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MI to develop biodegradable ‘microbeads’ to support farming in UAE
August 17, 2015
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ABU DHABI: The Masdar Institute (MI) of Science and Technology is working to develop a novel innovation that can help address the country’s food, water and energy security concerns, through UAE national graduate student Fatima Al Jallaf’s soil fertility-enhancing biodegradable “microbeads,” which will improve the country’s ability to support farming.

In her research, which is being conducted through the Masdar Institute Centre for Water and Environment (iWater), specific microbes will be attached to the microbeads, and once inserted in the ground, the microbes will spread through the soil and improve its ability to sustainably support crops.

“Microbial communities, like the ones we want to bring to UAE soils, need an environment to live in. This is the role of the microbead – like a housing community, it will contain all of the ‘amenities’ required for the microbes to thrive. When in the soil, the microbes will propagate in the beads and release important nutrients, which will diffuse out to the soil,” explained Dr Hector Hernandez, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Adviser to Al Jallaf.

Fertility-enhancing microbeads have been developed before and have successfully been used in places like the state of Washington in the USA. However, that type of bead is not suitable for the UAE’s hot soils - they dry up and shrink within hours after being released into the soil.

“Healthy soil is teeming with millions of microorganisms who perform a variety of functions, such as removing toxins and storing carbon. The problem with the UAE’s desert soils is that they are largely devoid of carbon sources and these helpful microorganisms. We are trying to bring these growth-promoting bacteria into the soil with this microbead research,” Al Jallaf said.

The UAE has a long-standing focus on increasing its agricultural output for improved food security and economic diversity. But the country’s soil is not naturally conducive to agriculture, with its high sand and low nutrient content, making crop growth challenging and water-intensive. More than 70 per cent of the UAE’s water use goes towards irrigation for agriculture although food imports still amount to between 85 per cent and 90 per cent of the UAE’s food consumption each year.

To help make the UAE’s soil far more supportive of agriculture, Al Jallaf is engineering specialised ‘“microbeads” that can slowly release nutrients into the extremely arid soils of the UAE. A microbead is a tiny plastic sphere – usually about 1 millimetre in size – that is commonly used in grooming products, like facial scrubs and toothpastes. Al Jallaf is looking to evolve the scope of microbeads by integrating them with fertility-boosting microbes. Microbes are an integral part of soils – serving to break down waste, aerate soil, enhance the water-use efficiency of crops and improve nutrient uptake.

“Soil plays a significant role in the food-water-energy nexus. The UAE’s soil requires a lot of water, which it gets through irrigation. And irrigation pumping consumes a lot of energy. By enhancing the soil’s ability to retain water and grow more crops through these microbeads, the country could potentially save a lot of water and energy and increase its domestic food production,” Al Jallaf added.

Al Jallaf and Dr Hernandez are currently collaborating with Dr Pance Naumov from NYU Abu Dhabi and his postdoctoral associate Dr Lidon Zhang on identifying the base material best suited for the UAE’s harsh climate, and their research is promising.


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