Utah company looks for big results from its ‘smallest innovation in agriculture’

Aqua-Yield of Draper uses nanotechnology to decrease amount of fertilizer needed for crops and increase yields.<br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clark Bell, CEO of Aqua-Yield -- a new company in Draper that uses nano technology to make fertilizers more efficient -- describes studies taking place in their indoor research and development facility. The company says its products can cut down the use of fertilizers by as much as 80 percent or more.

Chip Block says every time the Aqua-Yield truck from Utah pulls up at his Georgia sod farm, he hears from a neighbor.

“He’ll call me, ‘Hey, your snake oil salesman’s here,’” Block said.

Aqua-Yield’s processed fertilizer might be snake oil to the neighbor, but Block sees it as money in his pocket. 

He’s been using Aqua-Yield’s product on one of the fields on his 950-acre farm, where he grows sod for homes, commercial use and athletic fields. Instead of getting one crop a year on that field, he gets two harvests, using the same amount of fertilizer he previously used for a single crop.

“It’s definitely been a game-changer for us,” Block said.

Aqua-Yield CEO Clark Bell says that’s the promise of the new but rapidly growing Draper company’s products: Use less fertilizer and increase yields with its “smallest innovation in agricultural history.”

The problem with most manufactured fertilizers in their traditional forms, he said, are that only a portion is absorbed by the plants. The rest is wasted and can run off into aquifers, streams and lakes.

Aqua-Yield’s innovation reduces or enlarges the size of fertilizer particles so they’re nanosize — anything between 1 and 100 nanometers, which are one-billionth of a meter — then combines them with ultrapure water.

The combination results in a molecular shield, which the company calls its “Nano-Shield,” as water molecules surround the smaller fertilizer particles. According to  farmers who have used the processed fertilizer, it improves plant health and greatly increases yields.

An experiment gone right 

Bell’s father, Warren, and grandfather, T.H. Bell, the former secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, founded the BioGrass sod farm in 1979 in Eagle Mountain.

The basic technology for miniaturizing the fertilizer particles came from another entity that was working on human nutrition at the nanolevel. Technicians at the farm experimented with the idea of applying the technology to increase sod yields.

In 2013, applying the technology to fertilizer used on sod produced a “massive uptick in results,” said Bell.

BioGrass sent their product out for testing on other sod farms with similar results and then to citrus growers in Florida.

By February 2014, according to Bell, citrus growers also saw positive results, including a reduction in the amount of greening, a disease that has been devastating crops in that state.

Aqua-Yield was formed in January 2014 to market products first developed at BioGrass and to continue research and development.

It’s owned by four groups that include Clark and Warren Bell; 10 farmers; Fraser Bullock and his son, Mike Bullock, who is president of Aqua-Yield. Fraser Bullock, managing director of Sorenson Capital, was chief operating officer of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. 

The company’s spartan offices share space in a warehouse on the east side of Interstate 15 in Draper with its research, production and storage areas.

In a makeshift room, grow lights hang over tables of plants used to test the effectiveness of products and work on innovations. Outside, plants are exposed to normal growing conditions for further observation.

The company’s production facility sits in one corner of the warehouse, where water is purified, fertilizer is down- or upsized, and they’re mixed together.

Giant plastic storage tanks are ready for field use, holding regular water mixed with the fertilizer concentrate. The Nano-Shield remains in place after the processing, protecting the minute fertilizer particles from the contaminants of the water and allowing their efficient absorption by plants, the company explains.

Nanosize solutions 

“Nanosize is important and there’s a reason you hear that buzz word,” said Landon Bunderson, chief science officer. “The nanoscale is a way to basically leverage the intersection of physics and chemistry.”

Christopher Hendrickson, an assistant professor at the private National University in La Jolla, Calif., has been a consultant for Aqua-Yield. He said the company is still wondering “what we’ve got our hands on and how we can apply it to emergent problems.”

“At this point we’re trying to understand things at a really, really fundamental level in terms of genes and signaling pathways inside our plants that we’re triggering with the technology,” he said.

The nanosized particles seem to work best when delivered though the soil using nearly any type of irrigation systems, but they also can be sprayed on plants from above, Hendrickson said.

Beyond the small-scale interaction with a plant, there are wider implications for lower levels of fertilizer use with higher yields, he said.

“We’re not only creating a more economic production scheme, we’re also resulting in less environmental footprint for agricultural production systems in general,” he said, “reduced carbon footprint, reduced runoff into the water table.”

Bob Huck grows seedlings for vegetable farmers at his Tropic Star operation in Alamo, Texas. He heard about Aqua-Yield from a Florida company that installed a water filtration system for him, and he’s  been using Aqua-Yield products for about 18 months.

Normally, his yellow onion seeds would be planted around around Oct. 1, but he wasn’t able to do that last year.

“In a nutshell, I planted about 10 days late,” Huck said. “But when I harvested them, I harvested 20 days earlier than the rest of the valley. So the time it took to grow the same crop was approximately 30 days less.”

Given the yields, and the potential to use fewer petrochemicals and to restore the health of soils, he said, “This to me is a game-changer as far as how farmers are going to be able to produce their crops.”