/Nanoclay: the liquid turning desert to farmland

Nanoclay: the liquid turning desert to farmland

Summary: Inspired by the secret to the Nile Delta’s fertility, engineers are using a concoction of clay, water and local soils to grow fruits in the desert.

Original author and publication date: Rachel Lovell – September 11, 2020

Futurizonte Editor’s Note: If we can turn the desert into a farmland, we will be able to turn (in time) Mars into Earth (terraforming a planet)

The clay is sprayed directly onto the ground before the plants are watered like any other irrigated crop (Credit: Desert Control)
The clay is sprayed directly onto the ground before the plants are watered like any other irrigated crop (Credit: Desert Control)

From the article:

n March this year, just as countries across the world went into Covid-19 lockdown, a remarkable transformation neared completion in a corner of the United Arab Emirates. In just 40 days, a once barren plot of sand in this landlocked desert nation had become littered with ripe, sweet watermelons swelling under the Arabian sun.

For a country that has to import 90% of its fresh produce, it was an extraordinary milestone. The dry, inhospitable Arabian desert had been turned into a lush fruit farm with the simple addition of clay and water.

Except it wasn’t so simple – these melons were only possible with the help of liquid “nanoclay”, a soil recovery technology whose story began 1,500 miles (2,400km) west and two decades ago.

In the 1980s parts of the Nile Delta in Egypt stopped flourishing. Famed for its fertility, it had been a reliable place to farm for thousands of years despite its proximity to the arid desert. Its productivity had allowed the ancient Egyptians to divert their energies from subsistence farming to developing a powerful civilisation that produced such cultural feats that they are famed around the world thousands of years later. Yet, despite supporting communities in the region over the millennia, in the space of just 10 years or so, that fecundity faded.

Every year in late summer the Nile would flood, expanding onto the Egyptian delta plains before receding again. As scientists began to investigate what had caused the drop in land fertility, they discovered that those floodwaters carried with them minerals, nutrients and crucially, clay particles from the East African drainage basin that feeds the Nile, and deposited them across the delta lands. The clay gave the soil both its resilience and fertility. But where had it gone?

Rewind 10 years to the building of the Aswan Dam across the Nile in southern Egypt during the 1960s. This remarkable 2.5 miles (4km) wide structure was built to generate hydroelectricity and regulate flooding so farming could become more manageable and predictable. But it also stopped all that good stuff flowing downstream. A decade without this annual top-up, and all the fertility in the delta soils had been used up.

Once the soil scientists and engineers had figured out the problem, they also had the beginnings of a solution.

“It’s like what you might see in your garden,” explains Ole Sivertsen, chief executive of Desert Control, the Norway-based business that has developed the nanoclay approach. “Thin soils with little to them struggle to hold onto moisture or allow plants to thrive. The presence of clay in the right proportions can drastically change all that.”

Desert Control, in their words, plans to use nanoclay to take unproductive desert land “from sand to hope”.

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