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Is clay a solution to desertification?


Water and clay used to transform desert into farmland: here is the basis of the technology developed by the Norwegian start-up, Desert Control, now in the experimental phase in the Middle East.


Feeding the planet

One of the biggest challenges raised by the exponential increase in the population is the capacity to feed humanity. United Nations forecasts predict that there will be 11.2 billion of us in 2 100. However, the space available for crops cannot be extended infinitely and the repercussions of climate change and urbanisation tend to decrease it. In some parts of the world desertification, which, according to the UN,  is the “degradation of earth in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid zones” is progressing, making it increasingly difficult to cultivate any crops at all.

Transforming arid soils into fertile fields


Desert control, a Norwegian start-up founded in 2014, wants to tackle this problem. It has developed a technology named Liquid Nanoclay (LNC), which earned it a prize in 2015 at the Climate Launchpad, an ideas competition developed by green enterprises.


Dry zone before the introduction of LNCs

The technology is based on a simple observation: desert soils are composed of sand that retains neither water nor nutrients. To change this and make desert areas capable of accommodating crops that satisfy the needs of populations, it makes use of the properties of clay. This fine grained and usually thick textured soil, is changed into a liquid which, once sprayed onto sand, links the sand particles with each other. This allows storing water and nutrients sufficiently close to the surface for plant roots to reach them.

Thus, arid land can quickly be made arable without any chemical process. It is in fact a technique with a long history. Nonetheless, Desert Control’s contribution is to reduce clay into a liquid state so it can be spread by conventional irrigation methods. Savings of water can reach 50 to 60% compared to traditional irrigation practices.

Formerly arid zone one year after the start of LNC use


Lastly, this technology, mostly oriented towards developing countries, could provide better food security, sorely affected during the Covid-19 pandemic.


However, two main hurdles remain to be overcome before embarking on the large-scale development of this “miracle” solution. On the one hand, it is costly, from $2 to $5 a square meter, making it too expensive for most small farmers in developing countries. On the other hand, nothing is known of the impact of introducing LNC on the ecosystems of arid areas. Desert Control is trying to solve these two problems and is collaborating with the United Arab Emirates to continue its experiments in the laboratory and in the field


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