Measuring nitrate just like in the laboratory

Press Release / April 25, 2018

So far, it has only been possible to get truly reliable measuring results for the amount of fertilizer needed in a private garden from a laboratory – a process that is too elaborate and expensive, particularly for hobby gardeners or hobby farmers. In collaboration with the community scientists from FabLab München e.V., the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Microsystems and Solid State Technologies EMFT is working on an alternative: a simple nitrate and phosphate measuring device for home use.

On a map, they are only a few centimeters apart: FabLab München e.V., an open citizen workshop in Munich's Westend district, and the Fraunhofer EMFT, a Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft institute. People research, develop and design at both – however, so far, independently from each other. The project "Citizen Sensor – environmental analytics for everyone", which is funded by Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), aims to change this. A Fraunhofer EMFT and FabLab München team intends to jointly develop a simple nitrate and phosphate measuring device by the end of 2019. Throughout this, they will be supported by two further project partners: the Fraunhofer Center for International Management and Knowledge Economy IMW will be accompanying the project from a socio-economic perspective, and the Fraunhofer IRB's Competence Center Research Services & Open Science, which develops open science approaches for the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and advises interested institutes on the subject, is also on board. 

The measuring device will be based on electrochemical sensors from the Fraunhofer EMFT. It will hopefully allow hobby gardeners to quickly and easily measure their soil's current fertilizer content. Electrochemical measurements such as these are quite complex and have therefore so far been performed by specialized laboratories. Granted, disposable testing strips for universal use are available for water quality testing, for example. However, in contrast to electrochemical measurements, these color change based tests deliver only imprecise results that provide no meaningful information whatsoever about the actual concentrations. "We basically want to combine the advantages of both: precise measuring results that can be processed further digitally and an easy-to-use device that can be used directly on site," says Dr Hanns-Erik Endres from the Fraunhofer EMFT, one of the project's initiators. In view of the complexity of the electrochemical sensor technology, a solution such as this is extremely ambitious. The partners are therefore not discounting the possibility that they may have to change tack and aim for a goal that may be easier to reach if their joint efforts grind to a halt.

Creating a new cooperation model

On the basis of the experiences gathered in the currently ongoing project, the partners intend to develop good practice guidelines in the hope that this will make future collaborations between research institutions and the "maker scene" easier by providing potential solution approaches and practical tips, from how to organize the collaborative work, which has to take the differences in the time which professional and hobby researchers are able to invest into the project into account, to the very basic question of what is actually supposed to happen with the jointly developed knowledge in the end. For the time being, the respective established ideas where this is concerned are worlds apart: the Fraunhofer's approach of patenting new expertise in order to then commercially exploit it and the FabLab's credo of "Make, learn, share". New exploitation and cooperation models must therefore be designed that reflect both schools of thought. One of the techniques the Fraunhofer IMW will be using for this is context mapping, which makes a deeper understanding of the motivations and needs of the stakeholders involved possible through a combination of research methods. Beside these in-house perspectives, the Fraunhofer IMW will also conduct expert interviews with further stakeholders from the maker scene and the applied science community to ask them about their expectations with regard to the benefits of collaborations. At a final joint workshop, all of the project participants will reflect on the results against the background of their own experiences.

All of the participants agree that, despite the not inconsiderable challenges, looking beyond your own backyard is a worthwhile effort. The collaboration with the Fraunhofer has given the hobby researchers from FabLab München access to new technologies and an insight into how established research institutions work. In turn, the FabLab community's interdisciplinary perspective has been like a breath of fresh air for the Fraunhofer team. Not least, it is hoped that the participative approach will contribute to making research more community-relevant and potentially even more target group- and customer-led.

Field tests planned from 2019 onwards

The team is currently busy with the development and testing of measuring methods for various electrochemical analyses. The tinkerers then want to realize a reliable electrochemical nitrate measuring method and design a simple measuring device for DIY use by the summer. If all goes well, on-site field tests will be added onto the agenda from February 2019 onwards, at the latest. Interested hobby gardeners, farmers or urban gardening initiatives will then be invited to test the new measuring device with regard to its usability and user-friendliness in practice and to then give the developer team their feedback. The project is being funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research within the scope of its citizen science promotion program. It is one of thirteen projects designed to promote the closer collaboration of citizens and professional scientists relating to research contents and methods in order to provide answers to societal challenges.  

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Katrin Tina Möbius  
Phone +49 89 54759-198
Fraunhofer EMFT
Hansastr. 27d
80686 Munich

Andreas Kahler
FabLab München e.V.
Gollierstraße 70, Eingang D
80339 Munich

Urban Kaiser
Telefon +341-231039-150  
Fraunhofer IMW
Neumarkt 9
04109 Leipzig

Dirk Böttner-Langolf
Telefon +341-231039-250 
Fraunhofer IMW
Neumarkt 9
04109 Leipzig

The Fraunhofer Center for International Management and Knowledge Economy IMW can look back over twelve years of applied socio-economic research and experience at the Leipzig location. Around 170 employees from 20 countries help clients and partners from the business, industrial, political and science communities and public institutions to benefit from the innovation drivers globalization and digitalization. The institute's international projects, network activities and analyses focus on how people can benefit from socio-economic and applied research into the dynamics of a knowledge-based society and the future of industrial production. The interdisciplinary team of researchers provides businesses, organizations, institutions, countries, local communities and regions with sound scientific support during strategic decision-making processes. Initially founded as the Center for Central and Eastern Europe (MOEZ) in 2006, the strategic realignment and new foci of the institute, which holds a certification to DIN EN ISO 9001:2008 DNV-GL standard, are expressed in the new name chosen in 2016, the Fraunhofer Center for International Management and Knowledge Economy IMW. The institute's expertise focuses on innovation research, knowledge and technology transfer and corporate development in an international competitive environment.