of manufacturing electronics – think RFID tags that may potentially be “free” to print out. Generally, present day organic electronics have plenty of room for improvements in terms of material stability and device performance; but there have also been excellent strides in this field, as demonstrated by the recent introduction of active matrix organic light emitting diodes (AMOLED) displays that feature tremendous improvements in colour reproduction and viewing angles compared to conventional LCD displays.

The Research

This research explores the use of organic electronics to develop supporting electronics for a novel temperature sensor designed for use with passive RFID tags. The sensor is a low cost device intended for use with existing passive RFID tags. Tasks in this research include:

1. Designing a simple transistor based circuit to detect temperature profiles from our sensor.
2. Fabrication of the organic circuit using standard laboratory methods such as spin-coating, evaporation and photolithography. We aim to use the best possible organic electronic technologies that are available to us.
3. Examining the performance delivered by the circuit when used with our sensor.
4. Conclude the feasibility of organic electronics covering the challenges and limitations of state of the art organic transistors for sensory applications in RFID technology.

Work in Detail

Due to the relatively new nature of the organic electronics research, various fabrication technologies have been proposed for fabricating organic transistors with equally as many types of organic materials to use. As a starting point, work involved narrowing down suitable transistor technologies that can be used for organic logic circuits. This was done via fabricating several organic transistor types differing in structure (bottom gate, top gate), insulator materials (metal oxides, polymer and silicon oxide) as well as using various organic semiconductors (P3HT, PTAA, PBTTT etc). We then examine each transistor type to its own and decide upon the most suitable transistor technology that fulfils the requirements of our sensor circuitry. Current work involves optimizing of fabrication steps for fabricating interconnect-able organic transistors. Future works encompass the fabrication of various organic transistor devices such as inverters and ring oscillators as part of the final circuit design.

Ming Yu Shi, Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre, University of Manchester, UK

Prof Aimin Song, School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, University of Manchester, UK

Would you like to become a research partner? Are there other aspects of this research that we should be bringing in?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

e-Agri on BBC Radio 4

Some of the e-Agri research at Manchester was recently broadcast on the BBC Radio 4 programme; "Costing the Earth". Dr Grieve was interviewed by Tom Heap about the integrated Sensors and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Device) technology that the team are working on alongside academic and industrial colleagues.

The radio broadcast maybe listened to be visiting the BBC's website at the following URL, the interview begins around 17 minutes into the programme:

Smart food sensors could push down price of fruit ‘n’ veg

The price of fresh food in shops and supermarkets could be reduced if innovative work at The University of Manchester to develop intelligent low-cost sensors is successful. Scientists and engineers at The Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre are working on technology that will allow more scientific ‘best before’ dates to be set by food producers and retailers. Researchers are looking at how sensors integrated with Oyster-card type Radio Frequency ID (RFID) technology can be used to track real-time stresses suffered by perishable goods from when it leaves the farm to when it arrives with the retailer. Britain throws away £20 billion of food every year and food makes up the single largest source of commercial waste at roughly 21 per cent.
Now chemists, engineers and physicists are working together to develop a system that uses battery-free RFID tags to monitor and record stress profiles, which costs around 10p to 20p – rather than £20 at present. It is predicted this low-cost will help fuel the widescale deployment of the technology. Dr Bruce Grieve, Director of the Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre at The University of Manchester, said: “There are both economic and environmental drivers behind the desire for this kind of technology. “The economic motivation for companies in the food supply chain is to reduce the hidden costs that we all bear when purchasing fresh produce. Only a percentage of that produce makes it all the way to our plates and so when we shop we are paying an invisible fee for these losses. “Through real-time inventory management of produce, based upon accurate forecasts of shelf life on a box-by-box basis, these loses may be minimised and costs recouped. “As consumers we may see some of this saving reflected in cheaper fruit and vegetables, while the companies that introduce and invest in this technology will also gain economically.”

Dr Grieve also highlights the environmental benefits of the technology, which should reduce the amount of unfit produce that reaches the shelves. “This will help reduce fuel usage by minimising transportation of the stressed and rejected produce. It could also help reduce the environmental impact of unfit produce going into landfill,” he said. “But most importantly for climate change, it could also reduce the total synthetic fertilisers and nitrogen usage per tonne of food consumed. This currently accounts for around 70 per cent of carbon used in typical crop production.” Dr Grieve and colleagues will be working with colleagues in industry to integrate knowledge of the way seeds have been bred and farming techniques with ‘stress profiles’ from sensors to create more meaningful best before dates. Dr Grieve added: “The first generation of this technology will be based upon silicon but our plan is to the use plastic printed electronics in later generations to make the sensor tags compatible in cost with the humble bar code. “This is adventurous research and won’t be with us tomorrow. Realistically we will have ironed out the major scientific hurdles by around the end of 2010 and then there is a significant step to translate this into a final device using appropriate manufacturing techniques. “The commercial silicon sensor-tag could be with us in about three to give years where as the printed plastic equivalent may be here in 2015.”

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Microfluidic System Engineering for Enzyme Analysis in Genetically Modified Sugarcane

Schematic of the components of Integrated Cellulase Unit, ICU

Motivation and Drivers

Increasing and continuing dependence on dwindling petroleum resources has lead to an increase in oil prices and the concentration of green house gases. Thus, it is desirable to make a transition from non-renewable resources to renewable resources such as biofuels (e.g. bioethanol, biodiesel), solar, wind, and hydro.

Bioethanol is believed to have a potential to decrease our dependence on petroleum-derived transportation fuels. Currently, sugarcane in Brazil and corn in the United States are the most commonly used feedstocks for the commercial production of ethanol (first generation biofuels). But their use has been discouraged due to fears that the use of food crops (such as corn and sugarcane) for ethanol production can increase food prices and decrease food supply. However, the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass (second generation biofuels) to ethanol does not create a pressure on existing food or land resources, and therefore presents an ideal opportunity for lucrative commercial bioethanol production.

One source of lignocellulosic biomass is bagasse (the fibrous portion left after stalks of sugarcane are crushed to extract the juice). It has been estimated that with just 50% of the bagasse that is currently being produced from the sugarcane crop in Australia approximately 1.2 billion litres of ethanol can be produced per year. This is equivalent to ~2% of the country’s gasoline consumption in the years 2006.

Hydrolysis of cellulose and hemicellulose in pretreated bagasse requires a number of cellulase and hemicellulase enzymes. The cost of these enzymes is ~30-50 US cents per gallon (~ 10 US cents/ litre) of ethanol and has been as the key barrier to economic production of ethanol from bagasse. Thus, it is necessary to reduce the cost of enzymes for the production of ethanol from bagasse to be economically viable.

It has been suggested that genetically modified (GM) plants which can express multiple cellulases and hemicellulases have the potential to provide lower cost performance cellulosic enzymes. But the concentration of enzymes in different batches of sugarcane is expected to vary with harvesting and cultivation conditions, thereby necessitating the characterization of every batch of cane juice for: 1) Fiscal measures and 2) Process control.

Thus, the aim of this research project is to develop an instrument (called Integrated Cellulase Unit, ICU shown in the figure above) to enable real-time analysis and monitoring of the concentration of multiple cellulases in every incoming batch of GM sugarcane.

ICU Analyser

In a search for an appropriate basic principle for the ICU analyser, a review of the capabilities of High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), Capillary Zone Electrophoresis (CZE), Isotachophoresis (ITP) and Isoelectric focussing (IEF) have been evaluated.

At this stage of the project, ITP is the choice of technique for the ICU analyser due to its several advantages which includes its ability to concentrate dilute samples, higher sample loading capacity, lower susceptibility to blockages, relaxed requirements on sampling and detection units, and possibility for automation. These advantages are of utmost importance for monitoring the concentration of enzymes in a process environment.

Future work will focus on lowering the limit of detection of these enzymes.

Research Partners and Principal Contacts

Ms Ruchi Gupta, Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre, University of Manchester, UK

Prof Peter Fielden, School of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science, University of Manchester, UK

Prof Nick Goddard, School of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science, University of Manchester, UK

Mr Ian O'Hara, Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, QUT, Australia

Would you like to become a research partner? Are there other aspects of this research that we should be bringing in?

Monday, 31 August 2009

RF Energy Harvesting for Wireless Sensor Networks in the Outdoor Environment

RF energy transfer mechanism between a rotatable transmitter, attached to the wall of a property, and the receivers

Block diagram of the proposed RF energy harvesting system

Antenna measurement inside anechoic chamber

Field trial at Jealott’s Hill

Structure of an enhanced gain circular microstrip patch antenna with stacked parasitic ring

Simulated radiation pattern (realised gain) of the antenna placed on different soil surfaces at 867 MHz

Wireless Sensor Networks in Agriculture

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the deployment of wireless sensor networks (WSN) within many sectors. These network systems, consisting of spatially distributed sensor nodes are used extensively in various applications such as structural monitoring, habitat monitoring, inventory tracking, and healthcare system. One emerging WSN application is in agriculture sector, where the sensor nodes are deployed in outdoor fields to monitor soil conditions, such as moisture, mineral content, and temperature. Data collected from these sensors could be used to manage irrigation and fertilisation, to predict crop yield, as well as to improve crop quality.

Motivation and Drivers

Energy supply has been a limiting factor to the lifetime of agricultural wireless sensors. These sensors are typically powered by onboard batteries which have fixed energy rating and limited lifespan. Hence, they need to be replaced in due time. Moreover, the cost is prohibitive when replacing the exhausted batteries since the sensor devices need to be unearthed. Apart from that, disposal of used batteries poses another major issue. Batteries containing heavy metals such as mercury, lead, or cadmium could be hazardous to human and environment if they are improperly disposed in the landfills.

A possible long-term solution to overcoming these problems is by using energy harvesting in which ambient energy can be extracted and converted into usable electrical energy to power the sensors. Several energy harvesting methods using different energy sources, such as light radiation, temperature difference, electromagnetic field, human power, and vibrations, have been reported in the literature. Selection of an energy harvesting scheme mainly depends on the operating environment and power requirement of the sensors.

Why RF Energy Harvesting?

The main application envisaged of this research is a wireless soil sensor network used for in-field pest detection and monitoring. This network comprises of several sensor nodes which are distributed across an outdoor field surrounding a property. The soil sensor nodes are non-moving and could be located in an open area, in the shades of trees, or even covered by dried leaves or mud.

Based on the given environmental conditions, Radio Frequency (RF) energy harvesting, which relates the concept of wireless energy transmission, is preferred. RF energy harvesting can not only be used to replenish the power required to operate the soil sensors, but it can also provide a more controllable and predictable power supply compared to other possible energy harvesting methods.

Through this approach, RF energy radiated from a controlled transmitter is captured by a receiving antenna attached to the sensor node and converted into usable DC voltage via a combination of rectifier and voltage regulator circuit. This DC output is then stored in an energy storage system before being used to power the sensor.

Research Objectives

The main objective of this project is to investigate and demonstrate the feasibility of using radio frequency (RF) energy harvesting in powering a wireless soil sensor network deployed in an outdoor field. In addition, a proof-of-concept RF energy harvesting device will be designed, built, optimised, and tested in the field.

Research Undertaken (so far)

(I) Investigation Phase

A series of lab and field trials has been conducted using a crude RF energy harvesting model built from commercially-available components – a transmitter and a pair of transmitting and receiving antennas. Performance of both antennas, in term of their gain and return loss, was evaluated inside an anechoic chamber. A field trial was then conducted in an outdoor field at Jealott’s Hill, Berkshire in order to gain a basic insight on the amount of RF energy which could be harvested using the proposed scheme. Trial results showed that this crude model is capable of powering the soil sensor nodes up to a vicinity of 3 metres. Moreover, it is found that the operating range of the proposed system could be further enhanced by:

(i) Using a transmitter with higher output power
(ii) Designing a receiving antenna with higher gain
(iii) Improving the efficiency of the power conversion circuit

(II) Design Phase - Receiving Antenna

Our design is currently focused on receiving antenna component. Receiving antenna is an important element of a RF energy harvesting system. It is responsible for capturing the radiated RF energy in the ambient, thereby affecting the amount of harvestable energy of the system. Microstrip patch antenna (MPA) has been chosen as the receiving antenna of the proposed system due to its low profile, low cost, low weight and ease of fabrication.

Up to date, the suitability of using a printed circuit board (PCB) receiving MPA for the intended RF energy harvesting application was investigated. Performance of a conventional circular microstrip patch antenna using five different PCB materials ranged from low cost fibreglass laminate (FR4) to advanced PTFE based laminates (RT5880, RO3003, RO3006, and RO3006) were evaluated in terms of return loss, radiation efficiency, and gain. Simulations were carried out using CST Microwave Studio to examine the antenna’s performance both in free air and in the presence of different soil conditions. It was found that an enhanced gain circular patch antenna stacked with a ring shaped parasitic radiator using RO3003 substrate could meet the minimum receiving antenna gain requirement (3dB) of the intended application, but with the need of a slight tilt to ensure correct directivity and also with the expenses of higher material and fabrication cost. We are currently investigating a cheaper alternative – an air-substrate-based, folded, MPA with tilted
beam capability. Findings on this antenna will be reported in the future.

Next Steps

1) Design of an air substrate based folded MPA.
2) Design of an energy harvesting circuit with energy storage system.
3) Validation of the complete RF energy harvesting system in field.

Research Partners and Principal Contacts

Mr Zhi Wei Sim, Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre, University of Manchester, UK

Dr Roger Shuttleworth, School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering, University of Manchester, UK

Would you like to become a research partner? Are there other aspects of this research that we should be bringing in?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Subsoil Imaging of Root Function

Motivation and Drivers

In the face of climate change the ability to rapidly identify new plant varieties that will be tolerant to drought, and other stresses, is going to be key to breeding the food crops of tomorrow. Currently, above soil features (phenotypes) are monitored in industrial greenhouses and field trials during seed breeding programmes so as to provide an indication of which plants have the most likely preferential genetics to thrive in the future global environments. These indicators of “plant vigour” are often based on loosely related features which may be straightforward to examine, such as an additional ear of corn on a maize plant, but which are labour intensive and lacking in direct linkage to the required crop features.


This project will deliver a new visualisation tool for seed breeders which will provide them with a 24/7 signal from each and every plant in a screening programme indicating how efficiently the root bundles are in drawing upon the water and nutrients in the soil.

Expected End Result

An industrial glasshouse scale screening tool for early isolation and delivery of tomorrow's climate tolerant food crops.

Research Undertaken so Far

Existing electrical imaging instrumentation has been integrated into crop growth studies under highly controlled soil, nutrient and environmental conditions. These early studies have verified the proof-of-concept and given the research team an understanding of the breadth of technical challenges that must now be addressed to take the current medical and process plant based instrumentation into the new world of agriscience and food supply. This will require plant geneticists, chemical engineers, field study managers, applied mathematicians and electronic engineers to work in close collaboration to meet the new goal.

Next Steps

Within the next 6 months the team will implement and characterise a next generation of electrical imaging instrumentation which has been designed to meet the specific needs of subsoil imaging for plant root function. The tests will be carried out under highly controlled conditions using a single genetic strain of plants and the subsequent findings will then be integrated into a larger research programme. This will optimise the instrumentation to enable their use with a wide range of soil structures, irrigation profiles and plant species. In addition the soft-field image reconstruction will be fused with theoretical models for soil mobility and plant physiology in order to reduce the ill-posed nature and increase the fidelity of the root phenotype information.

Research Partners and Principal Contacts

Dr Anil Day, Faculty of Lifesciences, University of Manchester, UK
Prof Trevor York, School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, University of Manchester, UK
Prof Bill Lionheart, School of Mathematics, University of Manchester, UK
Dr Sacha Mooney, Centre for Integrative Plant Biology, University of Nottingham, UK
Dr Ryan Ramsey, Jealotts Hill International Research Centre, Syngenta, UK

Would you like to become a research partner? Are there other aspects of this research that we should be bringing in?

Monday, 27 July 2009

Early Detection of Crop Disease

Motivation and Drivers

The prevention of yield loss from crop disease is a key factor in delivering food security. Existing infection monitoring programmes, based upon field-walking by agronomists or aerial/satellite imaging, are invariably too late to effect a remedial treatment. This project aims to deliver a wide-area network of pathogen specific sensors which will detect spore growth early enough to secure yields, but with minimum fungicide input.


The project will develop an in-field pathogen sensor. In this way local detection and treatment can be delivered at the farm level as well as wide-area, real-time, tracking / forecasting of disease progress.

Expected End Result

Crop yield protection from minimum fungicide input.

Research Undertaken so Far

Initial target pathogen and an exemplar crop have been identified for the early adoption of a technology platform. Business models scenarios developed for delivering maximum returns for growers through an integrated fungal detection and treatment service have been investigated. Pathogen / host interaction mechanism for a demonstrator disease has been developed.

Next Steps

Delivery (within 6 months) of a laboratory prototype sensor for a demonstrator fungal pathogen. Further validation and enhancement of the business offer with farmers prior to in-field testing. Identification of alternative pathogen / host relationships for broadening of the technology platform and research programme. Partners are sought to assist with these next steps, especially with respect to: co-creation of business models with retailers; alliances with telecoms providers; or early uptake trials with growers.

Research Partners and Principal Contacts

Prof Mike Turner, Organic Materials Innovation Centre, University of Manchester, UK
Dr Jon West, Rothamsted Research, UK
Dr Kim Hammond-Kosack, Rothamsted Research, UK
Dr Sarah Perfect, Jealotts Hill International Research Centre, Syngenta, UK
Tom Robinson, Syngenta Crop Protection (Fulbourn), UK
Dr Andrew Garman, Q-Futures, UK

Would you like to become a research partner? Are there other aspects of this research that we should be bringing in?

Sunday, 5 July 2009

e-Agri: A new research initiative within the University of Manchester


  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Over-population and shifting urbanisation of nations
  • Climate change
  • Water shortage for agriculture versus usage for cities and industry
  • Shift in developing nations to high protein diets
  • Reduction in carbon footprint from "farm-to-fork", including sequestration
  • Energy usage for farming, esp. for synthetic fertilisers
  • Limited land bank for food versus demands for renewable biofuels
  • Increasing crop pest and pathogen resistance to treatment
  • Demand for improved food quality and enhanced safety assurance
Integrating sensors, electronics, control and ICT engineering into agriculture is a key enabler for delivering improved food supply and sustainable energy production without increased burden on the limited fertile land-bank. This exploitation of non-traditional technologies to improve global farming is extremely timely given the projected growth in the world population from 6.5bn, in 2006, to 8bn by 2025 and 9.3bn in 2050 (US Census Bureau estimates). In parallel by 2020 numerous governments, including the UK and US, intend to derive substantial volumes of fuel from a new generation of farm crops. As a consequence yields from existing arable land need to increase by 50%. Population trends, with large increases in Asia, also show that global trade in agricultural produce must intensify further as Latin America will no longer be capable of providing the shortfall in food for Asia. In the UK the need for research into sustainable food chains has been recognised and reinforced recently through the £24M investment by RC-UK in the "Rural Economy and Land Use Programme" (

These food and feed supply challenges must be delivered in a sustainable manner which protects scarce fresh water resources and maintains soil fertility against a backdrop of global climate and demographic changes. There are many precedents for exploiting ICT in farming, perhaps the most common exemplar being remote imaging for yield mapping, precision application of farm inputs and verification of subsidy payments. Historically these have been developed opportunistically using technologies originally intended for other sectors. To meet the challenges ahead requires coherent strategic thinking which is specifically tailored to the changing agricultural produce supply issues. This view is supported by the UK Chief Government Scientist, who has eluded to the e-Agri area in recent interviews and visited the UoM earlier this year on the strength of these convictions (Beddington J, 2008, “Opinion”, Food Science & Technology, 22(3), p12).

Delivering an International Research Cluster for Global Food & Energy Security

The University of Manchester ( in the UK is planning on launching e-Agri (“smart agriculture”) as a new research initiative. The e-Agri research cluster will integrate advanced research in ICT, sensing, electronics, control and power systems in such a manner as to enable a new future for global food supply and energy security. Adoption of this themed strategy will position the University to attract a new branch of longer term funding and multi-party collaborations with industries and academics from across the Agri-Food sector. The initiative will be founded upon current industrially supported research at Manchester, notably in the Syngenta sponsored Sensors UIC ( and the Tesco supported Sustainable Consumption Institute (

To achieve ownership and rapid delivery it is proposed that the initiative be hosted by the School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering (, as its 6 core research groups incorporate a significant number of the essential academic skills. The introduction of e-Agri technologies into Agri-Food research, products and services will require new academic partnerships to be fostered across the University and elsewhere. In parallel, to achieve commercial uptake of these disruptive technologies, it will be essential to develop complementary inter faculty research partnerships, notably with the Business School. The activity will be managed by a cross disciplinary, industry and academic, Steering Team which will also be tasked with delivering the longer term e-Agri strategy.

Further details on the current portfolio of research platforms will be posted on this blog on regular basis, so as to elicit a dialogue from potential research partners and beneficiaries. This initial post is to start a dialogue on the strategy and help identify potential industrial and academic partners.