Biomation is a Micro R & D company, developing its “Aquagrain” hydrogel technology, invented at the UK’s Hertfordshire University. Aquagrain uses organic waste streams from food and farming industries to create an organic based water absorbing polymer capable of absorbing 30 times its mass in water. Aquagrain’s water and nutrient content is slowly released at root level to improve crop yields whilst significantly cutting water and inorganic fertiliser needs. Aquagrain is a small granule that is integrated into the growing substrate at a ratio of up to 1% in containers, or 500 to 1000 kg per hectare in the field, depending on crop, soil and climate conditions. In addition to absorbing water, Aquagrain contains nutrients, trace elements and organic material which slowly break down providing water and food for plants whilst at the same time increasing soil fertility by the addition of organic matter and the stimulation of Microbes in the soil.
This soil improving hydrogel provides organic matter to soil, provides plants with the nutrients for growth and enables more efficient, targeted use of irrigation, allowing crops to be grown in poor desert soils with a fraction of the water usually needed. Biomation’s unique technology has the potential to globally enhance the way the human race feeds itself, allowing plants to be grown where they cannot be currently grown and reduce the impact farming has on global warming.
Currently there are 7.5 billion people on planet earth and that figure is forecast to rise to 9 billion by 2050. All of them need to eat and drink to survive. The demands for feeding the world, reducing water consumption and averting starvation are vast.
According to the United Nations 41.3% of the earths land surface is “drylands”, nearly 61 billion hectares of land, 44% of all cultivated lands and home to 2.1 billion of the world’s population. Climate change and population growth is creating severe water stress which means globally 24% of the land is degrading, ultimately to desert. Creeping Desertification means every year a further 12 million hectares worldwide are lost. The UN state 3.1 million children currently die each year as a result of under nutrition. At the same time, the effects of climate change are stunting the growth of vital staple crops across the globe. Unfortunately, the world’s crop producing lands are decreasing and degrading with some forecasters predicting up to 20% production loss by 2050.
Aquagrain hopes to help reduce the impact of climate change and population expansion by facilitating crops to be grown in arid lands, halting the creep of desertification and deforestation and making better use of waste streams which have difficult, carbon intensive, disposal processes such as incineration (Carbon Dioxide) and landfill (Methane).
Aquagrain is completely different from other polymer Hydrogels, it has a less rigid structure than traditional Super Absorber products and releases the water more readily to plants. The Biomation solution to the rigid wall structure overcomes the water retention problems common to hydrogels. Biomation believe this makes Aquagrain unique. Some believe Aquagrain should be regarded as a significant technology “breakthrough.”
In its standard format, Aquagrain is a sterile, organic slow release fertiliser with a Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphate (NPK) value of 5.4-6.6-4.2. It is PH neutral. It has a water absorbing capacity of 30 times its own mass and has substrate binding properties.
Because it is a cross linked polymer granule it has the ability to hold any number of additional ingredients required for different crops or substrates. The NPK values can be enhanced, the super absorbent ratio can be increased and acid or alkaline can be added to alter its PH value making Aquagrain the ultimate Designer Soil Improver.
Aquagrain has demonstrated a number of benefits to plants grown in sandy soils. Trials at Cambridge University’s National Institute of Agricultural Botany demonstrated the benefit Aquagrain has is prolonging plant life in water stressed conditions. Tomato plants were irrigated normally until mature and then irrigation was ceased. After 9 days under water stress the plants without Aquagrain had reached permanent wilt point but the Aquagrain plants continued to grow, thrive and fruit.
Controlled environment development trials conducted over the last five years have determined that Aquagrain has the following properties.
- Fertiliser NPK value of 5.4-6.6-4.2
- Slow release of nutrients and trace elements
- Aquagrain can absorb and reabsorb 30 times its own volume in water
- Aquagrain in sandy soil requires 66% less water to maintain moisture levels
- Up to 50% less leachate of fertiliser
- Up to 12 fold increase in plant growth using Aquagrain
- Plants survive up to 12 days longer than normal without watering
- Microbial activity in soil substantially stimulated
- Unique soil binding properties
- Sandy soil movement reduced by 99% in winds up to 30kmph
- Sterile product which breaks down to leave organic matter, water and CO2 in the soil
- No long term soil contamination issues associated with typical hydrogels
Biomation established an R & D Scale production facility during 2018 in the UK and now have the capacity to produce 100kg of Aquagrain each day enough to support global growing trials. The plan in 2019 is to secure funding to explore how best the impressive growing results achieved in controlled environment trials under glass can be replicated in the real world to help both commercial growers and subsistence farmers meet the global challenges of hunger. Biomation have already started to talk to commercial growers, charities and NGOs to see how Aquagrain’s properties can benefit arid land crop growing.
Once funds have been secured Biomation will develop those conversations into trial programmes and produce and ship sufficient Aquagrain to support those programmes.
Aquagrain may not be the total answer to global food and water challenges but the results achieved under glass are replicated in the field, and with the help of other working within the arena, it will go a long way to ending hunger and hardship for many of the most challenged populations scratching a living in the world’s vast arid lands.