Graduate student Fatima Al Jallaf is working to produce microbeads designed specifically for the UAE’s soil and climate conditions, to improve the microbial and nutrient mix of the country’s agricultural land. The beads, formed from sodium alginate and calcium chloride, provide a medium for beneficial microbes, allowing them to enrich 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,” said Al Jallaf.
Hector Hernandez, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the Masdar Institute, and Al Jallaf’s academic advisor, said: “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.”
Sodium alginate and calcium chloride beads are widely used in agriculture, and also in commercial food preparation. Because of the UAE’s very harsh climate, though, microbeads used in other territories dry out too fast to be beneficial, hence the Masdar team’s push to develop a variant more suited to the Middle East.
Cutting water use
Al Jallaf and Hernandez, along with Pance Naumov and Lidon Zhang of NYU Abu Dhabi, are currently testing different formulas for producing the microbeads, which will be around 1mm in diameter. If successful, the beads will allow crops to grow more readily in the soil, and by helping to retain nutrients and microbes, should improve the soil’s water-retention as well.
“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,” said Al Jallaf.
The Masdar Institute estimates the UAE uses 70% of its water resources for agriculture, which produces no more than 15% of the country’s food requirements, and makes up around 3% of its GDP.