From the ground, back to the ground: pulse fibre and nutrients

Pulse hulls have a new role in Canadian agriculture, returning the soil holding micronutrients. | File photo

Pea and lentil hulls are being used as mediated-release carriers for micronutrients without leaving carbon footprints

Lucent Biosciences plans to scale up production of its micronutrient fertilizer called Soileos, which uses cellulose fibre as a carrier for micronutrients like zinc, iron, and manganese.

“We’re looking at constructing a new facility probably in the Regina area that should be able to kick out enough for several tens of thousands of acres a year, and that should be completed construction by the end of next year,” said Jason McNamee, founder and chief product officer at Lucent Biosciences.

The company is also scaling up production at its Vancouver facility and will be able to produce more than one ton of the fertilizer per day.

Soileos was developed with help from $1.3 million of funding from Protein Industries Canada, as well as $1.7 million from Lucent BioSciences from Vancouver and Regina-based AGT Foods and Ingredients.

Lucent Biosciences uses the hulls of peas and lentils, a byproduct from AGT processing, to turn the organic fibre into a carrier for micronutrients to plants.

“One of the nice things about the product is it’s non-toxic so you can put it in right with the seed. In fact, we’re using it as a seed coating in a different form,” McNamee said.

“We’re using it in air seeders doing strip trials and I’m putting it right in the furrow with the seed. So there’s no salt index problems or anything like that, like there is typically for fertilizer.”

He said the small plot research they’ve conducted for broad-acre crops has shown a yield improvement between five and 12 percent.

“We have developed this novel composition of matter, whereby we have been able to attach the nutrients to cellulose,” McNamee said.

“We’ve been able to attach the nutrients in fashion that is strong enough so that there’s no leaching, but not so strong that the microbiome and the plant can’t grab it. That’s really the secret sauce in how it works.”

Soil microbes use the fibre in the fertilizer as a source of energy, and in doing so they must also consume the nutrients.

The micronutrients become plant available once they are consumed by the microbes, which have a very short life cycle.

Because the release of the nutrients in the Soileos fertilizer requires microbial activity, the plant availability of the nutrients is weather dependent.

“If it’s cold and wet you’re not getting any leaching but there’s also no microbial activity at that time, and so there’s no release,” McNamee said.

“As it gets warmer and moist that’s when the plants grow the fastest, that’s when it needs the nutrients and that’s also when the microbiome is cycling, and that’s when the nutrients are delivered.”

This is why McNamee describes Soileos as an intelligent-release fertilizer product, because it makes nutrients available when crops need them the most.

Slow release fertilizers are also affected by environmental conditions, however their nutrient release isn’t as associated with a crop’s need compared to Soileos, McNamee said.

“We’ve solved the problem of how to deliver the nutrients to the plant in a timely fashion when the plant needs them over the entire growing season, not just right at the start.”

He said the company is still working on nailing down the most cost-effective application rates, on how much of the fertilizer becomes available in the year of applications, and on the specific environmental conditions that affect plant availability of the fertilizer.

Larger scale trials in each of the prairie provinces are being conducted this summer for grain and oilseed production, and the use of Soileos is also being studied in vegetable and orchard production.

Soileos will have a competitive advantage over traditional micronutrient products when it comes to sustainability, because it’s primarily made out of carbon and has a small carbon footprint.

“We’re working with some researchers out of the University of Calgary to do that actual calculation so we can stamp and clamp and say exactly what it is,” McNamee said.

“But compared to any other fertilizer, which has a massive carbon footprint, this has a zero carbon footprint. So that really meshes well with some of the sustainability goals with the (United Nations) sustainable development goals, as well as the government of Canada’s stated carbon neutral goals.”

McNamee said Lucent Biosciences will undergo a series A round of funding by the end of this year, which he said will help the company achieve the scale needed to break into the market.

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