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New water retention technology quenches crop thirst in drought conditions


January 31, 2013

The new water-saving membranes developed at MSU (Photo: MSU)

The new water-saving membranes developed at MSU (Photo: MSU)

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With climate change predicted to increase the severity and frequency of drought events in many part of the world, water conservation is a growing concern. New water retention technology developed at Michigan State University (MSU) could help quench the thirst of parched crops while using less water, not only enabling crops to better deal with drought, but also improving crop yields in marginal areas.

Coarse, sandy soils found in semi-arid and arid regions have large pores that absorb large quantities of rainfall. However, they retain less than 20 percent of the water in the root zone that sits between the surface and depths of 60 to 70 centimeters (24 to 27 inches), leaching losses of nutrients and other chemicals into ground water as the water drains away.

The subsurface water retention technology (SWRT) developed by Alvin Smucker, MSU professor of soil biophysics and MSU AgBioResearch scientist, strategically places polyethylene water barrier films at various depths in the soil. The membranes are flexible, allowing them to be shaped to maximize water retention and provide space for root growth.

The films, which are installed using a specially designed barrier installation device (BID), retain water within the upper 70 to 100 centimeters (27 to 39 inches) of the soil, which Smucker claims has the potential to increase water retention efficiencies by up to 20 times. With proper spacing of the films, excess rainfall is also able to drain away.

Aside from the potential water savings, the films also promise to cut fertilizer costs and reduce groundwater contamination by agricultural chemicals. The polyethylene barriers are also faster and less labor intensive to install than asphalt barriers, as well as being more durable, lasting at least 40 years.

Prototype tests carried out in drought conditions saw irrigated sands produce 145 percent more cucumbers than control fields without the films, and also increased corn yields 174 percent. In addition to agricultural crops, the technology could also be used to increase the yield of cellulosic biomass feedstock used for fuel production that are grown on marginal lands.

“This technology has the potential to change lives and regional landscapes domestically and internationally where highly permeable, sandy soils have prohibited the sustainable production of food,” Smucker says. “Water retention membranes reduce quantities of supplemental irrigation, protect potable groundwater supplies, and enable more efficient use and control of fertilizers and pesticides.”

A team will test the patent pending technology “in the field” on farms in irrigated sandy regions of southwestern Michigan as well as semi-arid and arid regions of the south western and mid western U.S. with MSU researchers also looking at implementing the SWRT films in global locations susceptible to drought.

Smucker is working with MSU’s technology and commercialization office, to commercialize the technology.

Source: MSU

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Cool beans! and corn. and cucumbers. Looks like it has double-digging beat and it lasts much longer. Only catch is the machinery. How much does that cost?


Specially designed BID...

Is it a back hoe with a plastic dispensing roll?

Pretty clever idea overall, none the less. I'm sure it will benefit many, many people.

Frank Forte

Not so fast, MBadgero. "...polyethylene...lasting at least 40 years." What do you do with it after that? And even more plastic in our food chain? Really? The machinery is no problemo. Labour is one thing the 3rd world isn't short of. I do wonder about the affordability - especially in marginal areas of the world - of miles and miles of polyethylene. How about polyculture farming instead of farming with polyethylene?

Mike vC

I really do not see what the fuss is about. I am more impressed with the vast green houses of southern Spain and Israel. They grow tomato plants 20 feet high out of a bag the size of a diaper with drip irrigation. They don't even use any real dirt, its some sort of synthetic fiber glass stuff.

Michael Mantion

Polyethylene sheets are neither membranes or films in any practical sense here. And concerning the PE ending up in the food chain, how exactly is the 2 foot deep plastic going to make it to the surface? Even if it did, so what? As far as I know you can ingest small amounts of PE without ill effects.

Siegfried Gust

There is a less expensive, easier to implement way to optimize the water used for irrigation in drought and it is here: www.watersilos.us it is "solid water" that can be bagged and can be used everywhere, it is the invention of a Mexican cientist and is currently being used in the United States and other countries. There is no need to bury plastic everywhere


A noble attempt. I am not trying to sound patronizing. There is a place for most things, perhaps even this in some situations, but not many. It would be a difficult and expensive proposition, esp. for large scale operations, and is unadvisable for several reasons.

It would be prohibitively expensive to displace tons and tons of earth in every field to lay these down, and then bury them again. The article talks about multiple depths, I hope that doesn't equate into multiple layers, b/c then problems compound. Machinery costs, not to mention huge fuel usage for such an operation. Also, as another poster added, you're putting plastic in the ground. On top of environmentally toxicity, it would impede much of the soil's natural micro-biological flora, depening on how deep it was layed. It would destroy any hopes of earthworms doing their work on the surface and bringing organic matter down and the other host of good things they do, also providing an "airtight" seal below the plastic, shutting off access to air and creating an anaerobic environment that pathological bacteria thrive in. Also, in many areas of the world this could lead to significant salt buildup, which could become toxic buildup in such a set-up. Same goes for chemical build-up.

I hate to sound critical. The best way, IMHO, is always to use the natural way that God set-up...it works perfect when we don't crop our lands in to oblivion with all our chemicals and over-use without regard to feeding the soil. Another words work with it, not against it. The best way to retain both bio-available fertility and water retention, and foster a good aerobic environment, is to have sufficient organic matter in the soil, which is largely missing in today's mono-cropping ag system. Cover crops like Alfalfa, vetches, ryes and various legumes which fix nitrigen naturally are key, which add organic matter, stabilize soil structure, increase tilth, prevent leaching of nutrients and even mine nutrients from deeper down, bringing it up. (plastic layering would get in the way of these roots too). These crops can be plowed under also, to be used as a green manure. Of course PH management is crucial as well. Sandy soils have very low cation exchange rates, meaning they cannot hold much by way of nutrients, so semi-regular, light foliar fertilizer applications may be necessary, esp. when first trying to recover soil conditions. Natural fertilzer is vastly preferable to chemical, salt-based conventional fertilizers.

The bottom line is there is no easy way to do this...it takes lots of work and long-term commitment. Problem is today farmers and society want instant production, instant crops, without long-term investment, planning and work, and easy, instant fixes to the problems that keep arising and growing through decades of such practise (constant, season long chemical spraying, GMO's, which do more harm than good, etc.) All these conventional practises and chemicals do vast harm to soil ecosystems and interrelated systems, which has huge implications in terms of bio-availability of soil fertility, etc: soil micro-boilogy has to be there! Crops and end consumers suffer as a result, as defiencies and compromised food quality follow.

Just read accounts of how extremely bio-diverse much of our countries were like 100 years ago, with thousands of insects buzzing around, scores of birds, many various types of animals, etc, etc. People could break ground for the first time 50 years ago and have instant bumper crops, without chemical fertilizers. Not anymore! Now many of these large commercial farming opertions are home to the plant being grown, and not much more. We are already "reaping what we have sown"...no pun intended. It will get worse if sustainable practises are not implemented fast. Many of the big commercial ag guys still laugh at these ideas, but they won't laugh anymore when fertilizer costs double/triple with oil costs again someday, and they can't afford to fertilize anymore, and then the soils will not be able to produce in their current shape. But then we'll all be screwed.


Excellent idea , I've worked in California Walnut,almond,plume orchard's and irrigation is necessary. The soil's that are highly permeable like the article states just pass through into the ground with the plastic it is a underground at root level vessel to prevent escape of h2o from root access and when properly installed lets over watering bypass the underground plastic staggered linings . That technology is great but how do you plow the ground without ripping up the plastic or is the plastic lower than the plow setting?

Bryce Guenther

This device is to used in arid areas but what happens when, even in arid areas, the skies open and copious amounts of rain fall? Your corn, walnuts, whatever, drown and are lost?


Or you could put wood under the plants, the wood soaks up the water and does not have the other issues the plastic does. You could even just use mulch.

Nick Goodman

The wood industry produces plenty of sawdust. Sawdust absorbs water like a madman. I think that's a better idea than putting it in your cereal.

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret

Costly and machine intensive, so of little use to small farmers living in arid areas.

In Morocco, I noticed that there was a problem disposing of vast amounts of used plastic water bottles. So, I gathered some up, cut them in half and buried them in the dry garden hoping they would catch and retain water like this system. I'm going back soon and I'm looking forward to checking out the results. If it works it could help toward solving two problems at the same time.

If you live somewhere dry, please experiment with this and tell me your experiences. dirkum@me.com

Dirk Scott

Without taking sides on this for or against (I like the concept but have some minor misgivings), it appears some comments misunderstand the installation, thinking it to be a sheet (or layers of sheets) of impervious plastic stretching from horizon to horizon - not so, the method calls for u-shaped channels at intervals horizontally and vertically, probably staggered diagonally, as well. Look at the picture, again.

This allows the channel to catch water and if/when full, excess water to drain away without water-logging. Processes such as earthworms and other creatures can go about their usual business and travel where they will. In very arid areas where the soil is otherwise too barren and devoid of organic material to support them at all, priming with some organic material would probably create a climate for earthworms and such within the channels.

This would probably be a good way to halt the march of desertification in Sahara fringe areas from West Africa through to Ethiopia, caused by the increase of carbon emissions in Europe, which have cut off the moist air flow currents that used to bring rain from the Atlantic. These currents have humidity but now at insufficient levels to precipitate.

There are several recent "humidity-to-condensate" capture innovations that could very well work in concert with this system in semi-desert areas with low rainfall and little irrigation water supply - such as dew net devices and http://www.gizmag.com/airdrop-wins-james-dyson-award/20471/.

The common misconception is "forests grow where it rains" whereas recent research shows that, counter-intuitively, "it rains where forests grow". On appropriate scale this could kick-start a reversal of desertification.

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