News Release

Through a new NASA grant, interdisciplinary team to measure nitrogen released from agriculture sources

Grant and Award Announcement

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment

NOx-NH3 model measurements


(Left) a satellite-based NOx emission map from TROPOMI derived by Kang’s group, which shows detailed sources of NOx in central and southern US (image credit: Kang Sun); (right)The fast flux sensors, developed by Zondlo’s group, to make continuous flux measurements of NH3 for this project (image credit: Mark Zondlo) .

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Credit: Kang Sun/Mark Zondlo

As researchers continue to understand the effects agriculture plays in climate and environment, a new research project was recently funded by the NASA Interdisciplinary Research in Earth Science (IDS) program, which includes experienced researchers from four institutions. The new project has for the first time made it possible to show the impact two nitrogen fluxes — ammonia (NH3) and nitric oxide/nitrogen dioxide (NOx) — have on agricultural productivity and air quality.

The study led by Kaiyu Guan, Director of the Agroecosystem Sustainability Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), will integrate satellite remote sensing, strategic field work from commercial farmland in Central Illinois, and ecosystem biochemistry modeling to quantify these nitrogen emissions from agriculture across the U.S. Midwest. The goal is to quantify the magnitude of NOX and NH3 from these fields to the atmosphere. Being able to use approaches from both in situ measurements and satellite data in biochemical modeling will help corroborate the measurements of each.

The three-year interdisciplinary project brings together atmospheric scientists Mark Zondlo from Princeton University and Kang Sun from the University at Buffalo; ecosystem scientists  Steven Hall from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wendy Yang from UIUC; and agroecosystem modelers Guan and Bin Peng from UIUC.

Sun’s team will examine the latest NASA satellite data to understand how to develop new methods to estimate the emissions of these two trace gasses. Zondlo will use state-of-the-art, fast flux sensors to make continuous flux measurements of NOX and NH3 and also targeted measurements on a mobile laboratory to bridge the field and satellite scales. Hall and Yang, both field-level measurement experts, will measure NOX at the field level. Guan and Peng will take these measurements and develop the final model.

“It is exciting to work with a team on a project that bridges across vastly different scales and synthesizes across measurement and modeling. This approach is critically needed to advance our understanding of the patterns of agricultural emissions.”  Zondlo commented. 

Ultimately, the goal is to provide improved guidance to farmers on future use of nitrogen fertilizer and alleviation of nitrogen emissions from agricultural practices to improve air quality in agricultural dominated landscapes.

“This is a very unique NASA IDS project,” Guan explained. “We want to take advantage of satellite-based observation, in-situ data, as well as biochemical models to holistically understand the nitrogen cycle. This information has previously been hard to gather."

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