Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Agriculture, Food and Environment


Plant and Soil Sciences

First Advisor

Dr. Jason M. Unrine

Second Advisor

Dr. Tasios Karathanasis


Zinc deficient soils, or soils with low Zn bioavailability, are widespread, which exacerbates Zn deficiency in human as crops grown on these soils have low Zn content. Often crop yields are also compromised. Fertilizers based on soluble Zn salts often have limited efficacy in such soils. In this research, we evaluate the performance of polymer coated and bare ZnO nanoparticles (NPs) in an attempt to overcome limitations of soluble Zn salts in alkaline soils. We first synthesized 20-30 nm bare ZnO NPs with different surface chemistries to impart colloidal stability to the particles. Bare ZnO were treated in phosphate solution under certain conditions leading to the formation of a core made of ZnO NPs that is covered by a shell of amorphous Zn3(PO4)2 (core-shell NPs). This confers a negative charge to the particles over a wide pH range. The addition of nonionic (neutral dextran) and polyelectrolyte (negatively charged dextran sulfate (DEX(SO4)) during the synthesis resulted in the formation of DEX and DEX(SO4) ZnO NPs. Dextran has a minimal effect on the surface charge of ZnO but dextran sulfate confers a net negative charge. Bare and core-shell ZnO NPs were both electrostatically stabilized whereas DEX and DEX(SO4) ZnO NPs were sterically and electrosterically stabilized, respectively. We investigated the effect of treating seeds with ZnO NPs on the growth and accumulation of Zn in wheat (Triticum aestivum) seedlings in comparison to ZnSO4. All ZnO NPs stimulated seedling growth. Seedlings accumulated higher Zn concentrations when treated with ZnO NPs than with ZnSO4. Zinc sulfate was toxic even at the lower exposure concentrations, which was demonstrated by significantly lower germination success and seedling growth. In the second experiment, we investigated the effect of pH on the attachment and dissolution of ZnO NPs in soil, as compared to ZnSO4. Soil pH was adjusted to 6 and 8, then the soil was spiked with 100 mg Zn/kg soil in the form of ZnSO4, bare, DEX, DEX(SO4), and core-shell ZnO NPs. The results showed that DEX and core-shell ZnO NPs had significantly higher total Zn in soil solution compared to ZnSO4 at pH 8, with little dissolution. Dissolved Zn was similar among treatments except ZnSO4 at pH 6, indicating little dissolution of the ZnO NPs at either pH value. We also found that the engineered coatings dictate the behavior of the particles in simple aqueous systems, but their properties are altered in natural soil solutions because of the dominant effect of natural organic matter (NOM) on their surface chemistry. Based on the outcomes of the previous two experiments, we selected DEX and bare ZnO NPs to test the efficacy of ZnO NPs in delivering Zn to the grain of wheat under greenhouse conditions. We performed two independent studies where seeds were either treated with the NPs or grown in a soil spiked with Zn at pH 6 and 8 and spiked with Zn treatments (nano and ionic). We found that treating seeds with bare ZnO NPs significantly enhanced grain Zn concentrations as compared to the control, DEX-ZnO NPs, and ZnSO4. There were no differences in grain Zn concentration of plants treated with ionic or nano Zn treatments regardless of the soil pH. This work has elucidated important principles which will help carry forward efforts at developing effective ZnO NP-based fertilizers. It also suggests that treatment of seeds with ZnO NPs is more effective than amending soil or treating seeds with ZnSO4.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Funding Information

This work was supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture - under 1010358. Support was also provided by the National Science Foundation under CBET-1530594.