Nebraska center pivot inventor inducted to hall of fame

Frank Zybach

LAS VEGAS — Three inventors with ties to agriculture will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame this year. Frank Zybach, the inventor of center-pivot irrigation, and Sylvia Blankenship and Edward Sisler, who co-invented 1-MCP for fruit, vegetable and flower freshness, were all honored for their pioneering achievements in the agriculture industry.

Frank Zybach: Center-Pivot Irrigation

In the mid-20th Century, Nebraska farmer Frank Zybach invented center-pivot irrigation and transformed agricultural production worldwide. Using Zybach’s machine, farmers in the semi-arid regions of the Great Plains could efficiently irrigate acres at a time and thereby increase yields on previously marginal land. By 2013, center pivots irrigated nearly 28 million acres on 57,000 U.S. farms, making it the most widely used irrigation technology in the country.

Having left school in the seventh grade to help with his father’s farm and blacksmith shop, Zybach became both a skilled metalworker and an inventor who would go on to earn nine patents. His first was for a driverless tractor that plowed fields in concentric circles — a tractor he built in his father’s shop while still in his teens.

Zybach began developing a self-propelled irrigation system after observing another farmer irrigate crops by using a tractor to systematically tow a long pipe, outfitted with sprinklers, across the field. By 1947, Zybach’s system featured two sections of pipes on skids, suspended by cables from two towers. By 1949, the device included five towers with pipes running on wheels and could irrigate 40 acres. Zybach then added water valves for siphoning pressurized water from the main pipe to drive the wheels and maintain tower alignment. In 1952, Zybach was granted a patent on a larger irrigation system with a 600-foot boom that could water a 135-acre circle (all but the corners of a standard 160-acre section of land).

In 1954, Valley Manufacturing, a small manufacturer of farm equipment, acquired the patent rights from Zybach, and its engineers improved the machine’s efficiency and dependability. Today, the Omaha-based company, since renamed Valmont Industries Inc., is a global leader for center-pivot systems and other agricultural products.

Sylvia Blankenship and Edward Sisler: 1-MCP

Horticulturalist Sylvia Blankenship and biochemist Edward Sisler identified 1-methylcyclopropene (1- MCP), a novel compound that significantly extends the freshness and storage life of fruits, vegetables and cut floral products by mitigating the effects of ethylene. Contributing to large reductions in food waste, and year-round access to fresh fruit, 1-MCP is best known for its use with apple crops under the trade name SmartFresh. For floriculture crops, it is known by the name EthylBloc.

Ethylene, a naturally occurring gas, stimulates plant development and fruit ripening by docking in plant cell receptor sites. 1-MCP docks in these same sites, in place of ethylene, and alters the signals that drive cellular processes. As a result, produce and flowers treated with 1-MCP remain fresh much longer.

Blankenship, who as a young child had always been interested in nature, cultivated a passion for horticulture through her undergraduate and graduate education. This led her to North Carolina State University (NCSU), where she began working with Sisler, an NCSU biochemist, to explore the properties of plant compounds. Sisler had been studying the various aspects of ethylene physiology and biochemistry for years before collaborating with Blankenship.

1-MCP was patented in 1996 and was soon licensed by Floralife for floral crops. In 1996, AgroFresh was formed to commercialize 1-MCP for fruits and vegetables. Their product, SmartFresh, was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in the United States and introduced in 2002.

Today, SmartFresh is used on more than 30 crops, including 50 to 70% of the apples harvested in the United States. Licensing fees for 1-MCP have brought in more than $25 million for NCSU, the highest royalty revenues in the school’s history. AgroFresh products, including SmartFresh, EthylBloc, RipeLock, Harvista and LandSpring, are licensed in more than 70 countries; SmartFresh alone is used in 45 countries.

Today, fruits, vegetables and flowers treated with 1-MCP help purveyors maintain product freshness longer, allowing more time for bringing products to market, enabling transportation over greater distances and reducing spoilage. Government agencies worldwide have found 1-MCP safe for consumption and the environment.

In speaking with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Blankenship emphasized the importance of collaboration: “If somebody has a little bit different expertise, you need to learn how you can benefit each other.”

Blankenship, who has received multiple awards for her work, earned her bachelor of science and master of science degrees in horticulture science at Texas A&M University, and a doctorate in horticulture science at Oregon State University. She is currently professor emerita at NCSU.

Sisler, a native of Friendsville, Maryland, earned bachelor of science and master of science degrees from the University of Maryland. He obtained his doctorate in plant physiology from NCSU, where he spent his career as a biochemistry professor and researcher.

Zybach, Blankenship and Sisler join 19 other innovators to be celebrated as the newest class of inductees during the NIHF Induction Ceremony. In partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), NIHF will honor these inductees in Washington, D.C. on May 6-7 at one of the innovation industry’s most highly anticipated events — “The Greatest Celebration of American Innovation.”

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