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Boosting Crops
June 29, 2012   
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Researchers from the Institute of Biopolymers and Chemical Fibers in £ód¼ have developed biodegradable agro-textiles containing a polysaccharide called chitosan. Vegetables, fruit and ornamental plants grown using this natural product yield better crops and grow faster.

The chitosan used in the agro-textiles is derived from the shells of shrimp, crabs and other sea crustaceans discarded by the food industry. Agro-textiles can be used as mulch, a protective cover for plants that helps them grow better, and as material for seedling pots. The highly useful and environmentally friendly invention was developed by a research team consisting of Antoni Niekraszewicz, Magdalena Kucharska, Danuta Ciechańska, Piotr Siwek, Andrzej Libik, Janusz Jarzźbowski, Maria Wi¶niewska-Wrona, Bogdan Grucha³a and S³awomir Dutkiewicz from the Institute of Biopolymers and Chemical Fibers in £ód¼, the University of Agriculture in Cracow and the Polmatex-Cenaro Center for Textile Machine Research and Development Center in £ód¼.

Niekraszewicz explains that agro-textiles are non-woven fabrics used like plastic tunnels in agricultural engineering. “They are used to mulch the soil to protect plants in fields during winter and early spring and also to produce seedlings,” Niekraszewicz said. Agro-textiles help regulate soil temperature and since they also reduce evaporation, the soil does not need to be watered, while at the same time growing plants can make a better use of nutrients contained in the soil. Mulch of agro-textiles colored black offers the extra benefit of restricting sunlight penetration, which inhibits weed growth. As a result, farmers need to use less herbicides, if any at all. The same is true of nitrogen fertilizers.

Modified agro-textiles obtained in experimental conditions consist of melt-blown fibers (produced by high-velocity air blowing a molten resin onto a conveyer) made from a biodegradable polymer. The product is a joint effort by the Institute of Biopolymers and Chemical Fibers in £ód¼ and the Polmatex-Cenaro Center for Textile Machine Research and Development in £ód¼. “This technique hinges on fabrics obtained directly from melted polymer so that it is not necessary to produce fibers in a separate technological process,” said Niekraszewicz. While non-woven fabrics are produced through a variety of methods, the melt-blown technique and the similar spunbond technique are the most economical ones, because they are highly productive.

Working on the project, the Polish researchers used commercially available biodegradable and thermoplastic aliphatic polyesters and copolyesters and a biodegradable aliphatic-aromatic copolyester invented at the Institute of Biopolymers and Chemical Fibers. After the textile formed, the researchers applied chitosan to the surface of the fibers.

Chitosan, a natural, biodegradable and commercially available polysaccharide, needs to be dissolved in an aqueous solution of lactic acid before it can be used to modify the agro-textile. Using the same method, chitosan can be also applied to traditionally manufactured agro-textiles, including those from non-biodegradable polymers. Chitosan is applied on fibers by coating, hard facing and spraying, so that agro-textiles can be modified in devices used in the final processing of fabrics.

Agro-textiles developed by the researchers in £ód¼ were tested in the Department of Vegetable Crops and Herbs at the University of Agriculture in Cracow. “We experimented with vegetable crops, using the agro-textiles as protective covers and mulch,” said Niekraszewicz. “We also made seedling pots from chitosan-modified agro-textile.”

Black agro-textile was used to mulch strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes and roses. Naturally colored agro-textile was used to cover leeks, onions and lettuce and make pots for cucumber and tomato seedlings. According to Niekraszewicz, agro-textiles can be used to grow other plants, including ornamental ones.

Working in the field, the researchers reported almost trebled crops of Merengue F1 cucumbers compared with cucumber seedlings grown in standard pots from non-biodegradable plastics. Compared with pots made of unmodified biodegradable agro-textiles, the crops were 40 percent greater. Mundi F1 tomato seedlings grown in pots from chitosan-modified agro-textiles yielded crops that were 10 percent greater than seedlings grown in pots from unmodified agro-textile and 20 percent greater than for standard pots. Modified black agro-textile increased total crops by about 90 percent compared with crops without mulching.

The melt-blown technique to manufacture agro-textiles from biodegradable polymers was developed in the course of a project commissioned and funded by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The Modified Biodegradable Agro-Textile invention won the researchers the Silver Medal of the Brussels Innova 2011 Invention Fair and a Diploma from the Minister of Science and Higher Education.

MB
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