WSU researchers designed nanotechnology to protect tree fruits

RICHLAND, Wash. – Groundbreaking nanotechnology designed to protect cherries, apples and other popular fruits from frost damage is showing positive results in tests by Washington State University researchers.

The research team recently received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop plant-based nanocrystals that coat and protect fruit buds during cold spells in the spring, when temperatures rise and fall unpredictably. Tree fruit growers of Washington state contributed and additional $100,000 through the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission to help fund field trails and technology.

The unique nanocrystal solution was formulated by Xiao Zhang, associate professor at WSU Tri-Cities’ Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, and a team of collaborators representing multiple disciplines.

“Frost damage happens in spring, as the flowers open and the sensitive tissues in the plant are exposed,” said Matthew Whiting, scientist and professor of horticulture at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center. “If we get a warm week, it signals to the plant that it needs to wake up.

“But plants lose their tolerance to the cold quite quickly, and that’s when we see frost damage,” Whiting added. “You see a lot of crop damage as a result.”

Positive results with preliminary trials
The team, led by professor Qin Zhang, director of WSU’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, also includes Xiao Zhang, Matthew Whiting, and Changki Mo, WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of mechanical engineering. Together they conducted their first field trial with the nanocrystals this spring. It showed positive results.

The team will continue the trials over the next three years, seeking to perfect the dosage and application strategy, in addition to the nanocrystal technology.

Unique and renewable characteristics
Since the nanocrystals are made from plant-based material, they represent a more environmentally friendly method for controlling temperatures for crops than current techniques.

Currently, growers use methods such as wind turbines to circulate air and raise the temperature of cold pockets in orchards. Or, they use heaters that cost upwards of thousands of dollars per night, which also give off significant pollution.

Cross disciplines for the future of fruit protection
Researchers from across several disciplines at WSU are working to perfect the nanocrystal method, ensuring a quality product built for industry use, Qin Zhang said.

“No single person who works in chemical engineering and nanocrystal technology, horticulture, mechanical engineering or precision agriculture has complete knowledge on the subject,” Qin Zhang said. “It is truly a transdisciplinary team. Everyone provides expertise in their particular field. This integrated team is covering all knowledge to conduct this research.”