Desertification is considered among the greatest environmental disasters facing humanity in the twenty-first century: with rising global temperatures due to the greenhouse effect along with negative agricultural and environmental activities, vast areas of arable land are threatened with devastation, destroying with it the possibility of feeding hundreds of millions. This danger increases drastically in countries with previous histories of drought and lack of rain, such as those countries in the Arab world, where 90% of the land is desert and dry valleys, and the very little remaining land subject to constant desert crawl. For that reason, a number of modern technological solutions and innovations may have a fundamental role in protecting the future of the region and its people agriculturally and nutritionally. Desert Control, a start-up in this field, has developed “Nanoclay” which can turn desert soil into fertile farmland in a matter of hours.
The Invention of Nanoclay
“I learned a little of everything during my time as an engineer in the North Sea,” says Ole Kristian Sivertsen, company founder, during an interview with MIT Technology Review Arabia. “I was earning a good keep at that time, but I had a variety of interests.” Kristian arrived one day on a business trip to Egypt, and noticed that Egyptian farmers were mixing clay with infertile sea sand, making a fertile mix that their crops could grow in. At that moment, he had the idea for his invention, but it required many years until he succeeded in developing and implementing it.
After eight years of research and attempts, Kristian proved that he could employ a simple material such as clay to change the soil completely. He called his invention Nanoclay, which is regular clay that has been run through machinery to erode it into small particles that do not exceed half a nanometer in size, or what is equal to one in two billion fractions of a meter. After producing his nanoclay, Kristian mixes it with water and pumps it through irrigation tubes to blend it into the soil, and when it mixes with soft (infertile) soil, the clay gains a viscosity and ability to absorb and retain an astounding amount of water rather than being drawn into groundwater, which is what usually happens in drylands.
Kristian agreed with a group of researchers in Egypt to run the first practical experiments of his invention on a group of agricultural areas in the Minya Region of Upper Egypt, which has very hot summers. The experiment was held on plots of farmland with a lot of mineral saturated sandy soil that is hard to farm.
“The necessary amount of water for irrigation decreased by around 65 – 70% throughout the year,” says Kristian, who was astounded by the effectiveness of the invention, and he realized then that he had arrived at a very valuable invention. Kristian returned to his homeland of Norway to offer some farmers the chance to experiment with his new invention for free, and soon demand for the product rushed in.
New Future for Agriculture
Nanoclay proved very practical for farming as there was no need to change the underlying infrastructure. “This technique doesn’t require digging or inverting the soil,” says Kristian. “It uses existing irrigation systems, which saves farmers a lot of money and allows the nanoclay to reach the various parts of the land easily. From there, the clay reacts incredibly quickly with the soil in a manner that changes its composition and type.” Water pumps can treat any plot of land within a matter of seven hours, after which infertile sandy soil turns into arable agricultural soil, and this effect lasts between 4 – 5 years, after which the soil must be treated again.
“After the success of our first experiment,” says Kristian, “I tried to estimate the period we would need – with the right financing and preparation if made available – to treat the soil of Egypt as a whole, turning it into fertile land, and found that the entire process would require around five years to cover an area a little over one million square kilometers.”
“Plants absorb around 80 – 90% of its hydration from a layer of soil no deeper than 60 centimeters below the surface,” explains Kristian. “However, water seeps through this layer deep underground within moments. Therefore if we can preserve a sufficient amount of water on the superficial level where the plants roots lay, then we would reduce the need for irrigation many times over, and would lower the need for fertilizers and nutritional supplements that crops require (most of which is lost within a short period after use) as they would remain fixed in the soil.”
What’s more, the crop yield after using Nanoclay reaches rates 460% what it was before, and the fruit and vegetables produced are larger and more plentiful. This is due to two reasons: first, the water and the nutrition that the crops are receiving increases due to the change in the soil; second, microbial fungi called “Mycorrhiza” have a vital role in preserving the health of plants, their nutrition, and their growth. Kristian discovered – by coincidence – that his new invention helps these fungi spread and flourish in the dry desert soil, a matter that is usually improbable. This unexpected effect led to a dramatic change in the quality of the crop yield as well as the quantity.
Two years ago, Kristian agreed with partners in Dubai to launch the first global commercial campaign for his invention in the United Arab Emirates. Leading this project currently, is Atle Idland, which expects the nanoclay could majorly disrupt the agricultural and food security sectors of desert areas such as the UAE, the GCC, and most other countries in the region. A year ago, a start-up branch in the UAE won a grant from Expo Live valued at 100,000 USD to begin its business and activities, one of which – most recently – was activating the Nanoclay in the Expo 2020 Dubai gardens.
The technology developed by Desert Control has come at a crucial time for environmental and food security around the world, as the UN has recently estimated that agricultural productivity must increase by a rate of 70% globally to respond to the expected population increases by 2050. However, climate change is causing agricultural rates to plummet, not rise, and making matters worse, this decrease is experienced most from countries already suffering from drought and desertification, with the Arab world impacted first and foremost more than any other coming environmental crisis. In light of these conditions, technological solutions and innovations for environmental problems – such as the development of nanoclay – remains our best and final hope for the future.