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Farming Could be Transformed by Self-Watering Soil



The Texas University engineers have created a new kind of soil at Austin that pulls moisture from the atmosphere and distributing it to plant. Potentially the land has increased that can be farmed across the globe to formerly inhospitable areas and decrease water used in agriculture when droughts are growing.

ACS Materials Letters Journal has published the team’s details of the irrigation systems that draws in water from the air. Moisture absorbing gels capture atmospheric water. The gels release water after the soil has been heated to some temperature availing it to the plants. Some of the water that absorbs into the soil eventually finds its way back to the air, and humidity increases, and the cycle continues.

‘’Enabling free-standing agriculture in areas where it’s hard to build up irrigation and power systems is crucial to liberating crop farming from the complex water supply chain as resources become increasingly scarce,’’ Guihua Yu said, a materials science associate professor in the Mechanical Engineering, Walker Department.

Every soil gram can extract about 3-4g of water. It takes around 0.1-1kg of soil to water one square meter of farmland, depending on the crop.

Gels draw water into the soil during cooler nights in much humid periods and release the same moisture into the soil during the day.

Experiments were run by the team on the Cockrell School’s Engineering Teaching Centre Building on the roof to test the soil at UT Austin. The hydrogel soil retains more water than sandy soils from dry areas and needs less water to grow crops.

The team found out that the soil retained about 40% of the water amount it started during a 4-week experiment. Sandy soil still had only 20% water retained after a week.

The team had planted radishes in another experiment in both the soil types. Radishes survived for 14 days in the hydrogel soil without irrigation. They were only watered at the beginning to take hold. The radishes planted in sandy soil were watered for the first 4 days and then left without any irrigation. They lasted only two days.

‘’Most soil is good enough to support the growth of plants,’’ Fei Zhao said, a postdoctoral researcher from who led the study together with Panpan Zhang and Xingyi Zhou. ‘’It’s the water that is the main limitation, so that is why we wanted to develop a soil that can harvest water from the ambient air.’’

The first significant technology application the Yu’s group has worked on for over 2 years is water-harvesting soil. In 2019, the team innovated the use of hybrid materials made of gel and polymer, so called ‘super sponges’ that could extract large volumes of water from ambient air and clean it before releasing it. The technology was powered by solar energy.

The researchers have envisioned several other technology applications. Potentially it could be used to cool data centers, solar panels, and distribute drinking water to individual households or institutions.

This technology will enable nations to grow food on previously inhospitable land and feed a growing world population. There is already too much pressure on the available farmlands.

There is need to relieve pressure on the environment. Significant shifts in food consumption and land use are termed as necessary to hit 2050 goals by the UK. Many farmers in the UK are already making their farm operations more climate-neutral n 2035, with reports from several farmers that they are keen to achieve sustainability. Farmers in the UK grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and the aftermath of Brexit have realized just how important it is to think differently.

When the Agriculture Bill was introduced by the UK government, brings with it rewards for farmers who tackle climate change and protect wildlife as an example of ‘public goods’ work. Considering that the UK is about to depart from the EU’s current subsidy system, It was necessary to have the new bill.

Genetic engineering has probably become a necessity because it is expected to help ensure global food security in the future. Several countries across the world are grappling with under nutrition and hunger alongside obesity. A third of the world population is undernourished in some way.

In the meantime, the University of Exeter researchers have estimated that 2 degrees Celsius global warming could lead to approximately 230 billion carbon tones released from the existing soil in the world.

The world’s soils contain at least double the carbon in the atmosphere, where increased temperatures heighten up decomposition, decreasing the time spent by carbon in the soil (which is known as ‘’soil carbon turnover’’).

The newest international research study published in the Nature Communications journal, led by Exeter University, discloses the soil carbon turnover sensitivity to global warming and eventually halves uncertainty in future climate change projections.

The projected 230 billion carbon let out at 2 degrees Celsius warming (which is higher than pre-industrial levels) could be higher than 4 times that of China’s total emissions and more than twice the USA’s emissions over the last century.

‘’Our study rules out the most extreme projections, but nonetheless suggests substantial soil carbon losses due to climate change at only 2 degrees Celsius warming and this doesn’t even include losses of deeper permafrost carbon,” co-author Dr. Sarah Chadburn, said from Exeter University.

The said effect on the world’s soil is known as ”positive feedback” – as climate change results in knock-on effects contributing to further change of climate.

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Neural network and digital camera used to detect soil moisture




Researchers have created a new way to check soil moisture with a normal digital camera and a synthetic neural network.

The United Nations predicts that by 2050 some parts of the world will not have the fresh water they need to sustain agriculture. This means that we urgently need to adopt more efficient methods of soil irrigation to alleviate the coming crisis.

According to the researchers from the University of South Australia, the techniques currently in use for detecting soil moisture are contributing to the problem.

The sensors they bury in the soil are affected by salts and this calls for specially designed hardware to facilitate the connections.

At the same time, the thermal imaging cameras necessary for the operations cost too much and are sensitive to too much clouds, sunlight, and fog.

“The system we trialed is simple, robust and affordable, making it promising technology to support precision agriculture,” explained researcher Dr Ali Al-Naji referring to his newly innovated solution based on machine learning. “It is based on a standard video camera which analyses the differences in soil color to determine moisture content. We tested it at different distances, times and illumination levels, and the system was very accurate.”

They connect the camera to an artificial neural network that is already trained to identify a range of moisture levels under a variety of sky conditions.

They can train the monitoring system on the network to precisely identify soil conditions regardless of the location. This makes it a customizable solution that each user can adapt to their climatic conditions and make it as accurate as possible.

“Once the network has been trained it should be possible to achieve controlled irrigation by maintaining the appearance of the soil at the desired state,” Professor Javaan Chahl added. “Now that we know the monitoring method is accurate, we are planning to design a cost-effective smart-irrigation system based on our algorithm using a microcontroller, USB camera and water pump that can work with different types of soils.

“This system holds promise as a tool for improved irrigation technologies in agriculture in terms of cost, availability and accuracy under changing climatic conditions.”

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Lowering Carbon Emissions in Cement Manufacturing




For the most part, concrete is the stuff that man-made structures are made of. Cement is an essential ingredient in the making of concrete, but most people have no idea that 8% of the carbon dioxide we produce globally is in the production of cement.

Cement manufacturing generates massive amounts of carbon dioxide. It is such a massive carbon dioxide producer that this one industry produces more carbon dioxide than all other countries except for the US and China.

Global cement production is expected to grow from the present four billion tons a year to five billion tons a year within the coming three decades, according to Watchdog Chatham House.

Cement factory emissions mostly come from fossil fuels burned to produce heat to facilitate cement formation. This includes the chemical processes that convert limestone to clinker within kilns, after which the kiln is ground and combined with other ingredients that form cement.

The construction industry resists change.  Safety concerns, issues of reliability are not necessarily always compatible with reducing the carbon footprint of the industry.

The Global Cement and Concrete Association in 2018 launched a set of Sustainability Guidelines for the industry that sets standards for key measurements like emissions and water usage with a view to improve transparency and encourage improvement.

At the same time, experts are pursuing lower-carbon processes for manufacturing cement. A New Jersey startup for example is working on a chemical process that reduces the carbon dioxide produced in cement manufacturing by 30%.

Solidia which is based in Piscataway, N.J., uses a larger quantity of clay and less limestone than the typical cement making process. The company also uses less heat, which reduces its reliance on carbon fuel.

Another startup, CarbonCure based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, harnesses carbon dioxide from other chemical processes using a process of mineralization. It turns a potential by product from a hazard.

A Montreal company CarbiCrete has opted to create concrete without any cement at all. They use steel slag, a steel manufacturing by product to replace cement.

Norwegian cement producer Norcem wants to create the first zero-emissions cement manufacturing plant in the world. Norcem is currently using alternative fuels harnessed from industrial waste and now wants to invest in carbon capture as well as storage methods that completely eliminate emissions.

Researchers are also researching with bacteria that absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide in concrete formulations and thus create a better and more environmentally friendly concrete.

Multiple startups including N.C.s BioMason are experimenting with ‘live’ building materials. BioMason works with bacteria and aggregate particles to grow bricks a lot like cement.

Researchers based at the University of Colorado Boulder have published their research with cyanobacteria, micro-organisms which they use to build a concrete alternative.

By inoculating a scaffold of sand and hydrogel with bacteria, they created brocks that are capable of healing cracks.

Even though these replacement concrete bricks cannot replace the many uses of concrete, they can be used in place of concrete for things like facades, pavers, and other structures that don’t bear heavy loads.

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What is the future for printing?




From the humble printing press to 3D printers – this is an industry that has experienced big change. Even in a digital world, printing isn’t dead either. According to Quocirca’s Global Print 2025 study, 64% of businesses said they believe printing will remain important to their daily business even by 2025. So here’s what we can look forward to in the future.

It will become more environmentally friendly

Millions of trees are used for paper and millions of cartridges are sent to landfill each year – but that trend is being reversed. We can anticipate that printing will become much more environmentally friendly in the future to ensure it keeps up with the times. Whether that is only using recycled cartridges and paper or buying high-capacity XL ink cartridges which can last longer efficiency and green concerns will be at the forefront. 

Eco modes will be common in every model and will offer ever-greater eco-friendly performance.

The composition of ink has even been reconsidered to help it last as long as possible too. New formulae have been created to help reduce the ink drying up in the cartridge and it getting wasted.

3D printing will become more advanced

Printing has traditionally been a 2D affair – on paper, card, fabric and plastic. However, in recent times 3D printing has come into the mainstream spotlight. These use materials in place of ink or toner and formulate solid products.

The technology is now even being used to create organs.

  • Researchers at the University of Minnesota created a 3D printed prototype bionic eye and in the UK scientists have used stem cells to 3D print human corneas. 
  • The Netherlands have printed a tooth which can kill bacteria.
  • Switzerland has been successful in creating a 3D printed silicone heart. 

This is where there is room to grow, however. 3D printed organs will transform medicine and enhance people’s lives. Currently, the silicone heart can only beat up to 3,000 times (the average heart beats 80 times a minute, meaning the 3D printed organ will only last 37.5 minutes). While this is a short time, it’s progress. A foundation has now been set and the future will probably see fully-functioning organs coming off the printer.

Printing will become easier

Printing has already been made pretty easy. Once upon a time, it was impossible to print a document without your computer being tethered to it by a cable. Now printers have wi-fi capabilities meaning you can click print on your laptop, computer, mobile phone or tablet – regardless of whether you’re connected with a wire or not. Some printers even have the ability to print when you’re not near it. In fact, you could be out shopping and want to send something to the printer for when you get home via a designated email belonging to your printer. In the future, we may see this become the norm on all printers, making the whole process of printing quicker and easier – and taking the current cutting edge functions to the mainstream.

AI could be an everyday appearance

Artificial intelligence (AI) can play a huge part in the printing industry. In an office setting, for example, it could help to enhance security – with printed materials being scanned to auto approve entry to buildings or access to a printer restricted to employees with the correct permissions.

An ‘intelligent’ printer can also provide forecasts on when you can expect to run out of ink or toner, or when you may need the printer servicing – and your printer could even order more for you. 

Printing has already transformed and evolved so much and as technology also grows, we can expect printing to continue. From the humble printing press to being able to create a heart – printing is not dead yet.  

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