What if you could turn desert sands into a kind of sponge that would absorb water? It’s one of those brilliantly simple ideas that could deal with one of the bigger problems of climate change – the increasing desertification of big chunks of our world.
Desert Control is a Norwegian company that has figured out how to do this. “Our vision is to make the earth green again, by stopping and reversing desertification and soil degradation. With our unique product we want to turn degraded land and sand to fertile soil, and at the same time reduce the water usage for green ecosystems up to 50 percent.”
“Gravity brings the tiny clay particles down into the ground, and they stick to every grain of sand they encounter,” explains CEO Ole Kristian Sivertsen. “They then form a soil structure that retains water like a sponge. This, in time, turns degraded sand into fertile soil.”
The technology is new, but the idea isn’t. This was what happened in Egypt’s Nile Delta for centuries – until the 1980s, when the land’s fertility began to decline. When scientists investigated, they discovered that over time, the Aswan Dam had interrupted the seasonal cycle of flooding that had enriched the soil with minerals, nutrients and clay particles. The clay was particularly important, it turned out, and that is what Desert Control is mimicking.
Here is how the BBC explained it:
“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.”
In identifying the problem, however, researchers had also found a solution that could be used far more widely around the world.
“It’s like what you might see in your garden,” Sivertsen explained to the BBC.“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.” Farmers have been amending their soil for a long time, but adding clay is hard work and can add to global warming by exposing sequestered carbon to the atmosphere. What Desert Control has done is to figure out a simple and easy way to add the clay. Their Liquid Natural Clay, or nanoclay, is taking unproductive desert land “from sand to hope”.
“Desert Control’s process is non-intrusive, compared to most existing treatments and technologies that are intrusive,” the company says. “There is no need to mechanically work large amounts of clay into the soil in a matter that is often complicated, costly, time consuming and less effective. To achieve a similar result as Desert Control achieves with 1kg of LNC per m2 would require up to 100kg of clay per m2 with a traditional treatment. Desert Control has spent 12 years of R&D and field testing, which underpins the complexity and the effort that is put into the technology. The result is a solution which can reduce desertification and make earth green again.”
They demonstrated its effectiveness during the pandemic, in one of the most inhospitable lands on earth – the United Arab Emirates. Over 40 days in March 2021, more than 200 kg (440 lb) of watermelons, zucchini and a crop of pearl millet was produced on a 0.2 acre (1,000 sq m) trial plot that had formerly been barren. The fresh produce was distributed to individuals and families in nearby communities who were suffering from lockdown restrictions.
The technology also was independently tested by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai, which has long been exploring how flora and fauna can survive in marginal environments. “We already have 1.7 billion people right now or more living in such environments, but with more places being converted and desertified more and more places will look like the UAE making, the work of ICBA more important for the rest of the world,” said Mai Shalaby, the institution’s curator of the Emirates Soil Museum.
Desert Control’s miracle mix can turn desert sand into seeding and planting ready fertile soil in about seven hours instead of the seven years it would normally take. “We can convert half a hectare of Arabian land in one day,” said Dr. Orn Supaphol, a lead soil scientist who demonstrated the quick application procedure on desert sand for the BBC.
“The clay mimics organic matter in its functionality, helping soils retain water, and allowing the soil flora and fauna to gain a foothold,” says Sivertsen. “Once you have clay particles stabilizing conditions and helping make nutrients bioavailable, you can plant crops within seven hours.”
“Now we have scientific evidence for effectiveness, we aim to build numerous mobile mini factories in 40ft (13m) shipping containers with the ultimate aim of creating as much change as we possibly can,” Sivertsen told the BBC. “These mobile units will create liquid nanoclay local to where it is required, using clay from the same country, and hiring regionally.”
The first factory will be able to produce 40,000 liters of liquid nanoclay an hour and will be used in city parks in the UAE, where it can cut water use by up to 47%. Current start-up costs are around $2 (£1.50) per square meter, but the cost needs to be lower so it can be used widely in places where farm incomes are low, as in much of Africa. Desert Control also is working with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification to support the Great Green Wall Project that is building a belt of trees across sub-Saharan Africa.
Sand science: Dubai researchers dig up secrets to sustain life on Earth & Mars. EuroNews, Jun 9 2021
How Dubai is pushing back its encroaching deserts. BBC Future Planet, Jan. 25, 2022.
Featured image: With thanks to Afraqu – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67888566