HomeAbout UsGrantsFormsNewsroomHelpContact Us
Search NIFA
Advanced Search
Browse by Subject
Agricultural Systems
Animals & Animal Products
Biotechnology & Genomics
Economics & Commerce
Environment & Natural Resources
Families, Youth & Communities
Food, Nutrition & Health
Pest Management
Plants & Plant Products
Technology & Engineering

Technology & Engineering Overview

Scientific discovery and advancement affect our lives in two different ways—through new policies and regulations that provide broad national direction and through new products and processes that enhance our lives and communities. Technology and engineering translate scientific knowledge into action. At the same time, technological innovations often require further research into materials, devices, and processes. NIFA programs support engineering research and new technology development, as well as academic training and technology transfer. Together, these efforts result in safer, higher-quality foods; more efficient and environmentally sound agricultural practices; and better educated and more economically capable communities.

Rapid advances in biological, chemical, and physical sciences continue to expand our knowledge of agricultural, food, and environmental systems. This new knowledge may apply to a wide variety of national problems, including sustainability, safe and high-quality food, ecosystems, and rural economies.

Before those problems can be solved, however, new knowledge needs to be formulated into workable processes, products, devices, and technologies. This is the role of engineering research—a companion activity to scientific investigation. Because the NIFA mission is to “advance knowledge”—meaning to promote, expand, and spread knowledge, including useful technologies—not just create it via basic science, NIFA programs aim to support and engage engineering communities.

The importance of engineering as a scientific discipline was reflected in the 1965 legislation authorizing the National Research Initiative (NRI, Public Law 89-106). One of the six high-priority research areas identified in that legislation was:

(E) engineering, products, and processes, including new uses and new products from traditional and non-traditional crops, animals, byproducts, and natural resources; robotics, energy efficiency, computing, and expert systems; new hazard and risk assessment and mitigation measures; and water quality and management.

While the other five priority research areas in the NRI remained intact until only recently (when NIFA moved toward issue-focused priorities), the engineering emphasis in (E) became somewhat muted over time. However, given the ever-increasing reliance on technology in agriculture, it is even more important that engineering and technology capabilities keep pace with scientific advances.

Engineering skills and their application cut across most current research areas in NIFA—plant systems, animal systems, natural resources and the environment, food and fiber system, and economic systems. Some examples of where engineering can make a contribution include:

  • Physical properties of agricultural products.
  • Food and feed processing.
  • Technologies for value-added products.
  • Waste treatment and use.
  • Industrial products from biological materials.
  • Automated inspection systems.
  • Mechatronics and robotics.
  • Instrumentation and controls.
  • Biosensors.
  • Pest control.
  • Chemical applications.
  • Soil properties and dynamics
  • Machinery management.
  • Identity preservation.
  • Precision farming.
  • Controlled environments.
  • Farm safety.

Traditional university programs in agricultural engineering have transitioned into broader biological (or biosystems) engineering programs, often having close ties to chemical and electrical engineering and food engineering/technology. Software engineering and civil engineering programs provide cross-disciplinary links. Fundamental research programs in biotechnology and genomics rely heavily on instrumentation developed by biomedical or biological engineers. Contributions by engineering research and technology development are widespread and noteworthy.

The four NIFA programs constituting this national emphasis area are described below:

Agricultural & Biological Engineering: Traditionally, agricultural engineering has been synonymous with power machinery and equipment—such as tractors and field implements—with a secondary emphasis on structures and indoor environments. That has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, however. Because other fields of engineering—for example, chemical, mechanical, civil, and electrical—have historically not dealt with biological systems, agricultural engineering has recognized its unique capabilities and filled that biology void. Many university departments of agricultural engineering now include the term “biological” in their title. These departments now offer a wide variety of new specializations, in addition to the traditional ones:

  • Biological engineering.
  • Food and bioprocess engineering.
  • Information and electrical systems.
  • Natural resources and environment.
  • Forest engineering.
  • Aquaculture.
  • Energy systems.
  • Safety and health.
  • Nursery/greenhouse engineering.

NIFA support for agricultural engineering's expanded specializations is spread across many programs of research, education, and extension.

Information Technology Education: Because agriculture and its allied industries rely increasingly on information technology, skills in that area need to be present in the current and future workforce. Rural areas, where most agricultural jobs reside, have traditionally lagged in information technological sophistication. This program helps youth attain competencies in newer information technologies, assists the current workforce and commercial enterprises to apply information technology for economic success, and provides older residents with the skills necessary to use information technology to enrich their lives.

Nanotechnology: While nanotechnology research began more than 20 years ago, it wasn't until fairly recently that laboratory tools and techniques advanced to the point where nanoscale manipulations could be accomplished readily. Sub-micron structures exhibit unique properties that disappear if one tries to create similar structures from larger-scale elements. These nanoscale capabilities offer the promise of:

  • New materials from agricultural products.
  • Smaller sensors and other devices.
  • Better methods of drug delivery.
  • New enzymes and catalysts for improved processing.
  • Better energy conversion efficiencies.

Another closely aligned NIFA program is Bio-Based Products/Processing (link to that program page), which aims to expand the use of agricultural and forest materials in commercial and industrial products. Manufacturing these new products often requires considerable technological innovation and expanded engineering capabilities in bioprocessing. These new products add value to raw material resources in rural areas and promote economic prosperity.

Sensor Technology: Everywhere we look, sensors are becoming important aspects of our daily lives. The infusion of this new technology is just as apparent in the nation's agricultural and food sectors. Sensors and their accompanying instruments and software allow producers, processors, managers, and distributors to inspect, monitor, track, and control the materials and resources that make up our agricultural and environmental systems. As these enabling technologies become more capable and make their way into widespread use, a new type of agricultural professional will be required, and current members of the workforce will need training and skills development.