• A startup company has developed a ‘hydrogel’, a super absorbent polymer that soaks up water and releases it into the soil when needed. The hydrogel can absorb up to 250 times its weight in water during irrigation or rainfall, as it can form a tight bond with water molecules, which are released as the soil dries.
  • The company, mOasis, suggest that the hydrogel could lead to a 25% increase in crop production, 20% less water use and 15% savings in water bills.
  • Existing hydrogels are not normally used for agriculture due to a relatively short life span followed by the breakdown of chemical bonds, leaving behind environmentally damaging residues. The company has found a way to prolong the life of the hydrogel and avoid potentially harmful by-products. At present their hydrogel lasts a year in the top two inches of soil. This is incorporated during ploughing the following year diluting its effect, after which more hydrogel would likely need to be applied.

Implications and next steps:
This particular hydrogel is being trialled in California, where water shortages are much more frequent than the  UK. However, its development could hold potential for use by UK growers, particularly in dry summers, and providing  there are no long term adverse effects and the economic and environmental costs of production are not prohibitive, the product may provide significant water in the future. The product may also be modified to absorb other soil additives  such as fertilisers, enzymes or pesticides.

Gigaom: http://tinyurl.com/ltldegz

Image credit (c) Nick Fedele @ flickr.com