This startup wants to turn Dubai’s desert into farmland

CNN  — 

At the beginning of March, a team traveled to Dubai and planted watermelon, zucchini and pearl millet in a plot of desert.

Five months later, the arid land is filled with rows and rows of green leaves, punctuated by freshly grown fruits and vegetables.

This unlikely feat was made possible by Liquid Nanoclay– a new innovation produced by Norwegian startup Desert Control. Made with just water and clay, Liquid Nanoclay is designed to be sprayed on sand or sandy soil. It soaks in and attaches to sand particles, boosting water retention and enriching the soil with plant-essential nutrients.

According to Desert Control, the mixture increases the fertility of nutrient-poor sandy soils and can reduce water usage by more than half. What’s more, Liquid Nanoclay can turn arid land into arable land in just seven hours, says the company.

Greening the desert

Invented in the mid 2000’s by Norwegian scientist Kristian Olesen, Desert Control’s technology turns thick clay into a liquid “nearly as thin as water,” explains CEO Ole Kristian Sivertsen. When sprayed onto sand, this runny consistency allows it to “trickle down and percolate out,” he says.

The company has reduced the size of the clay particles, so they are as small as possible, says Sivertsen.

“You can apply (Liquid Nanoclay) using any known irrigation technique,” he says. “You could even use a sprinkler.”

Before being treated with Liquid Nanoclay, this plot of desert in Dubai was not farmed. Now it is being used to grow pearl millet.

Growing crops in the desert is a high priority for the United Arab Emirates, which wants to increase food security. Currently, the country imports around 90% of its food.

In 2018, Desert Control partnered with Dubai’s International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) to start conducting laboratory and field tests.

Laboratories have been closed due to Covid-19, but the field trials are going well, says Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA’s Director General. “If the result that we have seen continues to be positive and gets confirmed on the vegetables and pearl millet, it could be a huge help to countries with desert environments,” she says.

With desertification on the rise globally, innovations that allow crops to flourish in arid areas could help shore up the food supply in many countries.

“It’s quite an unusual innovation,” notes Jacqueline Hannam, a soil scientist from Cranfield University in the UK.

Clay-rich soils hold more nutrients and water, she says, which “probably” reduces irrigation requirements. However, Hannam warns that desert ecosystems are fragile. “You are putting something quite different into that desert ecosystem, which wouldn’t normally be there,” she says.

To ensure the ecosystem isn’t damaged, Desert Control says it was important to partner with a third party, like ICBA, which has experience certifying agricultural technologies in these kinds of environments.

Scaling up

Elouafi’s main hesitation surrounding Liquid Nanoclay is the expense. Sivertsen says the cost of treatment ranges from $2 to $5 per square meter (11 square feet).

Desert Control and ICBA grew watermelon (pictured here), zucchini and pearl millet.

According to Sivertsen, Desert Control raised $5 million between September 2019 and March 2020.

With those funds, the company is developing two units which will be able to produce 40,000 liters of Liquid Nanoclay per hour, enough to cover around 1,000 to 2,000 square meters (10,764 to 21,528 square feet) of land, he says. The company plans to develop a mobile unit capable of producing 10 times that amount, which will bring down costs.

“If they are able to reduce the price and make it affordable for the least income countries, it could have a really huge impact on food security and the ability of many of those countries to use their own crops,” says Elouafi. “It could be tremendous.”