AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Engineers at the University of Texas at Austin have created a self-watering soil that they’re hoping could transform the ag industry by letting farmers grow crops with less water.
The team developed a way to pull water from the air and distribute it to plants using certain materials inserted into the soil, Professor Guihua Yu explained.
“We use these SMAG—super moisture absorbing gels, for harvesting the water from the ambient air,” Yu said.
“They actually are absorbing water slowly, right, at night, like a humid cold night, and then it during the daytime, our soil will respond to the sunlight and with a little bit warmer temperature, they will start to like slowly kind of release the water,” Yu explained.
That process is shown in this model, provided by Yu’s team at UT Austin:
The goal is to decrease the amount of water used to grow crops, something that could fight the effects of climate change and help areas already affected by droughts.
“If we can make it large scale actually, we can control the local environment of the in terms of the soil in terms of the of the air, so we can control the moisture and try to enhance the ability of holding, it was holding water in the soil,” postdoctoral scholar Fei Zhao explained.
In one experiment, the team’s soil with SMAG-materials retained approximately 40% of the water quantity it started with over four weeks. Meanwhile, the soil without those materials had only retained 20% of its initial water in just one week.
It’s going to take a while before it’s able to scale up for mass production, though. First, the group will need investors to help cover the cost of these absorbant materials.
“Generally the, from the research lab, in university to kind of really commercialize kind of arena. So generally, they take their three to five years,” Yu explained.
Once it is ready for retail, Yu assumes they will be selling the materials themselves, not bags of soil, for farmers to mix into the soil already on their land.
“The farmer they can just kind of mix kind of… just, 100% homogenize, right, mixing these gels with their kind of soil,” Yu said.
The group tested their experiment with radishes, lettuce and peas, but Yu expects it to be available for any type of crop.